Report (2nd Day)
Clause 11 : Housing costs
12: Clause 11, page 5, line 2, after “credit” insert “, subject to subsection (3A),”
My Lords, I am speaking to Amendments 12, 14 and 49. I know that amendments to my amendments have been put down and I will say a few words about them. I understand—I hope this is the correct procedure—that my Amendment 14, as amended, is consequential on Amendment 12. It is Amendment 12 that I shall concentrate on now.
These amendments cover the new underoccupation penalty for council and housing association tenants, the so-called bedroom tax for those on housing benefit. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, for her support, and to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, for theirs. Since the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, asked for his name to be added to the list, although of course only four are allowed, I know the amendment has support across all of your Lordships’ Benches. The amendment also comes with the backing of an impressive list of concerned charities and voluntary bodies led by the National Housing Federation and Shelter, to which I am very grateful for their hard work.
The amendment seeks to prevent a change to the definition of underoccupation currently used by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Bill paves the way for a much tougher test than at present, with a hefty underoccupation penalty—a cut to the housing benefit—for those whose accommodation fails the new test. Currently, as the Housing Minister Grant Shapps made clear in October, a household in council housing or a housing association home is deemed to be underoccupying only if it has two or more bedrooms above the basic bedroom standard. One spare room is permitted. Under the Department for Work and Pensions’ proposed new definition, one so-called spare room would not be allowed.
Under the fierce new test, a family would be counted as underoccupying if, for example, two teenage girls were not sharing the same room, or if an older couple, one of whom is below pension age, have a two-bedroom flat. All those deemed to be underoccupying will have to move and downsize to somewhere smaller. If they do not, even if there is simply nowhere smaller for them to move to, then they must pay the new penalty. Six hundred and seventy thousand households receiving housing benefit will be caught in this trap, rising to some 740,000 in the years ahead. If they do not move out, they will be charged an average of £13 per week, which will have to come out of their low earnings or their other benefits, which are meant to cover food, fuel, clothing, and specifically not housing. These are by definition very poor households, and the new tax will represent a significant reduction in their living standards.
This may sound a heartless measure, but the Government’s objectives are not dishonourable. The intentions are to reduce the high cost of housing benefit in respect of tenants who stay put, or to free up bedrooms for larger households where existing tenants are persuaded by the new penalty to downsize. I fear that neither of these perfectly understandable objectives will be achieved by this measure.
First, it seems improbable that this will raise tens of millions of pounds. Those deemed to be underoccupying who seek smaller homes as a consequence may well have to move into the private sector, where rents, and therefore housing benefit, will be much higher, costing the DWP an extra £50, £60 or more a week. Secondly, the savings for the DWP will often translate directly into costs imposed on councils and housing associations. These bodies will have to assume the role of tax collectors, extracting the average £13 per week penalty from each tenant who does not move, which will prove to be an administrative and financial nightmare. To see who should be sharing a room, a landlord will need to keep track of the age and gender of each child. They will need to measure the bedrooms to see whether they can fit in two beds. They will need to find out whether family members are living at home or have actually moved out. It will require an army of snoopers to see who must be deemed to have a spare room.
If tenants will not pay or cannot pay, the saving to the DWP simply becomes a cost to the council or the housing association in arrears and bad debts. Less money for social landlords means fewer improvements, fewer regeneration schemes, and fewer much-needed new homes. Since the underoccupancy issue is a much more significant one in the north, affecting 46 per cent of working-age tenants in the north-east, and 43 per cent in the north-west, this tax takes money out of local economies in places that most need it. In Bradford, for example, one of the big housing associations has calculated that if it cannot collect all the payments, and has to take the hit in lost rent, it will cost £2.7 million per annum, which it can ill afford. That excludes the heavy cost of evictions—pointless evictions, since so often there will be nowhere cheaper for the household to move to—wherever the landlord cannot keep tolerating rising arrears.
Paradoxically, the new measure also makes addressing underoccupancy in council housing and housing association homes more difficult. At present, many social landlords have incentive and support schemes to address the very real problem of underoccupation by pensioner households. For these, a move to smaller premises is positively helpful in manageability, accessibility, cheaper heating and so on. However, pensioner households are excluded from the penalty, provided husband and wife are both over pension age. They can stay put, often in three-bedroom houses, which is what councils have mainly built for the past 70 years or so, without incurring any new cost or requirement to move. Conscientious councils and housing associations will have to change their priorities and henceforth allocate smaller homes that become vacant to younger households to save them from the new tax or penalty, which will lead to reduced incomes, possible arrears and debt. The penalty will hinder, not help, social landlords to tackle underoccupancy sensibly.
These are the financial and managerial issues raised by the new measure but even more telling, I suggest, are the human and social issues. The new penalty—the fine where a spare room is discovered—is likely to make normal family life much tougher for the poorest households. The rest of us take for granted the flexibility that comes from having a spare room. Just because young Johnny has left home—has got on his bike to look for work elsewhere—it does not mean that he will never return. To move house as soon as he goes—the liability to the tax starts on the Monday morning after he vacates his bedroom—would be crazy.
A spare room keeps a family together. It allows teenagers to have their own bedrooms; it allows parents to help older children pick up the pieces if they come home at a time of crisis; it allows the adult child to come home to look after a poorly parent when they come home from hospital; it allows the divorcee to have children to stay; it allows couples to sleep separately if one is ill or recovering from an operation; it allows the younger disabled child to have their own room; and so on. Houses and flats provided by councils and housing associations represent people’s homes. They are not transit camps or hostels, with people constantly on the move as families expand and contract, but places to settle, put down roots and overcome some of the disadvantages that life has thrown at them.
As Christmas approaches, most of us understand what a home can be and how a spare room is so often part of that. This amendment keeps the status quo and maintains the current definition of underoccupancy, which already expects those in social housing to live more compactly than the rest of us. Let us not go down an uncharted road that is likely to add to the hardships of hundreds of thousands of our poorest citizens. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 14ZZA and 49A, which are in this group and are amendments to Amendments 14 and 49. I start with an apology to noble Lords for tabling these amendments somewhat late. We thought, on reflection, that it was appropriate to import into the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Best, the circumstances in which a local housing authority or registered provider of social housing is able to make a suitable alternative offer to somebody who is underoccupying social housing. I am pleased that the noble Lord felt able to signify his acceptance of that.
The presumption would be that such an offer would be taken up. In these circumstances a tenant could not rely on the spare bedroom to avoid an underoccupation charge—or tax, as it is more appropriately called. In that respect it would be consistent with Amendment 17A, tabled in my name and those of my noble friends Lady Hayter and Lady Hollis. However, the amendments would not disturb the basic proposition in the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Best, so that where there is no suitable alternative offer the DCLG definition of underoccupation should be used, and the tax would not apply unless there was more than one spare bedroom. We support this.
Our amendment leaves the definition of what constitutes a suitable alternative offer to regulations—the same formulation we have used in Amendment 17A. It raises questions of how and by whom the determination is to be made, but these practical issues should not be insurmountable and may be dealt with in regulation. The definition would carry the implication that suitability should reflect the broad needs of the actual tenant in terms of size, location, extent of adaptation, proximity to transport and relevant support facilities. It should recognise that it would not, in all circumstances, have to be bedroom standard plus one, and would not carry any implications that RSLs or local housing authorities would have to manage their housing stock in any particular manner, although tackling underoccupation should clearly be a key part of the strategy.
No one doubts that underoccupation is a problem. We have a chronic shortage of housing stock and a huge demand for affordable housing. Yet the Government’s policy is the wrong way to go about tackling the problem, as it punishes people for housing choices over which they have little control rather than enabling the best fit between the available properties and the needs of households. We have heard that this measure will encourage tenants to make the same choices about their housing as those in the private sector or those who own their own home. Social tenants are, however, the group least likely to be underoccupying their property using the standard DCLG definition. Eleven per cent of social renters, or 429,000 households, have two or more spare bedrooms above the bedroom standard and approximately half of these are pensioners. In comparison, 47 per cent of owner-occupiers and 16 per cent of private renters have at least two bedrooms over the standard. Social tenants are, therefore, much more likely than other households to be living in a property which is considered to be the right size. It seems that the Government are intent on strengthening this disparity. Under the reinvigorated right-to-buy provisions, there is nothing to stop tenants who underoccupy from buying their property at the full, relevant discount.
These matters depend on whether an additional bedroom is fairly described as spare. This implies that it is surplus to requirements but, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Best, for many it is not. The Housing Futures Network survey shows just some of the uses to which such an additional room might be put. These include a couple sleeping apart for medical purposes, storage of equipment—especially medical equipment—occasional use by overnight carers and many more which the noble Lord, Lord Best, instanced. We know that the vast majority of tenants do not recognise that they are underoccupying their homes at all. This is a reflection of space standards confirmed in the national figures on occupation. The DWP definition is out of kilter with what has become the norm for reasonable occupation in England. There also appears to be a huge administrative advantage in recognising the flexibility of the additional room. Without it, there is the risk of tenants having to constantly report changes of circumstances such as the son or daughter returning from university, somebody returning home because they have been made redundant and are struggling with their rent and the onset of an illness or infection with requires a couple to sleep apart. Are we really going to make these routinely reportable events?
The Government have also suggested that a further aim of the policy is to increase work incentives. Claimants who are underoccupying and who cannot move will be expected to find, on average, £13 a week to meet the shortfall in their rent. The DWP impact assessment suggests that they may do so by moving into employment or increasing their hours—even in the current circumstances, even with the current unemployment figures. Given that the whole aim of universal credit is to make work pay, it seems unclear why this additional work incentive is needed. Even if it does force some people to move into work, they are likely to be outnumbered by those who will move into debt.
In Committee, the Minister cited research by the Housing Futures Network, a coalition of four housing associations, which had interviewed 452 of their residents who would be affected by the underoccupation penalty. The survey found that 29 per cent of these would consider a move into work, but also found that 52 per cent would find it “very difficult” or “fairly difficult” to make up the shortfall in housing benefit. More than a third of those surveyed said that they were “very likely” or “quite likely” to move into arrears. The department’s own assessment notes the possibility of arrears, noting that the cost to social landlords of implementing this policy will include the cost to run schemes to enable affected tenants in the social rented sector to move home within the sector. The assessment also noted that the costs of action taken in relation to tenants failed to make up the shortfall between the rent and their housing benefit entitlement.
The third rationale given for the policy is the need to reduce expenditure on housing benefit. The equality impact assessment states:
“The overall cost of Housing Benefit needs to be controlled, and reduced in order to tackle the budget deficit. This measure is part of the effort to rein in Housing Benefit expenditure”.
However, the impact assessment is also clear that these savings will be made only if the first intention of the policy, to encourage people to occupy more suitably sized housing, actually fails. The impact assessment states:
“Estimates of Housing Benefit savings are based upon the current profile of tenants in the social rented sector, with little tenant mobility assumed. If a significant number of tenants wished to move, this would reduce direct savings and place extra demands on social landlords … If all existing social sector tenants wished to move to accommodation of an appropriate size, there would be a mismatch between available accommodation and the needs of tenants”.
How perverse can a policy be, when structuring it to fail is an excuse for hitting 670,000 poor households? In this situation, where there is simply not enough accommodation available to ensure that everyone has a home of what the DWP considers to be the right size, tenants will be left with no choice but to either take a hit to their incomes or move to the private rented sector, where the state will pick up the bill for the considerably higher rent that tenants are likely to face.
The people facing these choices are not likely to be able easily to absorb a £13-a-week hit on their income. The impact assessment shows that around 20 per cent of such families include a child under 16. The Housing Futures Network research found that more than 70 per cent of the households affected include someone with a disability or major health concern. The research also found that more than 40 per cent struggle to manage financially and more than two-thirds have an income of less than £150 a week, excluding benefits—meaning that they will have to spend around 10 per cent of their income to make up the rent shortfall.
The Minister has suggested that shortfalls might be met by discretionary housing payments, but there has been no indication that local authorities will be given extra resources to meet the cost. The impact assessment finds that the cost merely of administering these payments could reach £500,000. I ask the Minister: is there to be a top-up for this policy—a top-up to the pot that my noble friend Lady Lister in Committee called the “loaves and fishes” approach to funding?
The Government’s approach will therefore fail to deal with the problem of underoccupation while asking some of the poorest and most vulnerable people to pick up the tab for this failure. We would expect a more rational approach to the problem of underoccupation that encourages local authorities to prepare a strategy to address the issues of occupation and enables them to encourage people to move, but only where suitable alternative accommodation is available.
We know that good policy and the right incentives can enable a better fit between people’s housing needs and the available accommodation. Some people do want to downsize. The Housing Futures Network found that 12 per cent of those surveyed said that their current accommodation was slightly too large for them, but that they needed help and support to downsize. Shelter cites the successful example of the Oldham programme that offers financial incentives and support with moving arrangements, which has freed up 130 family-size homes in 16 months. If it were possible to roll out this programme nationwide, Shelter estimates that about 45,000 homes could be freed up. Shelter emphasises that, to achieve that, local political will is needed as well as sufficient local resource.
To summarise, Amendment 14, as amended by our amendment, and our Amendment 17A would imply that people had to take up suitable accommodation when it was offered. Amendment 17A would prevent the underoccupation tax applying at all where there was no such offer, and Amendment 14 would allow the reduction in housing support—the tax—to operate where there was more than one spare bedroom.
The Government's approach aims to tackle underoccupation, but will not do so, and will save money only at the expense of some of the poorest families in the country. Where there is a suitable offer of alternative accommodation, it may be reasonable to ask families to move, but to enable that to happen, we need to ensure that local authorities are working to address underoccupation rather than punishing those families for failure to do so. We support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and, clearly, our Amendment 17A.
My Lords, I have added my name in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Best, because of my concern, and that of those of us on this Bench, for the needs of children as we pursue the move towards universal credit. I am fully aware that that concern is felt on the government Front Bench as well.
This is an area where a small change to the Bill will bring about help for a significant number of children who are under the most pressure in social housing. What is proposed by the noble Lord in the amendment—whether or not it is itself amended—is a definition of underoccupancy in line with that of Communities and Local Government and which simply reflects the reality of family life. Under the definitions of the Bill, a family with an eight year-old boy and a nine year-old girl in separate bedrooms would be deemed to be underoccupied. That cannot make sense.
There is every reason to discourage genuine underoccupancy. When people think about underoccupancy, on the whole, they think of where a single person or a couple are left in a larger house, probably because their children have moved away. Surely that should not apply to a disabled child, for example, who needs care during the night and therefore needs a separate room. It should not apply to a room used for access visits by children following marital breakdown. It should certainly not apply to foster carers between placements. There is real concern that the Bill, if unamended, will discourage foster caring because the carers will not be able to retain rooms in which to place foster children if the need should arise.
We—or, at least, the Members on this Bench—are going to hear a good deal over the next fortnight or so about there being no room in the inn. The amendment will provide the flexibility so that families can live the sort of lives that most of us take for granted. I hope that we will be able to enable this to happen by the pursuit of this or a similar amendment.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of Broadland Housing Association. I am delighted to support this amended amendment. DCLG says that you are underoccupying if you have two or more spare bedrooms; DWP, in the Bill, if you have more than one spare bedroom—a very tight definition. If you then do not move to somewhere smaller, you will be fined by having your housing benefit cut by 15 per cent.
As my noble friend has said, this is not about finding homes for the 3 per cent of families who are overcrowded in this country. We could solve that tomorrow if we built bungalows or suitable flats for the pensioners who are queuing up for them—full stop. No, this is about cutting the housing benefit bill, by telling a third of our tenants in social housing, most of them disabled, that they have to find somewhere smaller to live. A middle-aged couple with health problems who therefore need that second bedroom will be entitled to only one bedroom. The family of four with two teenage daughters in a three-bedroomed home must move to a two-bedroomed home even though the girls will then have nowhere to do their homework. A disabled woman who sometimes has a carer staying overnight in her two-bedroomed flat must move to a one-bedroomed flat. A couple in their 50s, in a two-bedroomed house, who care for their grandchildren when their daughter with mental health problems cannot—in other words, they are occasional kinship carers—will have to move to a one-bedroomed flat, possibly some distance away, and the whole fragile family arrangement will collapse.
In theory, all the people in these examples are expected to move. The children are expected to change school one year before GCSEs, the middle-aged woman is expected to move away from her mother whom she is keeping out of residential care by her support, the disabled woman to move away from the friends who help her cope by doing her shopping and laundry. Six hundred and seventy thousand families—between 30 and 40 per cent of all tenants in social housing, two-thirds of them with a degree of disability—are supposed to go on the move if they can. Fine, if they can; but for most, even if they want to downsize, they cannot. Even though they may be pensioners who cannot heat their homes, they cannot downsize, and the DWP knows it. The smaller flats are simply not there to move to and all the fulminations of the tabloid press—that Ministers expect them to downsize when the same Ministers know that they cannot—are therefore cruelly irrelevant.
The National Housing Federation says that 180,000 households in two-bedroomed flats would have needed a one-bedroomed flat last year, but just 68,000 such flats—about a third of the number needed—became vacant. In future, the needs of pensioners who really want to move can never be met because, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, absolutely rightly, any smaller place that becomes available will have to be offered to much larger families who, however, do not want to move, rather than to the single pensioner who does. It is a cruel nonsense.
The department admits that, in its own words, there is a mismatch, and that the smaller properties that people are expected to move to do not exist. The department expects that 85 per cent of all of these tenants will stay put and take the cut in housing benefit because they have no alternative, as the impact assessment admits at the bottom of page 2. The Government are counting on people not moving, despite telling them that they should. So the Government’s savings are going to come not because people do what the Government tell them to do, but because people do not do what the Government tell them to do: they stay put, because they have no option, and then they are fined for doing so.
What do the Government suggest that they should do to cover the shortfall? They should find work. Well, of course, if they could they would, and we welcome the support given for finding work within the universal credit system. Alternatively, it is suggested that they could take a lodger; but with small children I do not think that that will happen. The other suggestion is that they use—actually, use up—their savings. As the noble Lord, Lord Freud, reminded us on Monday, the average savings are only £300. That will last for four or five months of shortfall. After that, what then? It will be debts, arrears and pass-the-parcel. To pay the council tax, because their council tax benefit is being cut by 20 per cent, they will raid their housing benefit. However, that now does not pay the rent, so to pay that, they will fall behind on their utility bills, which are also on the rise. Threatened with their gas and electricity being cut off in winter, they will cut back on food, until ultimately the whole Ponzi debt pyramid created by this clause of the Bill will collapse. They will then face food parcels and eviction.
However, as the eviction is not their fault, as the Minister agreed in Committee, they will not be intentionally homeless, so they will be put into highly expensive B&B at taxpayers’ expense with all its cost and all its misery, as, with a history of arrears, they will not be accepted by any private landlord. In time, they will be rehoused—quite probably, if my housing association is anything to go by, in a house that is still too large, because that is all we have—and the whole vicious spiral one year on will start all over again, taking disabled adults and children through a relentless cycle of cuts and evictions.
The alternative, of course, is that housing associations such as mine carry the arrears because we know the social and financial costs of eviction and the awful stress that it involves. Then what? Over time, the housing association goes into the red or, alternatively, we stop building and save the debt charges on erecting new homes, the money being spent instead on debts that come from cuts in housing benefit, thus guaranteeing that the shortage of social housing that is undermining the housing market continues for the next decade.
It is so unfair. Let us take JSA as an example. If people break the rules on job search, we cut their benefit to change their behaviour. However, if they observe the rules and, after a proper job search, cannot find a job given the unemployment figures, we do not cut their benefit because it is not their fault and they cannot change their behaviour. That is the social contract of social security. You sanction people when they break the rules and should change their behaviour; you do not sanction or fine them but support them when that is not possible. It is what we do with JSA. The DWP is, in this clause, breaking that social contract with these changes to housing benefit. In all my time in the social security field, I have never known that contract to be broken in this way.
Grant Shapps said that we should not bully people out of their homes. He is right. Yet in this Bill we are saying to people who have lived in their homes all their lives, done what was asked of them and behaved responsibly—two-thirds of them having some disability—that their benefit is being cut from underneath them through no fault of their own but just because we in Westminster are changing the rules. We tell them to downsize while knowing that they cannot do so, so we fine them instead for what is not their fault and for what they cannot change. It is morally wrong to punish people for something that is not their fault and to punish them when they are innocent. That is not decent, it is profoundly unfair, and we should not do it. If noble Lords agree, they will support the amendment today.
My Lords, I speak as someone who supported Amendment 14, and I am very happy to agree to the composite that the noble Lord, Lord Best, has now accepted and put to the House. I think that it is one of the most significant amendments in the whole of the Report stage. I am now speaking to my own side of the House because I support this amendment very strongly. If the noble Lord, Lord Best, feels the need to press this to a Division, I shall support him, and I shall do so for a couple of reasons.
First, it is important to reassure people on my own side that this proposal would not interfere with universal credit, the introduction thereof or anything thereby, but it would mitigate some of what I call the Treasury claw-back—that is, the money that was required of the department to set up the universal credit system. I do not think that that is an easy thing for the department to do but, for me, it goes too far. It is claiming back too much money too quickly from too vulnerable a client cohort, and that is something that colleagues on this side of the House need to bear in mind.
At the risk of embarrassing the noble Lord, Lord Best, I point out that he has been active in housing for longer than any of us care to remember and is an acknowledged expert. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the right reverend Prelate are experts in their own fields. I have had some experience myself as a former chairman of the Social Security Select Committee in another place, and I am telling the House that today we are looking at a qualitatively different sort of cut.
Secondly—seen from the perspective of the summer of 2010, when this deal was done with the Treasury—it was not unreasonable to start looking for the green shoots of a recovering economy by 2013 to 2014. I am no economist but I think that there is no prospect whatever of that happening, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has recently confirmed. I think that we are facing dire prospects. If we are facing a 13 to 15 per cent cut in our national wealth then people like me will be able to accommodate that, but people at the bottom of the financial pile will not. Were the assessment of summer 2010 made today it could not, in all conscience, extend to the level of reducing household incomes in the social rented sector by £676 annually. That is not fair. This does not affect the implementation of universal credit; it is an attempt to claw back money for the Treasury.
Again, I say this to my own side of the House. This amendment mitigates the Bill’s policy of tackling underoccupation; it is not a full frontal assault on the policy. The amendment targets the Bill to make it bite on high-level underoccupation. That is an important point. No one is saying that housing benefit does not have to be addressed in the long term or that underoccupation is not an important part of that, because it is. However, we should start as the amendment proposes and see how it goes. On 1 April 2013 we should extend the social security definition to the Department for Communities and Local Government definition and leave people with the flexibility to have one extra bedroom. We should see how that policy runs for a while. If it needs further amendment then the Government are perfectly entitled to return to it. They will be able to say they know how the provision has operated in terms of higher levels of underoccupation and now want Parliament’s permission to take it to another level. That is a much safer way of proceeding in view of the impact of the change.
The one thing I know about social security is that households rarely survive a loss of their housing security. Benefits can be reduced and people are very resilient in their budgeting to deal with it—they box and cox, they rob Peter to pay Paul and they survive. They do not survive if their housing security is put at risk. If that happens, the local authorities and the other public provision that we make for challenged families will have to pick up the pieces in all sort of ways, including adult dependency services and special needs provision. Local authority colleagues are looking at what is going to happen on 1 April 2013 with huge trepidation. If they are not, they are not doing their job properly. Another objection—again, I say this to my own side—is that there is no sensible transitional protection, as I would call it, for this measure.
I am not making the Minister’s job any easier although I am determined to stay best friends with him throughout Report. By saying that we have between now and 1 April 2013 for people to make arrangements, the Minister is suggesting that as soon as Royal Assent is given people will start looking for the houses that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has just said do not exist. This is not a transitional protection of any kind. Most of the other changes in the universal credit in the Bill protect transitional arrangements, and rightly so. On 1 April 2013 people will hit a brick wall and arrears will spike in a way that means that we are transferring national debt through social sector working-age tenants into rent arrears. That will be picked up in other parts of public provision in a way that will not generate the savings that the Government think are to be drawn from these changes. It is impossible to quantify exactly how that cost-benefit analysis will work out in practice, but the impact assessment does not begin to give this House enough information to be confident. If we do not make these amendments, the Bill will cause dire consequences for 670,000 households across the United Kingdom.
The consequences will vary in different regions. There is a spatial dimension to this problem. Some parts of the country will avoid the worst effects but some regions—it is quite clear which—will carry the weight. The effects will not be spread evenly throughout the United Kingdom. This is not something that local government will be able to deal with in bits and pieces. Some local authorities will be hit. The Prime Minister was trying to train a big bazooka on the French, I think, but he is training his big bazooka at 670,000 social-rented sector households on 1 April 2013, and there will be no place for them to hide, for the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, made out.
If we are going to go for an unamended Bill, and if this amendment fails, it is unconscionable not to have a whole stream of exemptions. We discussed this upstairs in Grand Committee, and powerful cases were made by people who really know what they are talking about in terms of foster care and all the rest of it. There are all sorts of unintended consequences if we do not put a huge number of exemptions underneath this if the Bill’s provisions go through as they stand.
My position is, yes, let us tackle underoccupation. It will be very difficult for the families that are hit by it on 1 April 2013, but if we leave the Bill unamended, it will be uniquely difficult for a very vulnerable set of householders in the social-rented sector who are going to be hit by other things as well. We can see what they are. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, made an important point about the context and what else will be happening at the time. We are facing a long stretch of austerity before better economic circumstances arise.
I say to my own side that this is not an ordinary amendment. The provision is not simply about trying to save money; it is about saving money in a way that is more likely to disrupt vulnerable households than just about anything else, partly but not exclusively because the household benefit cap is equally destructive of household integrity. This amendment deserves serious consideration. If noble Lords do not vote for it we are going to have to live with the consequences. I predict that, in the long term, those consequences will affect the public purse more negatively than the Treasury Front Bench and the Minister expect. This is a very important amendment. If the noble Lord presses it, I will certainly vote for it.
My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendment 12, indeed Amendment 14 as it was, and other amendments. If some of these amendments are not passed, there will most certainly need to be exemptions built in somehow or other, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said a moment ago, or a lot of vulnerable people are going to suffer. I am concerned about the impact of the Government’s proposals in relation to underoccupancy as they affect disabled people, including, particularly, those with learning disabilities. The Government will already be aware of concerns from the representations that have been made by Mencap —the noble Lord, Lord Rix, apologises that he cannot be here today. Numerous other organisations with an interest in this issue have also pressed the point that there is already a large shortage of suitably sized properties available to people who would under the new rules be deemed to be underoccupying their homes.
Furthermore, representations have also been made that there are around 100,000 properties that have been adapted specifically to suit the needs of the individuals living in them who would be affected by the new rules, meaning that should the occupiers have to move, new adaptations would have to be paid for, which seems a rather less than sensible outcome.
People with a learning disability regarded as underoccupying their home in the social rented sector will lose some of their housing benefit and have to make up the shortfall themselves. If they are unable to afford this, they will have no choice but to move to a different home. Very often, people with a learning disability will have established strong networks of friends locally, as well as family and support staff, and may not be in a position to adapt to the stress and anxiety of moving to a new home. The greater the distance from these networks, the greater the potential anxiety will be for them.
I am concerned that some disabled people will either face a reduction in their income or have no choice but to move home as a consequence of the Bill’s proposals. That is why I support the amendment.
My Lords, I apologise for once again coming in a bit late to the debate. On this occasion, I was at a meeting outside London and got badly held up by the demo currently taking place in Whitehall.
I should declare an indirect interest in that my wife, as I think most in the House know, is a cabinet member of Braintree District Council and has a strong interest in social housing matters. I nevertheless wish to speak because, had the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds not pipped me at the post, my name would have been on this amendment. I strongly support it and agree particularly with the words that have been uttered by my noble friend Lord Kirkwood.
I am not in a position as a result of my lateness to repeat all the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Best, because I have not heard them. I have no doubt that, had I heard them, I would have agreed with them, because I have discussed the matter with him on a number of occasions.
I simply want to bring a bit of information from the coalface, as opposed to the rarefied atmosphere of Whitehall policy discussions. I happen to have in my hand a note issued by Braintree District Council about the new rules on underoccupancy. It thinks that these have probably the most far-reaching policy impact of any of the changes in the Bill. It makes the point that it applies different, more generous rules than those that are nationally applied to tenants claiming housing benefit. It gives priority for a family to move when the oldest child is five years old or more, not 10, and it recognises that this policy of using the younger age of five will be wrecked by the Bill.
Similarly, it tries to rehouse people in advance of change, because of the delays that occur if they need a three-bedroom or four-bedroom house. I shall not quote the whole document, but it states that people are likely to wait for more than a year to move in the case of needing a four-bed property and a long time where they have children growing up. Let me quote just one sentence:
“We therefore felt that it was better that a family, for example, with a boy aged 8 and a girl aged 6 should move to a home with 3 bedrooms and not be allocated a 2 bed and have to move again shortly afterwards. We felt this was better for neighbourhoods, for children’s schooling and so on, as well as reducing the pressure on our allocations process”.
That makes complete social sense to me.
I say in passing, as another illustration of one of my concerns about government policy as a whole, that we have just passed a Localism Act purporting to give local authorities greater freedom to make this kind of choice, and we now seek to pass a Welfare Reform Act telling them that localism is neither here nor there—they will do what they are told by central government. Somebody might perhaps try to explain.
There are a number of other examples from the note that I could quote, but let me quote an additional note that should ring a bell at least on these Benches, about the rural effect. This was a subsequent note, which I happen to have in my hand, and it relates to a large village, which I shall not name, in the Braintree district. Greenfields—that is the housing association—gives details of what housing it has in this village and goes on to say:
“This is a good example of a location where potentially, people claiming benefit would be forced to leave if they could not afford the extra rent to stay in the family home. [The village] is interesting because it is a relatively big village with a high overall level of stock and yet the balance of homes makes this policy a real problem for people needing to downsize from a 3 bed to a 2 bed. Clearly, people in smaller villages”—
“are likely to face even more acute problems if they need to downsize. Given that we come under pressure to give people a priority to stay in villages, the policy looks like it may achieve the opposite”.
The rural effects of this are not to be underestimated and my guess is that my noble friend’s colleagues in the Commons will face a barrage if and when this comes into effect. Indeed, I would venture to say that if this comes into effect less than two years before an election, with the impact that could be involved in some of the figures that have been discussed, it will not last five minutes when it starts.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of First Wessex Housing Association and Housing 21. I am pleased to speak in this debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I think everyone in the House today understands the extreme pressure of the need to reduce the housing benefit budget and to tackle the issue of underoccupancy at a time of housing shortages. We should not forget that underoccupancy of social housing is nearly matched by 50 per cent overoccupancy.
In Committee, the Minister set an objective for the changes he was proposing. He said:
“Housing benefit … will become more balanced in a way that will restore fairness, encourage better use of our existing social housing stock and encourage more people into employment”.—[Official Report, 18/11/11; col. GC 71.]
The problem is that the market for social housing is not flexible; it is quite rigid. It is a fight to get a home and, in severe shortages, requirements and needs are not easily matched. We wish we had a situation where people could have a better choice, but it is simply not possible. What we have available in any locality is way short of need, and often what is available cannot specifically match need. On the issue of underoccupancy, we know that there will be something like 180,000 under retirement age who want to move but that the annual available housing for them is about one-third of this.
Housing requirements change through life. In a rigid market where people cannot easily match their requirements to supply, some flexibility is required. Otherwise, allocations will be even more difficult. The Minister’s objective—balance to restore fairness—will not be fair if an individual wants to move home and cannot. The person will have to find extra income and, in the current economic climate, as my noble friend Lord Kirkwood, said, it will be extremely dubious whether they will be able to find the significant extra income they need. Let us not forget that in this situation—my noble friend also referred to this—underoccupation is greater in the north, and so there is a regional dimension. Thirty pounds a week is a lot of money for people least able to afford it, and 150,000 households will have to find nearly twice that.
The Minister also said that one of the objectives is to provide balance to make better use of our existing stock, but the reality is that the existing rigidities will be distorted by this change. Available new housing stock will now have to be used to move people. The people who probably need the most encouragement to move are those who are retired—who are underoccupying—and we will not now have the facility to move them. They are the people whose household costs need to be reduced. Indeed, we improve the housing benefit bill by moving them. As the housing stock is re-let, we will be required under the Government’s housing benefit reforms to let some of these houses at affordable rents. So for those people who take on that stock, we will probably be paying out a higher proportion in housing benefit.
The Minister gave us, in his Committee speech, figures from the future network. Under the claimants benefit research, he said that of the 670,000, 25 per cent want to move; 50 per cent will not move; 29 per cent are looking for increased work and income—which is going to be difficult; 15 per cent say that they will take in a lodger, and 35 per cent are said to be likely to go into arrears. Those are pretty dramatic figures. He also said that over the next couple of years we will look at putting strategies in place to make sure that this does not happen. The problem is we only have 15 months in which to do this, not a couple of years, as the measure comes in in April 2013. That is madness.
We have already heard this referred to as a room tax. In fact, in Committee, somebody referred to the window tax. It was not in the time of Queen Anne, as the Minister mentioned; it was William and Mary—1696. I looked it up; two shillings per window. That is interesting; £11.20 in real money—it is not much different. I am assured also by the research that the phrase “daylight robbery” did not originate from that time. We can imagine, however, the political campaign—and the slogans—should this room tax come in on a single day. I do not fancy the Chancellor—I hope my colleagues will remember this—standing up in March 2013 to give his Budget speech when in April 2013 this change will be coming in. I bet you he will have to move politically at that time, even if he does not move now.
We have to expect that 25 per cent of people will move. How is this to be organised in 15 months? There are not enough houses being built to do this. Housing associations do not even know how many and who will be affected. There is a lack of information. What are the strategies? What must the Government do in this situation? What do they need to say today?
The first proposal is that of the noble Lord, Lord Best: allow an extra room for flexibility. It is probably the best proposal, but—as we will be told—this will take £300 million of the £500 million savings. It is not actually a great deal of money. I just ask the House to think what the Chancellor will be thinking in March 2013. It is not clear that the £300 million in savings will come through. I expect that a lot of children and other relatives will suddenly emerge in these houses. Re-lets, as I have already mentioned, would lead to higher housing benefit claims. There are also the costs of moving, plus the costs of discretionary housing grants, and so on. Retired people who we want to move into smaller accommodation—saving housing benefit and saving their household costs—will not be able to move.
The second proposal is to extend the transition so it coincides at a minimum with the anniversary of tenancies; that ideally, as the Minister has already said, we should spread this change over a couple of years so that people can adjust. If you are trying to take from the poorest people these sums of money, they need time to adjust. So do the housing associations and the housing providers. They need time to adjust to allow a better transition, to allow the adjustments in housing stock. We cannot expect everybody to simply change on day one in 15 months’ time.
The third option is to extend discretionary housing grants. We hear this on each occasion, but we are not sure how that is going to be administered.
I urge the Government to move on this issue, for sensible housing requirements, for fairness and for assuring that the poorest and the least resourced will not assume a significant burden at a very difficult time. Above all, the providers also need time and flexibility to adjust the housing supply to the new demands and the new needs.
My Lords, I have two groups of people to whom I want to refer. My noble friend Lady Thomas referred to them in Committee, and I referred to one of them. What does the Minister anticipate doing for foster carers? We have already been told that we have a shortage of foster caring in this country, and foster carers need to keep a bedroom to be able to host and look after children in foster care. It is very important indeed—and I think that the Minister acknowledged this in his response in Committee—that something needs to be done to accommodate the needs of that group of people.
The second group of people are those who have had adaptations to their properties. Those adaptations probably cost the public purse quite substantial sums of money, so it does not make sense, for example, to require people to move from one property that has a stair lift to another where a stair lift has to be put in place. Can my noble friend tell us what he anticipates doing for both those groups?
My Lords, I need to thank noble Lords to start with for a thoughtful and insightful debate.
The introduction of size criteria into the social rented sector from April 2013 is essential to reduce housing benefit expenditure, which without reform would reach £25 billion in cash terms by 2014-15. With savings from this measure estimated to be around £500 million per annum, it will play a key role in our efforts to control housing benefit expenditure and to tackle the budget deficit. In these difficult economic times, we cannot avoid having to make these choices. I assure noble Lords that these decisions have not been taken lightly.
In case there is any doubt, let me remind noble Lords that the size criteria measure will affect only working-age housing benefit claimants living in the social rented sector who are underoccupying their accommodation. For a family of four, with two adults and a teenage boy and girl, we are proposing that they will be entitled to housing benefit for a three-bedroom property with a living room, kitchen, bathroom and possibly even other rooms, such as an extra bathroom and study. This is the same as we allow for people living in the private rented sector. Those in a property that has more bedrooms than the size criteria allow will receive a percentage reduction in their eligible rent, meaning, on average, a shortfall of around £14 per week.
It is only fair that everyone plays their part, but we will, of course, ensure that we maintain safeguards for those in the most vulnerable circumstances. However, even with the reforms that we have started making to housing benefit, we are still expecting to spend nearly £23 billion on housing benefit this year. By the end of the spending review, we expect to achieve £2 billion in annual savings from the package of housing benefit reform. That is £2 billion off the £25 billion that I referred to. The Government believe that it is right that those living in oversized properties in the social rented sector contribute to those savings. Claimants in this sector make up over two-thirds of all housing benefit claimants, although most of the £2 billion in annual savings will still come from claimants living in private rented accommodation.
In England, approximately 420,000 households in the social rented sector underoccupy their accommodation by two bedrooms or more, while over a quarter of million households are overcrowded. What is more, 1.8 million households are currently on the housing waiting list in England. Over 700,000 of these households belong to reasonable preference groups, which means that they are treated as having a higher priority on the waiting list. This includes the homeless, people living in insanitary or overcrowded housing, and those needing to move because of a medical condition.
This measure is necessary to control spending. It is necessary because spending was allowed to spiral out of control under the previous Government, but we also believe that it will encourage greater mobility among households living in the social rented sector. It will help local authorities and other social housing providers to make the best use of their existing housing stock. It runs alongside and in support of measures introduced as part of the Localism Act, such as increased flexibility for local authorities to manage their housing waiting lists and the development of the national home swap scheme.
We have discussed this measure in detail and I have listened to and thought at length about the important issues that have been raised. We have various amendments to get through, but it might be helpful if I first set out what conclusions the Government have arrived at and what we intend to do. Noble Lords will understand that there is limited scope for manoeuvre within such a tight fiscal context, but I am pleased to announce today an additional £30 million that we will add to the discretionary housing payment budget from 2013-14, in support of the introduction of the size criteria into the social rented sector from April 2013. We believe that the amount made available is reasonable, based on what we know about the numbers likely to be affected by the measure. We think that £30 million could assist around 40,000 cases. It could help even more if local authorities choose to use DHPs to make up some, but not all, of a claimant's shortfall.
My noble friend Lord German asked what that funding is for. It is specifically aimed at two groups. The first group is disabled people who live in significantly adapted accommodation, and the funding is to enable them to remain in their existing homes. I hope that goes some way to satisfying the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, as well on that matter. The second group, which a number of noble Lords mentioned, is that of foster carers. We have carefully assessed the number of foster carers who will need to keep an extra room for when they are in between fostering, and we have an amount for them. I hope that goes some way to satisfying my noble friends Lord German and Lord Kirkwood on that matter, and indeed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who I hope feels that there is some room at the inn for this very vulnerable and important group.
The case for providing some mitigation for these two groups is clear, but we have decided that the way to do it is through the discretionary housing payment route rather than through specific amendments. We need rules in the benefit system that do not increase administrative complexity. We need to be able to make and deliver effective legislation not just within housing benefit but within universal credit. Such exemptions might, for example, include those who would otherwise have met the shortfall themselves, and might miss others who would have had a stronger case for additional support. I am convinced that a more localised, discretionary approach is the best way forward. It means that the limited resources that we have can be efficiently targeted at those who need them most. Of course we would like to do more, but there is simply no more money available.
Discretionary housing payments can be paid only where there is a linked claim to housing or council tax benefit. This is in effect, therefore, ring-fenced funding, although we cannot tell local authorities precisely who they should spend it on or how much they should spend. That is for local authorities to decide. However, we provide further guidance for local authorities through the DHP good practice guide. We have an illustrative draft of that, which I can share with noble Lords this evening, and we look forward to refining that with the input both of noble Lords and key stakeholders.
I am pleased to clarify that that is an annual figure that starts in the year 2013-14, when the actual provision comes in.
Next, I would like to clarify the rates of reduction to be applied under this measure. In setting the percentage reduction rates, we have considered the sorts of rent differentials seen in the social rented sector alongside the question of affordability for the taxpayer. We intend to set the percentage reduction rates at 14 per cent for underoccupiers with one additional bedroom, and 25 per cent for underoccupiers with two or more additional bedrooms.
We think that the average cost to affected claimants, in terms of reduced housing benefit entitlement, will be around £14 a week in 2013-14. The majority of claimants affected—just over three-quarters of the total—are underoccupying their accommodation by just one bedroom. For this group, the average reduction will be around £12 a week. For those underoccupying by two or more bedrooms, the average reduction will be around £22 a week.
I would like to assure noble Lords that discussions within the coalition Government in designing this measure were thorough and productive, and these will continue through implementation. My officials are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, and the devolved Administrations.
It is worth picking up the issue, which my noble friends Lord German and Lord Stoneham raised, of whether we can make the transition easier. It is technically possible to stagger implementation arrangements, based on the anniversary of the claimant’s tenancy, but this move is not cost-neutral, and the planned savings will be reduced, albeit modestly.
I must be clear that, principally, I am more concerned about the ability to deliver the proposal because it might be very difficult to police and monitor. I am concerned that some landlords will offer new tenancy agreements to existing tenants, so that implementation of this change is delayed, and then the costs would spiral very substantially.
We are, however, determined to make maximum use of the time available between now and the measure coming into force to help prepare local authorities and social landlords for the changes, which in turn will benefit those who are affected. I am sorry if I rather loosely used the term “two years”, on which my noble friend picked me up.
Amendments 14 and 49, from the noble Lord, Lord Best, would exempt claimants from the measure where they underoccupy by just one bedroom. Amendment 12 would appear to tie Amendment 14 in with the housing costs calculation for universal credit.
There is a tension here between the bedroom standard, which is a widely used standard which views underoccupation as having two or more extra bedrooms, and the local housing allowance size criteria, which we propose to use for housing benefit purposes and which we already use for the private rented sector.
Our size criteria take a more generous view on the age at which someone is entitled to their own bedroom. Since the deregulation of rents in 1989, we have been using 16 as the adult threshold in size criteria for housing benefit purposes. The bedroom standard, on the other hand, sets the threshold at 21. Against these stricter criteria, however, the English Housing Survey and other similar surveys then consider the household to be underoccupying their accommodation only if they have more than one additional bedroom above the bedroom standard, a point the noble Lord, Lord Best, made. The size criteria that we propose to introduce into the social sector consider any number of spare bedrooms to be underoccupation. Neither approach is right or wrong. In some cases, the bedroom standard plus one will be more generous than the local housing allowance size criteria, in some they will work out the same and in a few cases the LHA size criteria would actually prove to be more generous.
On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about the person who needs an overnight carer, I need to make it clear to the House that where someone needs an overnight carer we allow an additional bedroom for that non-resident carer, and we have done so from June this year.
I suspect that we can look at the difference between “occasional” and “regular” in detail outside the House. Maybe we can exchange letters on the matter.
In Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Best, spoke of the experience of owner-occupiers, explaining that 83.9 per cent would fail against our definition of underoccupation. I put it on record, however, that a similar proportion of working-age owner-occupiers, 86.7 per cent, are in work. We are not suggesting that households in the social rented sector should live differently. We all share the aspiration for a home in which our children can thrive, concentrate on their homework or leave to study or find work, but still have the option of returning home sometimes. To realise that, though, must the taxpayer be expected to pay in full for those extra rooms just because those people live in the social housing sector? The Government believe that it is reasonable to ask for a contribution toward the rent where there is, by definition, some degree of underoccupation. It is not a change to the allocation rules; it is a measure for housing benefit purposes only.
The research from the Housing Futures Network explores how those claimants affected by the measure might respond. As well as the 29 per cent who were likely to try to find work or increase their earnings, around 15 per cent thought that they would take in a lodger or ask another family member to move in. Another sizable group, perhaps 20 per cent to 25 per cent, thought that they were likely to seek help to pay the rent from someone within or outside the household—someone they know. Around 25 per cent thought that they were likely to downsize. There were also those, as some noble Lords have pointed out, who feared that they were likely to get into arrears; that figure was around 35 per cent. We will do our utmost between now and the measure coming into force to minimise that risk. This is what we are looking at as part of our work with the implementation group.
That said, we cannot ignore the financial position. I emphasised at the beginning of my response that the introduction of size criteria is fundamentally about savings. Without the inclusion of those who underoccupy by one bedroom, we would not achieve the £500 million savings expected from 2013.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, challenges our savings estimate. As I have set out in the evidence, though, a majority of people will pay the additional amount for the larger property. The cost of renting in the private rented sector may generally be higher but those who choose to move out of the cheaper social housing into private housing because they are underoccupying will by definition free up accommodation in social housing that can be offered to those on the housing waiting list or those living in expensive temporary accommodation. That argument from the noble Lord simply does not stand. If we excluded one-bedroom underoccupiers, we would lose around £300 million of the estimated savings. The fiscal case driving this measure forward must not be underestimated.
One other point made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, is about who is affected, and about concern for children. But by definition we are looking at people whose children have left, and so are underoccupying. The impact assessment shows that claimants with children are less likely to be affected by the measure than those without children. Only around a third of the claimants potentially affected have children living with them.
The other point raised by the noble Lord was about the difficulty of this working-age group pre-empting the room that pensioners might be transferred to. However, this measure will, over the longer term, help ensure that people are in suitably sized accommodation before they become pensioners. Our expectation is that the proportion of pensioners who need to or could downsize will in future be lower.
The other concern raised by the noble Lord, and indeed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, is the implementation risk of costs to landlords. We are planning to work through these issues as part of our engagement with other departments, including the devolved Administrations, and with social landlords and local authorities. An implementation group has been set up which is already being used to explore the potential impact on landlords’ costs as a result of this measure. We should bear in mind, however, that social landlords already collect rent from many claimants: for example, where the claimant has some income and only receives partial housing benefit, or where they have a non-dependent living with them.
The Government recognise that households are sometimes allocated properties with at least one extra bedroom by their landlord. This measure does not preclude them from continuing to do so. It is of course important that any household being allocated a larger property is aware of the implications in relation to housing benefit. We will work with stakeholders to ensure that communications are effective. Exempting this group is simply unaffordable. I beg the noble Lord, Lord Best, not to move Amendments 14 and 49.
Amendments 14ZZA and 49A would effectively modify that exemption to where there is no suitable alternative accommodation within the social rented sector, alongside Amendments 14 and 49. I will now explore that issue in relation to these amendments, and with regard to Amendment 17A.
We have heard a great deal about the lack of housing supply, and therefore the lack of suitable alternative accommodation. I recognise that there is not the sufficient range of stock in many areas that would enable landlords always to suitably house people according to the size of their household. That was acknowledged in the impact assessment. Noble Lords have highlighted some clear examples of when an extra bedroom is not spare, but is actually being put to good use, such as in the case of teenagers under 16 of the same gender having their own room to do their homework.
As I have said, the LHA size criteria are more generous than the bedroom standard, in that they provide for an extra bedroom for every adult from the age of 16 rather than 21. However, these size criteria are for housing benefit purposes only. We are not insisting that everyone is housed according to those rules, but it is right to expect those who have that additional space—whether it is spare or not is not necessarily the point—to make a reasonable contribution to the rent. This puts those in the social rented sector on a more equal footing with those claimants living in the private rented sector where size criteria have always played a part in the housing benefit claim. Indeed, owner-occupiers also have to consider what they can afford.
This exemption is too broad, and would be complex and costly to administer. Suitability of accommodation will vary according to an individual’s circumstances. If there is a smaller property in a location 60 miles away, where there happen to be jobs, is that suitable? It would not be possible to pin down through regulations unless they were so broad as to open the door to exempting almost everyone, thus significantly reducing the potential savings. It is not possible to predict the loss in savings, given the uncertainty surrounding this amendment, but it is not hard to see how the number of exemptions through this approach could spiral out of control.
In most cases where there is no suitable accommodation, we expect that claimants and their partners will find ways of meeting the shortfall—through employment, we hope, or through increased earnings. For those who are genuinely struggling to meet the shortfall and who have exhausted all possible options, the local authority might consider a discretionary housing payment. I beg the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, not to move Amendments 17A, 14ZZA and 49A.
In summing up, I emphasise that this is not the end of the process. We have had to make some hard choices here to make the necessary savings as part of the deficit-reduction plan. We are balancing that by protecting those for whom being able to remain in their adapted homes and lead an independent life is rightly not something to be messed around with. Likewise, we recognise the vital work of foster carers and have in place additional funding to ensure that they are not discouraged. A watchful eye will be kept on the £30 million boost to the discretionary housing payment pot. A review will inform our evaluation of this measure. We have more than a year until implementation and we are using that time to explore the risks for landlords and claimants alike to minimise the potential for arrears and all the associated costs that can arise from them. We will continue to work closely with our stakeholders and draw on their expertise in this House. I ask for this amendment to be withdrawn.
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to Members from all parts of the House for their support. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for the refinement to my amendment, which I fully accept. I hope noble Lords who have spoken will allow me not to summarise the excellent points that they have made and go straight to a few words about the Minister’s very helpful remarks. I congratulate him on bringing an extra £30 million this evening to alleviate the problems created by this legislation. Perhaps I could just pick up on two key points that he made.
The first is the suggestion that the proposed new definition of underoccupancy would bring social housing into line with the private rented sector. Tenants in the private rented sector are unaffected by this measure. They operate within a quite different framework, whereby the maximum of the local housing allowance is calculated for them based on this tight definition of underoccupancy but with the opportunity for the tenant to use the cash—the benefit—for something smaller, perhaps in a better area, or larger, perhaps in a less popular neighbourhood. In any case, those in the much more expensive private rented sector are predominantly younger, single and childless households, more than half of which stay for less than two years, and a third for less than one year. Unlike those in social housing, they seldom comprise a family needing a long-term home in which to bring up their children.
Secondly, the concession that the Minister has brought to us this evening would allow discretionary housing payments to be made to people whose properties have been specially adapted for a disabled member of that household. The discretionary housing payments would also be available where a foster child is coming into the property. These are excellent exclusions, or opportunities, at any rate, for a discretionary payment to kick in. One could list a whole lot more. Indeed, as one gradually looks at this, one begins to do just that. Why not include people with other disabilities—perhaps a family where, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, suggested, a carer comes to stay periodically to provide respite for a parent? Perhaps an exception could be made where an elderly person has a spouse aged only 60. As things stand, they would both have to move or pay up.
The Minister says that everyone must pay their part and, on average, £14 per week is the part that many households will have to pay as the penalty charge. Even if it is £12, or £22 at the other end, I suggest that these are serious sums of money for many people in very low-income households, if they stay put. The option of moving does not exist for a lot of them.
I think this is the moment at which I would like to test the opinion of the House.
13: Clause 11, page 5, line 21, at end insert—
“(3A) In the case of alleged under-occupancy regulations may provide—
(a) in the case of a disabled person, relocation shall not be required nor shall benefit be reduced, where adaptation has occurred and local services are provided, in order to deal with the disability;(b) in the case of a person capable of work-related activity, reduction of benefit or relocation shall not be proposed unless suitable employment is available within easy access of alternative accommodation.(3B) Relocations may only proceed on the basis of agreement with the claimants concerned.”
My Lords, I have had a very large number of letters on the whole issue of underoccupancy. The vast majority of tenants simply do not recognise that they are underoccupying. Eight out of 10 believe that the size of their home is just right, and that probably applies to a lot of us. Of course, some people would welcome the opportunity to move to somewhere smaller. If children have left home, a smaller place might be less trouble, provided, of course, that it is available. But this does not apply to everyone, particularly the elderly and the disabled.
Take the case of a woman who is disabled and has recently been widowed. She has lived in the same accommodation for more than 15 years. She is now alone and on benefits. She has neighbours who give her support. She is told that she is underoccupying and must either relocate or pay more. She cannot afford to pay more and dreads the thought of moving. She needs the support that she is getting in the community that she has lived in for so long. This is an actual case that has been reported to me. It seems to me that it would be wrong to insist on relocation in such a case. It might even be more expensive if the woman became ill and had to be hospitalised.
There is also, as is the case with many disabled people, the question of adaptation. Homes are often adapted in a gradual way as people get older, perhaps starting with a change in the bathroom with a shower in place of the bath, perhaps then installing a stair lift, and then adding to these adaptations as the debility gets works. This is one of the areas that the Government are giving serious attention to, as the Minister indicated in his response this afternoon. I am glad to note that. The presence of adaptations is one of the two areas in which the Government are apparently ready to make some concessions, and I welcome that.
Other instances in my amendment relate to job opportunities. The Government want as many people as possible currently on benefits to go to work. Some of them are capable of light work and many actually want to work. One should not pay too much attention to media stories about people being only too willing not to work. Many people want to work, because work is a social function anyway. However, if someone is forced to relocate, it may be to an area where jobs do not exist, or, if they do exist, they are a long distance from the relocated home. That may not be suitable for a person able only to do light work. There may also be additional travel costs.
The point of this amendment is to acknowledge that this is not an easy matter. We have noted that from some of the speeches made today. Compassion is required when dealing with people in this position. If the alternative is relocation, it should be by agreement. A home is extremely important to most of us. Homes, and the personal possessions they contain, represent lives. We have to be very careful about the way in which this situation is handled. If the Government proceed with their proposal unaltered, there are substantial risks that entire communities could be disrupted. Long-term tenants—45 per cent of the households have been tenants for 10 years—could be affected. People develop local connections and the disruption would be enormous.
If we do not handle this properly, human tragedies could come to pass. For that reason, I hope that there will be support for the suggestions made in my amendment. I should be grateful to learn from the Minister how exactly the Government intend to cope with the situation. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has just published its legislative scrutiny of the Welfare Reform Bill in its 21st report of the Session. I quote from its recommendations:
“The National Housing Federation estimates that about 108,000 tenants in social rented properties adapted specifically for their needs are likely to be affected by the introduction of the size criteria to restrict housing benefit. If such tenants were forced to move into properties unsuited to their needs this might risk breaching their Article 8 rights to respect for private or family life as well as being potentially discriminatory.
The Government has indicated that it is prepared to look at exemptions for individuals who are disabled, where their homes have been subject to extensive adaptations. However, this would not address the disruption to patterns of caring and support networks which can be vital”.
The JCHR concludes:
“We recommend allowing some additional discretion to exempt disabled people facing exceptional hardship from the under-occupation provisions”.
I hope that the Minister will not only agree to the amendment but also agree to the JCHR’s recommendations.
My Lords, I have a question for my noble friend about the disabled facilities grant, which I gather is rising to £180 million in the current fiscal year. However, as we know, this grant is not ring-fenced, although it is still a mandatory grant. I find that a slightly odd concept. I just want to make sure that this grant is quite separate from the discretionary housing payment. What redress will a citizen have if the local authority is being rather mean with the mandatory disabled facilities grant? I have not quite got my head round that matter. It may be entirely a matter for the local authority but I wonder whether my noble friend can help me regarding the disabled facilities grant in particular.
My Lords, we have Amendment 14ZA in this group, which concerns foster carers seeking exemption from the underoccupancy penalties. We know—indeed, we heard a short while ago—that the Government are sympathetic. When we discussed this in Committee, the Minister told us that it was not possible both to disregard foster allowances as income and to include foster children in the assessment of housing need. However, the National Housing Federation has suggested that discussions between fostering organisations and DWP officials have not shed any light on why the trade-off would be inevitable and has suggested that it could be sorted out by legislation.
As we heard earlier, the Minister’s solution to supporting foster carers was the use of discretionary housing payments and the additional funds that have been made available, and it would be churlish not to welcome that. However, it is hard to see how this can adequately address the problem, given the many other calls on these payments that are likely to be made. Of course, these payments are discretionary, so there would be no certainty for those looking to foster a child that their housing benefit would be covered. It is suggested that the Minister cannot possibly see the inclusion of foster carers within the underoccupancy penalties as a cost-saving measure. As the LGA has put it, if these penalties apply, foster carers could be forced to give up this role at a time when there is a national shortage of 10,000 foster families across the UK. I urge the Minister to give due consideration to this matter, but in doing so I welcome the announcement that he made earlier.
My noble friend Lady Turner introduced amendments that covered three issues. The first was about adaptations to properties, which has been fully covered. My noble friend Lady Wilkins made the important point that this is not just about the physical adaptations to properties but about the support that people need in their community.
My noble friend also referred to someone in the work-related activity group being exempt unless there was suitable employment within easy access of alternative accommodation. We need to know that someone in the WRAG would not necessarily need to be in employment but to be working closer to the labour market. Nevertheless, my noble friend makes a valid point.
My noble friend’s third point was about claimants agreeing to any proposed relocation to alternative accommodation. In the debate on the last group of amendments, we debated a little the issue of suitable alternative accommodation for people, what “suitable” might mean and the complexity that might come with that. To the extent that it features in these arrangements, the opportunity for the claimant to be able to agree to what is reasonable is a fairly fundamental point as well, so I support my noble friend’s contention.
My Lords, Amendment 13—and Amendment 48, which is a repeat of Amendment 13 but relates to Clause 68—tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, seeks to make a number of changes. I spoke earlier about how I propose to address the noble Baroness’s valid concerns about those living in adapted accommodation, and I hope that that has satisfied that particular position. On the related point raised by my noble friend Lady Thomas, the disabled facilities grants are quite separate from this; they are administered by local authorities to meet those costs. It is a separate pot, if you like, run by local authorities and not by the DWP.
Amendment 13 would create a new Section (3A). Proposed new paragraph (b) deals with the availability of work in an area and seeks to exempt claimants from the underoccupation measure by their not being relocated to an area where there is no suitable employment, or from a reduction if there is no suitable employment near their current home. We are not in the business of dictating to people where they can or cannot live and we have no intention of doing so. We expect that most people will choose to stay where they are and meet the shortfall. This was supported in the research from the housing futures network, which we have already discussed.
Let me put into perspective the numbers of people who are looking to increase their hours of work. We are talking about between two and four hours per week at the national minimum wage to meet these shortfalls. The amendment links an exemption to the availability of suitable employment, which would be hugely complicated to administer. We would need to define suitable employment and easy access, and in our view those are decisions for the tenants themselves to make, just as those people who live in the private rented sector or who are buying their own properties make such decisions. The labour market is constantly evolving. From a practical point of view, the exemption would be unworkable.
Proposed new paragraph (b), which would be inserted by Amendment 13, would appear to ensure that claimants are not forced to downsize against their will. The amendment would achieve that, but in practice it would go even further. It would enable claimants to block relocations by their landlord regardless of the circumstances. It is unusual for a social landlord to relocate a tenant without their consent, but they can do so in some circumstances, such as where they plan to redevelop the area. We do not intend to interfere in the relationship between landlord and tenant, and nothing in our legislation would force a tenant to move against their will.
On the size criteria measure, we are not seeking to force people to move, but we are asking people to consider the affordability of their accommodation where it is larger than they require, and I beg the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, to withdraw her amendment.
On Amendment 14ZA, which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, I have set out our intention to increase the DHP budget with the specific aim of helping foster carers as well as disabled people in adapted accommodation. We very much value the work done by foster carers who care for and welcome children into their homes. That is why the benefit system already treats them more favourably by not taking those children, and, as a result, any fostering allowances, into account in their assessment. However, we recognise that there might be circumstances in which a reduction in the housing element of their benefit might act as a disincentive to fostering, and in such circumstances a local authority will have additional funds to award a DHP.
I should make the point here that local authorities will have a direct interest in applying those discretionary funds because they will make a saving by keeping the fostering market open. This is not one of the areas where one worries about discretionary funds being used in other ways; this is an incentive for the local authority. Just to reinforce that natural incentive, we are going to make sure that children’s services within local authorities will be made aware of the availability of DHPs and will input locally on their priorities. I know there are many concerns in this area, but I really think that we have closed the circle.
This amendment seems to go further and would not allow any deduction to the housing element, thereby prohibiting deductions for other income or non-dependant deductions. It also does not cover foster carers who are between placements and who therefore have no income from fostering allowances. The flexibility of DHPs will allow for such circumstances, if it is felt necessary.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, raised a point on the JCHR. We have just received that report and will be considering it very closely.
I consider that we are meeting the needs of this group through the increase to DHPs, and I therefore beg the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, not to move his amendment.
I thank the Minister for that response. He seems to have made a number of concessions in response to me. He outlined some of the practicalities, which I understand. I intended the amendment to acknowledge that this is a very complex and difficult area. I was seeking to give a certain amount of guidance to the Government about the way in which it should be handled; otherwise a number of people are going to be very badly hurt, and there could be a few human tragedies on the way, which one would not like to have. I accept that the Minister has made a number of concessions this afternoon. This is a very complex area, so I would like to have the opportunity to study it again. It is unlikely that I will come back with this at Third Reading because we have been over the ground fairly comprehensively. In the mean time, I thank the Minister for the concessions that he has made and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
14: Clause 11, page 5, line 21, at end insert—
“(3A) In relation to a dwelling of which the landlord is a local housing authority or a registered provider of social housing, regulations under this section shall not permit the housing cost element of the universal credit to be less than the actual amount of the liability in a case where a household has no more than one spare bedroom.”
Amendment 14ZZA (to Amendment 14)
14ZZA: Clause 11, line 3, after “provider of social housing” insert “, and no suitable alternative accommodation (as defined in regulations to be made under this section, and provided by any such provider) is available”
My Lords, since this is a manuscript amendment, it might be of assistance to the House if I read it.
“In Clause 11, line 3, after ‘provider of social housing’ insert ‘, and no suitable alternative accommodation (as defined in regulations to be made under this section, and provided by any such provider) is available’”.
Amendment 14ZZA agreed.
Amendment 14, as amended, agreed.
Amendment 14ZA not moved.
14A: Clause 11, page 5, line 23, at end insert “including mortgage interest”
My Lords, the amendment deals with mortgage interest relief. When we raised this issue in Committee, the Minister told us that it was actively under review. We have now had a chance to see the results of that review with the publication this month of a call for evidence on support with mortgage interest and we have some concerns about what it contains.
The main proposals outlined include placing a charge on the property of any long-term claimant of mortgage interest support, which, with an additional sum for interest and an administration fee, would be recouped on the sale of that property; paying the support directly to the claimant rather than to the lender as at present; introducing a zero-earnings rule for eligibility for mortgage interest support to prevent in-work claimants on universal credit from qualifying; and extending the current two-year restriction for JSA claimants on claiming support for mortgage interest to those previously entitled to some transitional protection.
The Government’s stated rationale for the changes is, once again, to encourage claimants into work. The document states:
“A core aim of Universal Credit is that working age claimants have strong incentives to take up work in order to maintain their choice of housing tenure”.
However, the proposals to place a charge on the property of MIS recipients at present apply only to those who are not expected to move back into work—those who, in the words of the call for evidence,
“need long-term help with their mortgages because they are disabled or have retired with outstanding mortgage liabilities”,
and whom, the document states, it is not fair for the taxpayer to support indefinitely. Perhaps the Minister in his response could outline the key rationale for these changes. Are they intended to ensure that anyone who wants to remain in their home must move into work? Or are they intended primarily as a cost-saving measure? What are the expected savings from the scheme to put a charge on the property, and how do these compare to the potential added expenditure on housing benefit if people decide that they would rather not pay this charge and move into the private rented sector?
On direct payments to lenders, we have had significant representations from landlords who are worried about the impact of direct payments to tenants of housing benefit—we discussed this in Committee on a number of occasions and will discuss it again shortly. The Council of Mortgage lenders seems similarly concerned about these proposals, with its director, Paul Smee, stating that,
“the principle of paying the benefit to claimants rather than lenders is dangerous in terms of potentially reducing its effectiveness in meeting its intended purpose”.
Could the Minister let us know what discussions he has so far had with lenders about these proposals?
The Minister will doubtless say that the proposals in this document are out for consultation—that is, they are just that: proposals—and that he will consider views on them. Perhaps he could therefore let us know the expected timetable for any changes to support with mortgage interest payments. It would be particularly useful to know when he intends to make decisions about eligibility for this support under universal credit, as the level of support provided will make a significant difference to whether work pays for home owners.
We look forward to further detail on these measures, but it would be extremely helpful if the Minister could take a moment to outline the principles behind them and the expected timescale for their introduction. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for this opportunity to debate the way in which we will provide help with mortgage costs alongside, or as part of, universal credit. As I have said previously, housing support is critical to the success of universal credit. It will recognise that people need support across a range of different tenure types whether they live in the private rented sector or the social sector, or whether they are owner-occupiers.
Noble Lords will have seen the illustrative regulations on the universal credit housing element which set out our broad approach to support for housing costs. The regulations will indeed make provision for help towards mortgage interest payments.
I also mentioned in Committee that we would be consulting on possible future reforms of the support for mortgage interest rules. As the noble Lord pointed out, we published not a consultation but a call for evidence on 6 December which contained a number of ideas on simplifying the help provided towards mortgage interest payments for working age and pensioner home owners. One of the reasons that it is a call for evidence and not a consultation is that there are much less backing data in terms of impact assessments around a call for evidence than a consultation. Therefore the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not supply the answers to some of the questions he asked me. That is the difference in the process.
We intend to provide support for owner-occupiers, as the call for evidence makes clear, whether this sits inside or outside of universal credit and pension credit. The call for evidence seeks views to help inform the appropriate way forward in determining how financial support towards mortgage interest costs should be changed in both the shorter term and longer term. We are looking at a different model to deal with the longer-term costs of supporting home owners. Essentially, we are looking for a way in which we can keep people in their homes when it is long term, but not at an exorbitant, open-ended cost to the taxpayer. That is the point of exploring these issues: we want to make sure that it delivers fairness to taxpayers.
For support for mortgage interest, we intend to have a rule that provides that help with mortgage costs will stop once a claimant starts work, as is broadly the case now. We believe that the position of claimants with mortgages is different from that of tenants. Owner-occupier claimants have been in work—clearly lenders would not advance money for house purchase unless the borrower could service that debt through income from work. If owner-occupiers are to be able to service their mortgage debt in the future, then they need to return to full-time work and our proposals, or our evidence call, reflect this reality.
The call for evidence runs for 12 weeks until 27 February 2012 and we will of course consider carefully the responses, whether from the CML or anyone else—noble Lords are welcome to add their views, at which I shall look with great interest—and, based on those responses, we will then develop our detailed policy proposals. I can assure the House that we are continuing to provide help with mortgage interest costs. With that assurance, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I certainly do not intend to press the amendment. As he explained, this is very much work in progress. Can he say a little more about the reactions to date—particularly from the Council of Mortgage Lenders—in respect of the direct payment issue.
To be absolutely honest, I have talked to the CML about this matter but I have not had a direct conversation with it since we issued the call for evidence. One of the reasons we had that as one of the questions is specifically to get a considered view from it as to how that might work.
There are a number of issues. At the moment, we pay a fixed rate for everyone based on the average mortgage. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has said in the past that it prefers the actual amounts. So there are a lot of issues. It is administratively complex. I know I am telling the noble Lord things he already knows because he was in situ while some of this was being developed. There is a nest of complicated issues. We are trying to flesh this out in the next few months.
Amendment 14A withdrawn.
15: Clause 11, page 5, line 23, at end insert—
“(4A) Regulations shall provide for a relevant change in circumstances to include a change in the claimant’s actual rent.”
Amendment 15 is a simple, genuinely probing amendment to get further clarity on the draft regs, given that they have now been published. Currently, a claimant’s housing benefit entitlement is reviewed on the anniversary of the claim or when there has been a material change of circumstances. The normal review would be 1 April annually. At the moment, if the rent is raised by the landlord between these annual reviews, the tenant must report this to the local authority as a material change of circumstances. Usually, although not always, the housing benefit would be raised to cover it. Under the new system, if the claimant’s tenancy is renewed and the rent increases at any point after April, then even though the rent would still be within the local housing allowance or the housing benefit cap, the claimant’s housing benefit will not be adjusted until the following April. It means, in other words, that they could go for 11 months with not enough housing benefit to cover their rent, even though they are entitled to it, and even though they would have got the full year’s increase in HB had the rent increase occurred a month before. Because of the timing of the accidents—of the rent increases, in other words—a tenant and his family could face real shortfalls and potential hardships: rent arrears and possible homelessness, with the usual problems that would result.
This amendment would require an increase in rent to be considered a relevant change in circumstance, which would be a simple way to avoid any potential hardship. It would ensure that housing benefit would continue to be reviewed in the light of a rent rise, as has occurred in the past. I am hoping that the noble Lord can give us that assurance.
Although Amendment 16 is on a different topic, I have grouped the two amendments to avoid going on for too long. In Committee, I ran an amendment because I was worried about the increased deduction that would come from housing benefit if a middle-aged couple had their adult son—a non-dependant adult, in the jargon—living at home with them. We noted then that the couple could face all of their housing benefit being wiped out because a son over the age of 18, who is perhaps on modest earnings, would be expected to contribute up to £90 a week. No deductions, of course, are made if he is in full-time education or on JSA. If he is in a minimum wage job, his parents could face losing virtually all their housing benefit, as he is expected to pay for his parents’ rent himself, even though he is not the tenant and even though he has no security of tenure. We feared either that he would drop out of work for their mutual financial advantage or that his parents might propose that he leave home and find a small place of his own to save their housing benefit, while leaving his parents underoccupying and being fined with a cut in their HB in turn. Either way, the family is damaged. Obviously the most satisfactory option would be for him to live at home, make the best use of the housing space and contribute—though not unreasonably so—to their housing costs. But can he do so if that is the sensible choice?
I have some questions for the Minister. In future, will the son, as a non-dependant, be counted as part of the household when DWP works out the space that the family are entitled to have for their HB? I would love to think that the amendment we have just passed has made that question redundant—touch wood that it has. As a couple, in future, will his parents be deemed to be underoccupying by one bedroom because of their adult son? Hopefully—touch wood—that question may now be redundant. However, there is a problem of the interplay of underoccupation and adult non-dependant deductions which the family could face. The Minister recognised this when we talked about it in Committee. He said:
“We need to look at the treatment of non-dependants … Furthermore, we need to ensure that there is some sensible fit with the provisions for underoccupancy … We want a scheme that provides incentives for tenant and non-dependants to work and at the same time preserve incentives for households to stay together”.—[Official Report, 20/10/11; col. GC113.]
The Minister was absolutely right. Could he clarify what his intentions would be in that situation? I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall be brief, because it is very rarely possible to add to something that my noble friend has said in moving an amendment. However, I will try in two respects.
Amendment 15 deals with a relevant change in circumstances. How would that feed through into changes of circumstances that may impact on transitional relief for universal credit? Would a change in rent level support be a change of circumstance that would have to be taken into account?
As for non-dependant deductions, under existing arrangements there are a range of circumstances whereby people who might be treated as non-dependants are not and where some non-dependants do not generate a deduction under the provisions. For example, in respect of the latter, no deduction is made in respect of any non-dependant who is staying with someone but whose normal home is elsewhere, who is receiving a training allowance in connection with youth training under specific provisions or is a full-time student during his or her period of study or is in hospital for more than 52 weeks. There are those sorts of exemptions. Is it planned that those will be carried forward into the new world of universal credit?
My Lords, local housing allowance rates are set each year at the anniversary date of the claim. In many cases, they coincide with claimants’ annual rent increases, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will recall, during the LHA pathfinder some landlords increased rents mid-year to take advantage of increasing LHA rates. That is why we will operate a common uprating date of 1 April.
I would like to consider this matter further. I do not believe that it is appropriate to provide regulations in the Bill, and we will have an opportunity to debate the regulations in this area. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that we will consider the implications of a common uprating date for this group of claimants as part of the continuing work on the treatment of change of circumstances in universal credit. I am not able to get to a conclusion on what we define as a change of circumstances. Again, it is an interconnected group of things. On the basis that I am working on it, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw the amendment.
The next area is on non-dependants. We debated a similar amendment in Committee, and I remember blushing with pride when the noble Baroness said that I made an intelligent response. It is a rare accolade that I get from some members of the opposite Benches, but not all.
I thought that I would be self-deprecating and leave the “very” out.
The noble Baroness asked me to keep the House briefed on the thinking here and return at Report. The best that I can do now is to say that we have not changed our views. There is a lot of active work, and I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, also took a great deal of interest in this issue. The universal credit will recognise the general principle that adults who live in the household of people getting help with their housing costs should expect to make a contribution towards those costs. Not to do so would, in effect, mean that taxpayers would subsidise non-dependants through the benefits system. I think that that is common ground around the House.
It is also common ground that a reformed welfare system must make work in comparison to dependency benefits pay and be seen to be paid, and the current treatment of non-dependants can work against employment incentives for both the claimant and non-dependant. As I said, there are various factors that we have to juggle between decisions on non-dependants—the “touch wood” factor, taking in a lodger, and so on. These factors mean that the issue of non-dependants is complex.
I accept that the amendment is a probing one, but it would not work. However, we are considering it in detail, and it is an important area. It really goes to the heart of the simplicity agenda that we have, and I hope that as we flesh out the detail noble Lords will have something to which the expression “very intelligent” remains applicable. On that basis, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I am happy to withdraw my amendment. I absolutely understand that this is a work in progress, but we now have the draft regulations, which we did not have in Committee, which is why we are trying to probe to see where this goes. The problem could be that, were it not for the earlier amendment being passed, a couple in a two-bedroom place with an adult son could be regarded as underoccupied if the adult son was not counted as eligible for the room, whereupon their housing benefit would be cut—but, because he was in the House, he would be expected to cover not just their housing benefit but the cut as well. It is that Catch-22 situation that I am seeking to avoid.
It is not straightforward, and I understand that. I am grateful for the Minister’s response. I look forward to an appropriate, acceptable and welcome solution to these dilemmas. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendment 16 not moved.
17: Clause 11, page 5, line 23, at end insert—
“(4A) Regulations shall provide for—
(a) the frequency with which reviews of the relationship between increases in the rental market and the CPI will be conducted;(b) the circumstances in which increases in the rental market and CPI will be deemed to have diverged;(c) the circumstances in which there will be considered to be a critical lack of affordable housing;(d) the circumstances in which this will lead to a change in the method used to uprate the housing component of universal credit.”
I have a series of amendments on housing. This amendment calls for periodic reviews of the interconnection between CPI and rent levels. This is an issue that has concerned the whole House at different stages, including on the CSR Statement as well as in Committee.
We know now that the proposed deficit reduction programme, according to the Chief Secretary, will extend for a further two years at least beyond the general election. This amendment now takes on the added urgency that perhaps did not exist at the time when we discussed it in Committee. Local housing allowance, which I will call housing benefit, in the private rented sector is based on the 50th percentile of private rents, which should mean that half of all private rents are affordable on HB and half are not. It is a median. The HB, in other words, covers the average rent. We also know that the Government are reducing that 50th percentile to the 30th percentile, which means that 70 per cent of properties would be unaffordable but 30 per cent should still be so. We have argued that and resisted it, but the Government have insisted on their proposals. That is bad enough and will make it much harder to find a private rented home. But, in addition, HB to cover your rents up to the 30th percentile will rise only by CPI, not by the actual increase in private sector rents. Yet according to Savills rents are rising at the moment by more than 7 per cent a year, and CPI is only half of that—not this year but we expect it to be. Rents are rising on average at double the rate of CPI, mainly because of additional demand for private flats from young people for whom originally the flat would have been a transit tenure but who now stay there while they seek to save their deposit for a home of their own.
The Minister used to argue that capping HB would drive down rents. That is not happening, nor will it, because no longer do landlords have to let to HB tenants. Just as there are eight people after every job, there are eight tenants after most lets. HB tenants will get only what no one else will take: the substandard, the squalid and the downright unsafe. Any complaints and you are evicted after six months. Tenants will be forced into poorer and poorer accommodation. Worse, as I say, rents are rising at double the rate of CPI, so whereas now your HB may theoretically cover 30 per cent of available rents, in three years’ time it may cover only 20 per cent, and in five years only 15 per cent. In more expensive towns such as Winchester, it is estimated that there will be nothing available to rent for anyone on HB within the next few years.
This amendment is very simple. It requires that the Government's original policy intent—that HB in the private sector will allow the tenant the choice of the bottom 30 per cent of properties—continues to be respected and that the widening gap between the CPI uplift in HB and the actual rise in private rents does not invalidate the Government's intentions. In other words, this amendment simply asks the Government to ensure that they do what they say they want to do—no more, no less—and that we keep clear the policy intent, and that it is delivered.
In the past, the Minister has decorously brushed this aside by saying that it is outside the CSR period, but given the Chief Secretary's remarks, it is not any more. He also helpfully said in Committee on 20 October that,
“if local housing allowance rates are clearly out of step with rents, they can be reconsidered”.—[Official Report, 20/10/11; col. GC 146.].
It would be very helpful to know how this would be done, given the vagueness of the draft regulations. The Government should confirm whether reviewing the operating method will occur periodically or, if not, what will trigger it. This amendment seeks to get greater clarity in the regulations in order to protect the Government’s own policy intent: that 30 per cent or so of private lettings should be affordable and available to those on local housing allowance. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendment 17, to which I added my name. As always, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has comprehensively covered the issues and I will therefore take only a few moments of your Lordships’ time to express my personal concerns about the issue.
The Government have a policy to reduce over time the percentage of GDP paid out in benefits to those on low incomes and those out of work. Perhaps the main mechanisms by which this will be achieved, though by no means the only ones, are the range of housing allowance controls to which the noble Baroness referred and the linking of housing allowance to the CPI, rather than to the rate of increase of rents themselves. The problem I have with the CPI link in particular, along with all the other controls, is that it is beyond the control of government how this plays out; hence the importance of these monitoring mechanisms that the noble Baroness has spelt out.
For example, if the euro collapses—it seems ever more likely that it may—and we have several years of recession or, indeed, deep depression with falling prices, do the Government have any idea how rents will respond in that situation? Because of the pressures of a growing population with more and more single-person households, as well as the limited stock of properties, particularly in London and the south-east, it is possible that rents may remain static, or even rise in the south-east, while other prices are falling. The Government assume that the downward pressure on housing allowances will ensure that in fact rents fall as well, but I am not at all confident about that. There is a huge private rented sector out there and as fewer young people can afford to buy, more and more of them will indeed move into that rented sector.
A very different scenario will be that once the years of fiscal tightening are over inflation could return with a vengeance, leaving a soaring gap between the RPI and the CPI—the prices claimants will have to pay in the shops on the one hand, and the CPI which will determine their housing allowance levels on the other. Of course, all these uncertainties will be there alongside a benefits cap, which may or may not be inflation-proof, and the need for many vulnerable people to adjust to a move from higher ESA to lower-level JSA. The Minister knows that I fear many vulnerable people will be included within that group, going down the slope towards the cheaper JSA. There is also the loss of disability benefits for children, the loss of tax credits and so forth, and the move to monthly payments if we cannot persuade the Minister that this will be the last thing that people are going to cope with. For all these reasons, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that the House needs some assurance that there will be systematic and regular monitoring of the consequences of linking rents to CPI and on how the situation will be assessed and in what circumstances a change of policy would be regarded as appropriate.
I would also be grateful if the Minister could inform the House on a particular aspect of this issue. Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing estimate that the link between local housing allowances and the CPI will, by 2030, result in 60 per cent of local authority areas being unaffordable for LHA claimants. Undoubtedly, these will be the areas with jobs. Can the Minister say whether the Government accept this estimate and, if not, what the Government’s estimate is? Whether or not he accepts the estimate, has the DWP undertaken an impact assessment of the housing allowances/CPI link on employment in this country? What particular impact on employment will this have?
If households have no option but to move to areas with very few employment opportunities, how much higher will unemployment be year on year than would otherwise be the case and what will be the costs of that higher unemployment for the taxpayer? These sorts of issues need to be incorporated within the ongoing monitoring and assessments of the impact of these policies, year by year. Within the Minister's response to this amendment, I would be most grateful if he could include some reference to the employment impact.
Noble Lords will be aware that we propose to limit increasing the local housing allowance in line with the CPI index from April 2013. The aim here is to ensure that we continue to exert downward pressure on rents while looking at rent levels in local markets. The limit will apply only in areas where local market rent increases, at the 30th percentile, exceed the annual rate of CPI inflation. We have said that we are committed to making savings from this measure up to 2014-15. If it then becomes apparent that local allowance rates and rents are out of step, they can be reconsidered.
To prepare for this change, the Minister for Pensions set out in the uprating Statement the arrangements for fixing rates. The first uprating will be in April 2013. We have taken this step to ensure that CPI rating can commence from April 2013, but that nobody will see their ongoing award fall at that point as a result of LHA rates being uprated. As the annual rates will be set well in advance, we will be able to provide clarity and certainty to claimants and landlords. We will continue to monitor the path of market rents until 2015 and the Secretary of State will be able to review the LHA rate, or uprate it by some other method, should the need arise.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed out, the future is uncertain. Clearly, you can draw any scenario you like; the point is that we need to watch it and we will watch it very closely. In particular, we may need to increase LHA rates if growth in rents and the CPI are so out of sync that there is a critical lack of affordable housing. To pick up on the noble Baroness’s other point on extrapolating out to 2013, clearly we all recognise that over any kind of longer-term run rents tends to move with average earnings, not with average prices. Any extrapolation out that long will have a big gap, but we are not talking about that here. We are talking about a measure which is locked in for that two-year period at a time of great difficulty when we are trying to bear down on prices. Therefore, I do not think it is relevant for me to hypothesise about employment levels. That is not what is happening here.
On the point about data and monitoring and what Parliament can expect from us, we will provide to Parliament on an annual basis from late 2012 the relevant CPI data and the data on the 30th percentile of market rents. In addition, noble Lords should be aware that the Valuation Office Agency currently makes available quarterly data on market rents by local authority.
I should point to the major piece of independent external research that is already underway to evaluate the impact of the reforms to housing benefit announced at the June Budget and the spending review. Indeed, I need to thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the way that he shaped that research effort. The research will be comprehensive and will be presented to both Houses and the public alongside a ministerial Statement. The department is currently considering how this research could be extended—subject, of course, to funding—to allow it to look at the impacts of changes to local housing allowance uprating over a longer period.
I hope that I have reassured noble Lords that we are committed to monitoring and evaluating this change really thoroughly. On that basis, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for her support and her additional probing and questions. I am more than satisfied with the Minister’s reply, apart from one word. I wonder whether I could invite him to change that one word. He said that if the two tests, rent levels and CPI, are out of step, then they “can be reconsidered”. I want “will be reconsidered”. I invite the Minister to strengthen his position on that point. Everything else was lovely.
Amendment 17 withdrawn.
17A: Clause 11, page 5, line 23, at end insert—
“(4A) Regulations shall not permit any reduction of housing benefit or amounts included for accommodation in an award of universal credit in respect of under occupation, deemed or actual where—
(a) the landlord is local authority or registered provider of social housing, and(b) any such landlord is not able to offer suitable alternative accommodation which would not cause a person to under occupy.(4B) Regulations may make provision for determining when accommodation is suitable for the purposes of these provisions.”
My Lords, first, may I ask a question of the Opposition at this point? There has been no claim that this amendment is consequential, and it clearly is not consequential. I say so in a spirit of wishing to elucidate information and explanation from the Opposition, and it is not necessarily overtly hostile, because the Opposition are looking rather puzzled. The Opposition have not at any time said that this is consequential. It is the view of the Government, on advice, that something that refers to regulations is so clearly not consequential upon the earlier loss.
I wonder if the noble Lord could say, for the benefit of the House and before the Minister is able to take a decision, why he considers it to be consequential.
My Lords, I do not believe I considered it to be consequential, but I believe that we debated it as part of that first group. We had a wide group, of which this was part. I was not anxious to revisit that debate. If the noble Baroness insists that we do, perhaps we could set aside another couple of hours to do that.
My Lords, I shall respond in the same helpful measure. I am grateful to the noble Lord. The Chair put this as moved formally; that was the improper thing. I hasten to add that I know that the Chair was not trying to be improper.
Of course, I have to put on record that this is a separate matter. If the Opposition wish to press this to a Division, that is their absolute right, and I recognise that. However, the Government cannot accept Amendment 17A because it is not consequential, and the Minister clearly has not accepted it. I hope that that is an explanation which is a little clearer than mud.
My Lords, I am sorry to press this, but I understood that when the noble Lord, Lord Best, moved his original amendment, he accepted the additional amendments in the group as amendments to his amendment. He did this to ensure that his original intent regarding the one spare bedroom was modified by the extent to which there was available accommodation. If there was not, his standard would apply, but if there was, we would expect the tenant in due course to move. That was the debate.
May I very rudely interrupt the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis? I am reminded, of course, by those who know the rules well, that if we are to debate this amendment—which we are, albeit very briefly—it is right that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, should move it. I will, of course, be able in procedural terms to reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and explain the position. However, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for the sake of the formalities, might quickly like to move the amendment, and then we can deal with the process.
My Lords, my case then stands, in other words. I had understood that when the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, spoke immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Best, he moved the additional amendments, which the noble Lord, Lord Best, had previously indicated he would accept as part of the position.
My Lords, I know that this is becoming an aficionado’s debate, and obviously we have to make sure that we understand what is going on.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, made claims about what he considered to be consequential, and I know that he did so in good faith. However, it is not for the noble Lord, Lord Best, to tell the Government what the Government believe is consequential. As a matter of fact, Amendment 17A is not consequential. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, might find that I am about to be helpful, so she might wish to hesitate for just one moment. At least, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, the Opposition Chief Whip, might find that I am about to be a little more helpful.
Clearly this is not a consequential amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Best, may want to accept it as such, but it is not procedurally. The Government’s view, if I can make it clear, is that the amendment is not consequential. We do not accept it as being consequential, and will not do so when these matters are debated in another place.
However, the Government have also seen the result earlier on. It is not the Government’s intention to try to unpick some of the debate that occurred earlier. During that debate, at no time did the Minister accept that Amendment 17A was consequential. The position is clearly that when the matter was debated earlier on, other noble Lords felt that if the matter were put to a vote, they might wish to vote along the same basis, but that did not happen.
I am sure it will be to the confusion of noble Lords opposite, but the position, quite simply, is that the Government will not call against Amendment 17A when it is put. I hope that is helpful. The important thing is on the record; I make it clear that the Government will not accept this in another place. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, finds that useful.
My Lords, I was waiting for those words, and that is why I had not made a procedural intervention. Having now heard what the noble Baroness has said, I will be content, for the orderly process of business, if the Government accept this. Of course, that is on the understanding that what happens in another place is what happens in another place. No doubt these things will be revisited upon us, as they usually are.
My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, as I say, the Government do not accept the amendment. I will certainly ask my colleagues behind me—including the Minister, who must be wondering what on earth this is all about—that when the Question is put, no person on the coalition Benches calls against it.
Amendment 17A agreed.
Amendment 18 not moved.
19: Clause 11, page 5, line 29, at end insert—
“(6) Regulations shall provide that where the award for housing costs is restricted to the shared accommodation rate, this shall not apply for a period of 52 weeks for any claimant aged between 25 years and 35 years, who is not an existing claimant of housing benefit.”
I would like to continue the argument with the Chief Whip, but we will move on. Perhaps we will have this discussion outside on the difference between consequential, and the mover of an amendment accepting an amendment to the amendment. That is where the confusion may arise. The noble Lord, Lord Best, certainly did do so.
We discussed shared accommodation rent in Committee, and I have to say that one’s worries remain. At the moment, if you are under 25, you are eligible for Housing Benefit for a room in a shared house. If you are over 25, you are eligible for Housing Benefit for a one-bedroom flat. The Government are proposing that from next month, if you are aged up to 35 rather than 25, after 13 weeks you will get housing benefit only for a room in a shared house, a house in multiple occupation. Some 62,500 people will be affected, losing on average over £40 a week—in London, over £100 a week.
The amendment is a modest one, a breathing-space amendment. It does not seek to maintain the status quo, though I wish that we could do so. Who is this breathing space for? Say that you are 33. You moved a couple of years ago to a large city and still do not know too many people. You are living in a one-bedroom flat and are in work as a secretary. You have not built up many savings but are not claiming HB. Because your small company closes, you lose your job, but the amendment would stop you from losing your home as well. Instead, you would receive housing benefit for your one-bedroom flat for a breathing space of 12 months while you look for another job.
Without the amendment, the person I am describing would be forced—in London, for example—to lose her one-bedroom flat and go into a house of multiple occupation because of the cost of £100 a week that she could not cover herself, yet 50 per cent of people on JSA like her return to work within six months, 75 per cent within nine months and 90 per cent within the year. The amendment would allow her to keep her flat with housing benefit for that breathing space of one year. If after that she had not returned to work, she would fall down to the shared-room rent and have to find somewhere else to live.
Why the argument for a breathing space? There are two reasons. The first is the upheaval factor. She would avoid a move out and then possibly, if she found work six months later, another move into a one-bedroom flat, each time spending perhaps thousands of pounds on curtains, carpets, a removal van, agency fees, deposits and the like.
It is not just about cost, even though that will be wiped out of her savings—it is about stress. Having lost her job, she is desperate to get another one and should not have to worry about whether or not she is going to have a home. In any case, she needs to stay in the local area. As we know, very few jobs go through Jobcentre Plus; most go through knowing people who know of vacancies as they occur.
If she loses her home, instead of focusing on searching for a job, she will be focusing on the search for a home. She has to; that comes first. Otherwise the choice is potentially a night hostel and, ultimately, a park bench. She will be stressed and pressured, and the strain for any of us in that situation without resources would be almost unbearable. She would be changing address, putting stuff in store, sorting out utilities, finding cash for a deposit and agency fees—all the clutter of an unwanted house move, at just the time when we want her to be focusing on the search for a job. Let her concentrate on getting the job; it is what she wants. If she gets one, she will soon be off housing benefit altogether and paying taxes on her salary, saving the state a long-term HB bill. It is in her and our interest to give her that breathing space of a year. I have calculated that within a year the amendment would save the Government more than they think they will gain from cuts to the group in her situation, because people like her will be off benefit and back to work sooner.
So the first reason for a breathing space is for her to focus on a job search, which is what will actually cut the benefit bill. The second reason is the type of accommodation that she would have to move to. If she is lucky, she may have friends with whom she can share or sofa-surf, having put all her furniture in store. If not, she will have to move to an HMO. The ones that you can afford on benefit are at the bottom end of the market because landlords prefer students or people in work. That, combined with the effect of the 30th of a percentile on benefit payable, means cracked WCs, trailing wires, missing light bulbs, flimsy doors, stained carpets, indifferent landlords and dirty common parts in the kitchen and hall—and if she complains, she will be evicted.
If she is fairly lucky, she will find that she can share with some other like-minded women, but few women are in HMOs because they are neither safe nor salubrious. She will instead have a room in a shared house with strangers, sharing the kitchen and bathroom, at night walking down the hall to the bathroom in her dressing gown, hoping that she will not be accosted or assaulted. She will hear every sound through partition walls, protected only by a flimsy plywood door to her bedroom.
With whom will she be sharing? Most landlords can make HMOs work only with four tenants or more, usually unknown to each other. With luck, they may simply be younger men of student age, noisy, boisterous, boozy, chaotic, undomesticated, helping themselves to whatever is in the fridge and holding late-night parties with loud music. However, students in that situation would be able to afford something better, so instead she faces the much higher likelihood of sharing with other strangers—older men who have nowhere else to live.
It is mainly older men who live in HMOs. Why is that? I speak as someone who, as local authority leader and housing chair, tried to regulate them. Those men are in HMOs because they have been thrown out of the family home for violence; because they are ex-offenders, addicts or alcoholics; because they have been evicted from their previous flat for antisocial behaviour; because they have mental health problems; because they have substantial learning difficulties; because they have come off the streets from sleeping rough; or because they are dealing, and their so-called friends crowd into the kitchen to buy and consume. They knock on her door by mistake, perhaps shout at her through it, and she is terrified. Most men in that position could defend themselves; she cannot.
I fear that HMOs at the bottom of the housing market are warehouses for the marginal, the deviant and the drifter. We are requiring this woman, having lost her job through no fault of her own, to join them. The journey back to work will take far longer and be far harder for her as a result of what we have done. No woman in this House would want to be in this situation and no man would want it for his daughter, and if it is not good enough for us it is not good enough for her.
If I can show the Minister, as I am happy to, that the amendment would be at least cost-neutral and would probably give additional savings—I have worked the permutations on different possibilities—will he please take it away and think about it again? I am happy to share my financial figures with him now, later or in my wind-up. If I can show him that he will not make any losses on the amendment but it will either be cost-neutral or even make some surplus, will he offer to take it away and think about it?
My Lords, I support Amendment 19. I have particular concerns. I fully endorse the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that when people lose their job it is unacceptable for them immediately to face not only the shock of being unemployed and the dramatic fall in their incomes but the prospect of having to move their home. Psychologists always say that it is important to avoid changing more than one of our three mainstays of security in any one year: employment, our main relationship and our home. The risks of mental health problems rise significantly if we do so, as the noble Baroness illustrated very well.
There is therefore a strong case for allowing newly unemployed people time to adjust before they have to think of moving home. Of course the hope would be that they would find work within that year and never have to move at all. I want to raise again a particular problem that to some degree would be assisted by the amendment. I raised this issue in my most helpful meeting with the Minister but have reason to believe that his assurances would not work as he thinks they would. The issue is that of people with severe mental health problems who may be absolutely unable to move into shared accommodation, either because they themselves could not handle having someone else around or because the situation would be untenable if not downright dangerous for anyone else trying to live with them. The Minister assured me that discretionary housing payments should deal with this problem. Perhaps in theory this might be the case, but apparently in practice it does not in fact work. Does the Minister regard it as right for sick people to be penalised when for therapeutic reasons they cannot move into a living space with someone else?
I have a couple of examples to illustrate the point. A woman in her early 30s, living alone in private rented accommodation, receives ESA because of her mental health condition. She already has rent arrears as her housing benefit does not cover her rent. She applied for a discretionary housing payment but this has been refused. She has now been told that her housing benefit will be cut further, of course, in January 2012, when she is only entitled to the shared accommodation rate. She finds it difficult to cope with other people, and could not cope with a shared flat, even if she could find one. The adviser who is dealing with her fears that she could become homeless.
The other example is of a woman in her early thirties with HIV and related health difficulties, including depression. She is regarded as being unlikely to receive a discretionary housing payment until she is 35. I do not know why, but that is what I am told. She comes from a traumatic background, needs regular access to her many medications, and to the bathroom. She is not regarded as someone who could cope with shared accommodation: again, a likely homeless person.
If these claimants finish up on the streets, they will no doubt end up on one of our hospital wards at a cost of £261 per day, £95,000 per year to the taxpayer. I realise that this is a cost to the Department of Health, and not to the DWP, but I know the Minister is broad-minded on such matters and will not want to cause a massive increase in Department of Health costs. I am serious about it. There might be a saving to the DWP, but a much bigger cost in the Department of Health. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, does not accept at all that there would even be a cost saving in the DWP. There would therefore be a double whammy. We already see people moving automatically from benefits, to losing benefits, then on to the streets, and then into hospital. That is the way the system works, and this measure will simply make matters worse.
Apart from the inappropriateness of shared accommodation for some, though not at all every mentally ill person, there is also the practicality of finding such accommodation for this particular group. Someone with a mental health problem is going to be the last person many people want to share with. We know that the stigma involved is considerable. People are frightened, and they assume that people are dangerous when in fact they are not at all. But also, in reality, some people have difficult personal assumptions which would make them quite difficult to live with.
The result is that these people will not find shared accommodation readily, even if they could cope with it, and many absolutely could not. I know many people on our wards whom we could not discharge into shared accommodation. They would simply sit around on the wards, and it would be a problem.
I have focused on a particular claimant group, but an important one, in view of the numbers of these people. I hope the Minister will be sympathetic to the amendment, for all the reasons the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, pointed out, but also because it would ameliorate the problem of this particular group of people with mental health problems who, with any luck, might over a year settle down rather further and then might be able to be accommodated within the system.
My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham. She has painted a vivid and powerful picture of what this means for the people affected. I have sat through and participated in a couple of debates already about this, partly on the regulations, in Grand Committee. The more I have listened and read the evidence, the more uncomfortable I feel about us allowing this measure to go ahead.
When I was younger, I flat-shared. I answered the ads in Time Out, and it is a very different thing. I am sure that many noble Lords may have been in that position, and think there is nothing wrong in sharing accommodation. But doing it from choice is very different from being pushed into it. As my noble friend has spelt out, we are talking about less salubrious accommodation.
I am concerned about various groups who are particularly vulnerable here, as we have already heard. When the Social Security Advisory Committee considered this, it talked in particular about the way women will be affected. Women are not disproportionately affected as a group, but those who will be affected could be particularly adversely so.
There are two groups in particular. Pregnant single women, the advisory committee said, will be restricted to the shared accommodation rate until they give birth. They face one of three undesirable situations. They can move home twice, at a time when they may be financially, emotionally and physically ill-equipped to do so, into shared accommodation, and then back to self-contained accommodation when the baby is born; they can decide to move into shared accommodation and remain there after the birth of their child; or they can try to make up the shortfall in their rent.
The second group is women fleeing domestic violence. The prospect of having to share with male strangers is particularly daunting for them. Another group we discussed in Committee was those with shared parenting, and we considered how inappropriate it is for their children to be in the kind of accommodation that they have to take in this situation. The Minister did not really address those concerns.
Finally, I referred in Committee to a letter which had quite an impact on me. It was one that the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, mentioned having received from the mother of a young man on the autistic spectrum, describing the difficulties he faced in shared accommodation. Think about how inappropriate shared accommodation might be for someone with this condition, who may find it very difficult to live with other people or with strangers, who might find it very difficult to live with him too. A lack of understanding of that kind of behaviour could create real tensions. I can see so many problems.
The Minister responded by talking about the discretionary housing payments. The issue is not just about the amount of money, but also the important point that someone in this situation—and, I suspect people with mental health problems—need security and certainty. Discretionary housing payments do not give that, because you do not know whether you will be able to get the money. That causes more anxiety and could lead to forms of behaviour that could have negative consequences.
The noble Lord also made the point that there are already exemptions for severely disabled people, but this person did not fall into the exempt category. There is a spectrum of behaviour within which people will not be exempted but could face real problems with the extension of shared accommodation.
The amendment of the noble Baroness is a way of trying to mitigate those problems, and I endorse what she has said. I hope the Minister will take it away and think about whether, through the amendment or another way, he can address the wide range of concerns that have been expressed three times now—in discussing the regulations, in Grand Committee, and now.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Hollis made clear, this amendment addresses the cases of those who, not having been housing benefit claimants, become in need of this, perhaps through the loss of a job, a change in domestic circumstances, illness or some other unanticipated event. It is aimed at the potential impact on vulnerable young adults: single people between 25 and 35, who rent in the private sector and from January will only be eligible for the single room rate, losing about £40 a week. Crisis—which we all know, particularly at Christmas, of course—an organisation that knows a thing or two about homelessness, believes that most of the 50,000 or more people affected are likely to lose their homes.
The amendment does not say that these people would be excused the shared room rate up to the age of 35, but it gives them a window of a year in which to find a new home or a job, to get well, or in some way to change their circumstances so that they are no longer dependent on housing benefit. It would extend the current 13-week breathing space to 52.
This is not just a matter of the individuals concerned sorting out their lives but of allowing the market to respond to these new rules. Research by the University of York on the impact of extending the shared-room accommodation rate found that there is insufficient shared accommodation available at the moment. Indeed, this would risk making such accommodation even harder to find for those aged under 25 as the supply of relevant accommodation takes time to build up. Furthermore, the York study found that sharing can sometimes be difficult or even dangerous, as we have already heard, and can have a serious negative impact on the health and well-being of vulnerable people.
As we have already heard, there are exemptions to the shared accommodation policy, including those for severely disabled people, care leavers aged under 22, people who have spent more than three months in a homelessness hostel and received resettlement support and those aged over 25 who are considered a risk to others. It does not include those who might themselves be at risk. In Committee the Minister reminded us of the other exemptions, such as those for certain ex-offenders who pose a risk to the public and certain former residents of specialist homeless hostels, which might include those leaving a refuge following domestic violence.
However, we also heard in Committee of a number of situations in which shared accommodation not covered by those exemptions would pose a real problem for people. My noble friend Lady Sherlock raised the question of single pregnant women, who may find such circumstances particularly difficult. The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, raised the issue of those with obsessive compulsive disorder, who may also find the prospect particularly difficult. My noble friend Lord McAvoy, who is not in his position at the moment and is, in his own words, not a social liberal, talked about the situation of those with a mental illness and how they might gradually be forced out of successively worse forms of shared accommodation.
Many of the people caught by this proposed new ruling will be fathers of young children soon after a split, when it is particularly crucial for their relationship with the children to be maintained. If it is not kept close in that first year of separation it is very hard to re-establish it later. That relationship depends not just on shared hamburgers in McDonald’s but on cooking, eating and even washing up together. For this, a place of one’s own, where young children can feel at home—not a house shared with strangers—will be crucial. The amendment relates to that first 12 months, within which we hope finances, jobs or better accommodation can be sorted out. If it is not sorted out in that 12 months, at least it will be much less threatening for those children visiting their now non-resident parent to get used to a different way of living.
The amendment does not reverse the intention of the policy, which the Minister told us was to ensure that claimants make similar choices to those not on benefits. The flaw in his argument is that the circumstances of many of those on benefits are not the same as those who can support themselves. The benefits system is designed exactly to protect people when their circumstances change. The amendment provides a little extra support of this kind. It would give people sufficient time either to address the circumstances—whether job loss, illness or a change in family arrangements—that meant they had to claim benefit, or, at a later time, to find the shared accommodation that best meets their needs. It is a thoughtful amendment, which the Opposition are happy to support.
My Lords, Amendment 19 from the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Meacher, deals with a subject that we have debated at considerable length—the shared accommodation rate. In case there is any doubt, let me be clear: the shared accommodation rate is what we pay people to share accommodation, not to share rooms, as some people think. We do not expect people to share one room or a bedroom, but to share accommodation.
My Lords, it is rather interesting to look at the actual rates. If you take two people, each with their own shared accommodation rate of housing benefit, that covers or exceeds the two-bedroom rate in 60 per cent of localities. We are not talking about a dramatic cut in much of the country. Indeed, if three or four people choose to share a house, taking their own shared accommodation rates, the amount of money that they get would cover the rate for three or four-bedroom properties in 90 per cent of localities. We are not talking about a hugely draconian cut in that context.
If we look at the amendment itself, it is not altogether obvious what rate of housing costs the noble Baronesses are proposing should be paid during the 52-week period of exemption. Since the amendment applies to new claims only, perhaps it seeks to ensure that new claimants have their full contractual rent met for the first 52 weeks, rather than being paid the local housing allowance. If it is the latter, we covered those points in Committee. We debated whether the current 13-week exemption from rent restrictions for claimants who could afford their rent when they first took on that commitment should be extended to 52 weeks.
I need to make clear that rent can be met in full for up to 13 weeks for those who could afford their rent when they first took on the tenancy and have not been in receipt of housing benefit in the past year. This means that those claimants who experience a short spell of unemployment are not forced to move, and it gives others time to consider their housing options. Around 40 per cent of JSA claimants aged between 25 and 49 have been claiming for less than three months, and around 60 per cent for less than six months. For completeness, I should add that there is a 12-month protection for people who have recently been bereaved.
As I said at the time, most claims for housing benefit are for short periods. The 13-week exemption protects a person’s ability to pay their rent during that time. Half of jobseeker’s allowance claimants aged between 18 and 24 have been claiming for less than 13 weeks and less than 5 per cent have been claiming for more than 52 weeks. We already know that more than a third of those who claim housing benefit choose shared accommodation. These are people who could be in either separate-bedroom accommodation or shared accommodation and choose the shared accommodation rate. Of the people who are not on HB, 40 per cent of 25 to 34 year-olds share. I am excluding students from this. This is not a form of housing that is unusual or imposed on people; it is an absolutely normal form of housing.
I accept that there is real concern about the impact of the shared accommodation rate and particularly about the availability of accommodation. I said in Committee that the market will not remain static and that I believe it will respond in time to the increased demand for this type of accommodation. The feedback that I had from officials following their recent meeting with a Methodist housing association suggests that this is already happening. The association is already converting some of its property into shared accommodation. I am also reassured by meetings that I have had with stakeholders that a number of support organisations are helping to match tenants to shared accommodation.
Following wider discussions with stakeholders and within the coalition, we agreed to introduce two further exemptions for the new age group. These exemptions will help those moving on from specialist homeless hostels to try to reduce the likelihood of them returning to a life of rough sleeping. We also want to ensure that these changes do not pose a risk to the public, which is why we provide an exemption for the small number of ex-offenders most likely to pose a risk.
The most vulnerable, about whom several noble Lords have expressed concern, will be exempt because they are entitled to a severe disability premium. For others, however, it would be difficult to draw up exemptions and include all those we thought could not share without opening the exemption so widely as to be untargeted and costly. We estimate that 18 per cent of those affected have a disability premium, but a discretionary housing payment can be considered by the local authority if it considers that an individual’s circumstances warrant assistance. We are looking at how this exemption will apply in universal credit and we will come back on that.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hayter, raised the issue of the non-resident parent. Making double provision for two homes would be an unreasonable use of taxpayers’ money. Around 10,000 such parents in shared accommodation have some contact with their children. That contact is not always overnight, so that figure would be smaller. It would be very difficult to police any kind of defined exemption here. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, lives in a different world from me if she thinks that she can get the children to do the washing up.
The noble Baroness’s amendment would provide protection to those who might arguably be in a better position to meet any shortfall, particularly if they had been in work. It would also seem unfair to those aged 25. The amendment would halve the savings we need to generate from this measure, which would then need to be found elsewhere. There really is only one option, which is to apply the shared accommodation rate within universal credit as intended. Given the short duration of most claims, I do not believe that the amendment is necessary.
We are committed to looking at the impacts of these changes and have commissioned an independent review and monitoring of extending the shared accommodation rate. This extensive evaluation will allow us to assess the long-term impacts on the under-35s and the availability of shared accommodation. As with all new policies, we shall continue to listen to any feedback that we receive on how this is working. I will not take this away for further consideration in this formal context, but I will of course be happy to sit down with her and discuss how her figures work outside that formal context. I hope that, in view of what I have said, the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.
I thank noble Lords for taking part. There are very real concerns, not just for women who are going into an HMO where there may be people who appear to them threatening, but also for those who appear to be the threatening ones, for whom it is also difficult. Both sides find this unacceptable. I am also grateful to my noble friends Lady Lister and Lady Hayter who helped to spell this out.
To some extent, the Minister missed our point. None of us has any problem whatever with people who choose to share. It is fine when you choose to share with people you know or when you have gone through an ad in the local paper and gone in to see them. It is fine if it is a salubrious flat and together you can pool your resources. Some may be in work, some may not, but you can manage the rent. That is fine. That is not what we are arguing about. We are arguing about someone who has lost their job and is in a one-bedroom flat for which they are currently able to pay. After 13 weeks, their HB expires and they are only entitled to LHA at a shared room rent. They are forced, against their will, to move into accommodation with strangers at the very same time as we are expecting them and needing them—and they want—to prioritise their search for a job. It is simply silly to undermine their work ethic and their work efforts. Instead, we are diverting and deflecting them into the search for a home which is safe, salubrious and affordable. This is silly and stupid, which is not a charge I would normally address to the Minister, because he is neither of those things.
On cost, I put it to the Minister that it would be reasonable to assume that a woman who had lost her job as, say, a secretary in a firm that had closed would get back to work within six months if her housing position was unaffected. If her housing situation was affected and she had to go in search of new accommodation, possibly ending up in another area, it might take her 12 months. That is not an unreasonable supposition; six months if we accept my amendment, 12 months in the existing situation. The cost of the extra three months of HB is £1,300, based on the assumption of an extra £100 a week. If, however, she did not spend a further six months on benefit, because she got back into work within six months as opposed to a year, she would save the DWP £3,900. Subtract those two, and the additional savings to the DWP, by supporting this amendment, for that one individual person, is £2,500, and that is before you get money from taxes and national insurance. Multiply that by, say, 15,000 people out of the group of 62,000 and the Government would save an additional £40 million. That is where the savings lie.
You can challenge my behavioural assumptions—that you go back to work within six months if you do not have to find another home and that it takes you 12 months if you do—but, from what I know in my city about how long it takes people to find work as the situation worsens, I do not think they are unreasonable. If the assumption is right, and 15,000 of that client group come into that category, the Government will save an additional £40 million, not halve the savings as the Minister suggested. That is nonsense on any behavioural assumptions. He is assuming that what he is doing will make no difference to people’s propensity or ability to come back into work. That is simply untrue, particularly as the economic situation gets worse, and he must know it. He can make savings from the amendment if he chooses to work it through further.
My final point is about safety. A member of my family was in a room in such a situation. There was thumping at his door and he opened it. This person in my family—who is six feet tall and strong—faced, as he opened the door, somebody who was naked with a knife in his hand. Do not tell me it cannot happen, because I know it has and it does. I therefore suggest, on grounds of decency, safety and cost effectiveness, that the Minister consider this amendment further, even if he is not willing to do so today. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 19 withdrawn.
20: Clause 11, page 5, line 29, at end insert—
“(6) Within one year of these regulations coming into force, an independent research review of their impact shall be laid before Parliament, and such a review to include the effects of such measures on the reduced incomes of social housing tenants and their families, the security of the rent roll of their social landlords, the depletion of tenants’ savings, levels of arrears, levels of eviction, any increased homelessness and use of temporary accommodation, the reduced prospects of pensioners for rehousing, and the likely availability of housing stock to meet the new underoccupancy standards, and related matters.”
My Lords, I will be very brief. The amendment indicates our very real concerns about the effect of all these cuts to housing benefit. We fear that if there is any reverse in our decision today on underoccupancy, housing associations will face mounting arrears, and spend more time and employ more staff chasing deficits in rent. As a result, there will be even less chance for those housing associations to build the new housing stock we badly need. I know the Minister thinks my fears are exaggerated. I hope he is right. The House has alleviated most of my concerns, but we cannot properly calculate the behavioural effect of all these changes on tenants. The Minister is evidence based—something we all welcome and respect—and he wants UC to work, as we do. I therefore hope that by the time the Bill has gone through its full passage in both Houses he will, if it is appropriate, find the resources to ensure that we have the research to undertake an independent review of its effects on tenants in social housing. Frankly, if we do not have that protection, I fear the worst. I beg to move.
I support the amendment. We already have up and running, thanks to the good work of the Minister, a really first-class piece of research looking at the impact of the housing benefit changes on families, poverty and a whole range of issues. I strongly congratulate him on taking that suggestion seriously and bringing forward a significant piece of research. It engaged a consortium of the top people at Oxford University, Sheffield Hallam University, Ipsos MORI polling and the IFS. I wondered whether that team might have its work somewhat extended to embrace the research suggested by the noble Baroness. It would not involve quite as much work because it would examine the 150,000 or so households that will now be affected by the underoccupancy arrangements. There is much important research to take place.
My Lords, I acknowledge and commend the contributions of the noble Baroness and the noble Lord to the debate on policy. Both of them, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Best, played an important role setting up the independent research that the department has already commissioned around the local housing allowance. More recently, as noble Lords are aware, we have announced research looking at direct payments in the social rented sector. However, I must complain bitterly at the improvement to the negotiating position of the consortium that the noble Lord mentioned. When we carry out research, we always have open competition and no one is favoured. We choose the best researchers.
I place real value on independent research. We need robust evaluation on the impact of welfare reform on housing provision. I know that we are taking some steps in housing benefit reform where we need to monitor the risks. I know that there are risks, and we have all discussed them. That is why proper research, considered properly and taken very seriously, is right at the heart of the protections that we are looking at in this area.
I fully support the intention behind this powerful amendment. I want to go on record as saying that. I can tell noble Lords that the department is currently in the process of planning its research programme for 2012-13 onwards, subject, I have to add, to available funding—and I hope that noble Lords do not take that away from me in other ways. I intend to cover the size criteria and underoccupancy in housing benefit. We are considering separately how to evaluate universal credit. Noble Lords will be aware of the constant-piloting clause that we approved in Committee, which provides for a radically new way of looking at this important benefits system.
All research commissioned by the department is published. I am sure that noble Lords will accept that it is not necessary to provide for this research in the Bill. I know that this is a probing amendment and we will look to providing this research at the right time. With those reassurances, I hope that the amendment can be withdrawn.
I am grateful to the Minister and to our noble colleague—I was going to say our noble friend—the noble Lord, Lord Best. If I may say so, the Minister enhances an already high reputation by his openness to the information that will come from research. We should give him credit for that and I am very grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
21: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Payment of housing costs
(1) This section applies to payments of the housing cost element of the universal credit.
(2) Payment of the housing costs element of the universal credit must be made to a person’s landlord where that person has requested or consented to such payment in agreement with their landlord.
(3) Regulations made by the Secretary of State may prescribe the circumstances in which subsection (2) does not apply.
(4) Regulations made by the Secretary of State shall prescribe the person who is to be treated as the landlord for the purposes of this section and shall make provision as to the discharge of liability consequent upon the making of any payments to the landlord.”
My Lords, the amendment relates to the payment of help with housing costs—at present in housing benefit and later as the housing cost element of universal credit. The Minister has announced that in future the payment for rent must go directly to the tenant, not, as is possible at present, to the landlord. The amendment preserves the current option for the tenant to choose that the rent should be paid straight to the landlord where the tenant thinks that that will help with their budgeting and housekeeping.
When I introduced a similar amendment in Committee, I pointed out that private landlords were already often very reluctant to take on tenants in receipt of housing benefit or local housing allowance. However, where the benefit is paid straight to the landlord, thereby minimising the chances of arrears, the reluctance of landlords can be much reduced. There is backing for the amendment from the private sector—the Residential Landlords Association, the British Property Federation and others. There is also backing from social landlords. This morning at the LGA, I addressed a conference on housing finance and was surprised at how strongly local authorities expressed their view that the direct payment of rent to tenants would lead to arrears and difficulties for councils in handling housing accounts. The amendment is also strongly supported by those who represent tenants—residents in the rented sector. Associations of residents in social Housing—TARAs—Shelter, Crisis and others are right behind the amendment, not least because surveys have shown that a high proportion of tenants would wish for their rent money to go to the landlord.
The Government have agreed that this choice will be available to those of pension age. This amendment would extend that possibility to make this kind of sensible choice available to all tenants. The housing associations organised a pilot of their own in which they experimented to see how things worked out when rent was paid directly to the tenant. They found that arrears increased from 3 per cent to 7 per cent. If that was applicable generally, the cost to the housing association sector would be some £320 million a year in additional arrears. Local authorities have a similar stock of social housing which would double the figure to some £640 million a year. Housing associations also discovered that their administrative costs were very much higher when the rent did not come straight to the landlord in the form of housing benefit or—in future—the housing element of universal credit. The extra costs on administration for that are estimated at £100 million.
If housing associations face those kinds of costs, the hazard is that lenders will not be so keen to lend to them. The Council of Mortgage Lenders is in favour of the amendment, as are the individual lenders, because they worry that housing associations will get into difficulties if they do not get the rent that they need. The Minister has set up some important pilot schemes to test ways of assisting tenants to handle the money provided for rent, and new arrangements for low-cost banking may be developed in the months and years ahead. However, the Minister undertook to look further at the option of giving more vulnerable tenants the right to choose to have their rent paid to the landlord. I know that he has been considering how a fast-track arrangement might be implemented to switch the payment of rent from tenant to landlord when arrears are mounting.
These changes would be useful but they do not address the fundamental problem. Surely the best approach is to continue to give tenants the right to choose to have their help with housing costs paid directly to their landlord, and not to give them the temptations which are bound to be placed in their path if sums, perhaps in the region of £500 or £700 a month, were paid to them, and possibly used to satisfy the requirements of loan sharks and less salubrious lenders and creditors, rather than paid to their landlord. Can we not preserve the existing right of tenants to choose to be assisted in their budgeting? I beg to move.
My Lords, having listened to that explanation from my noble friend Lord Best, I have been completely converted to this approach. I certainly appreciate that the Minister is trying to educate people better to take care of their own finances, but the choice already exists for the individual tenant to decide whether to pay for themselves or to opt in to a system which is, from what we have heard, more satisfactory and reassuring to the landlord—whether a local authority or whoever. As all of us in this House are beginning to get a little older and, sometimes, a little forgetful, perhaps that is a helpful thought for later, when we get even more forgetful about things such as paying our rent.
All I am saying is that this sounds the better way to do things. I am all for running courses to help people to cope better with their finances, but from the point of view of not wasting money, this is clearly a way forward.
My Lords, I would prefer housing benefit to be part of UC and to be paid to the tenant, because I think that that strengthens UC and makes it easier for one simple calculation to be made for the family. However, I support the amendment because, until the Government have rock-solid arrangements in place to ensure that the rent element in UC is immediately paid to the landlord, both tenant and landlord will, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, suffer.
Why would the tenant suffer? He may have to pay transaction costs. If it is looped through his bank account and there are any outstanding overdrafts, debts, or whatever, his UC, including the housing element, will be top-sliced. That is when there is no temptation to spend it on other things. I checked with my housing association. Even with direct debits from tenants in work, those direct debits go astray—deliberately or otherwise—and intensive work has to be done in housing management to reconstruct them again. Tenants can risk losing their home if rent payments are not made automatically to their landlord. For some tenants, that will be a real struggle. If tenants wish to have their rent paid directly to their landlord, but that choice is being denied them, they will suffer.
Why will the landlord suffer? Arrears will undoubtedly arise. I have doubled the amount in my housing association accounts because of potential arrears that I suspect will follow from this change, as have other housing associations. We will then also have to increase staff resources to try to collect those arrears. Private landlords, already reluctant to take DWP tenants, will certainly refuse. One reason for extending direct payments in the first place was to make it a more attractive option for landlords in the private sector, who have been notoriously reluctant since the 1950s to make accommodation available. They used to say, “No Irish, no blacks, no DSS, no dogs”. Versions of that scrutiny, that winnowing out, I fear regrettably still apply.
Ultimately, landlords may need to face evicting tenants. As many of those who cannot manage their money will be vulnerable, they may or may not be regarded as intentionally homeless. If they have children, they are a real problem for all parties, including social services.
Furthermore, housing associations, including mine, are seeking to raise money from private sources, from banks—even, we hope, from pension funds, which is under negotiation at the moment—for building programmes. Our asset is the security of our rent roll. If tenants instead have money paid to them which is not rock-solidly paid immediately to the housing association or the local authority, that rock-solid asset base will no longer be as valued. We estimate that the proposal will cost us something like 50 base points extra on all the loans we raise. We become a worse risk and, as a result, fewer homes will be built. An amendment putting the decision in the hands of not the DWP or landlords but in the hands of tenants is surely the right way forward.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best, from a slightly different perspective, and repeat what I said in Grand Committee. In Grand Committee, I congratulated the Government on their research, Perceptions on Welfare Reform and Universal Credit, which sounded out various stakeholders about what they thought about some of the reforms. One thing that came from that from people who will be affected was that although they welcomed the one-stop shop approach of universal credit—to the extent that it is a one-stop shop—there were real fears about putting all the eggs in one basket. If all the money goes together in one lump sum, if anything goes wrong, people are left insecure—high and dry. If some of the rent payment is going to the landlord, where the tenant wishes it, that is mitigated. That is why that choice should remain
Not expressed in this research but by a number of outside organisations is the worry about what happens to the money in the family. I know that the Minister argues that budgeting accounts will sort this out. I hope that they will, but I think that he knows that I am still slightly sceptical about the magical powers of the budgetary accounts. There are fears that the money may not be paid into the account of the person responsible for paying the rent and that they may not then have control over how the money is spent by their partner. That is a slightly different perspective from that of the noble Lord, Lord Best, who understandably and powerfully is relaying some of the concerns about housing providers, but we have to think about the extra burden that this might be placing on some families.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Best, has made a powerful case. He made it very gently but forcefully. I was also struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, said. As one who held MPs’ surgeries for about 40 years and saw people come in who were often in considerable distress, I know that it is not just the feckless who get into financial trouble. Many decent people get into financial trouble. The ability to say that this money should go direct to the landlord could be of enormous help to someone who suddenly has a sick child and feels that they must spend the money on that child. If the money has gone to the landlord, the landlord is secure and the tenant is secure. That must surely be wholly desirable.
Those of us who have been constituency Members of Parliament know how difficult it is to persuade private landlords to consider tenants in this general category. We need an abundant supply of privately rented accommodation. Anything that may detract from that is to be regretted.
I admire my noble friend, because he is thoroughly the master of his brief and because his underlying aim, which is to create a more responsible society, is one to which we can, surely, all subscribe, but there are exceptions and times when it is right to give a choice.
Another point, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, made, struck a chord with me. There are many elderly people in receipt of benefit who get confused. I am not talking about people who suffer from dementia, but we all know—the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, knows from his constituency experience—that elderly people sometimes get confused. They think, very genuinely, that they have paid something when they have not. It would be a great blessing to give those people that choice.
I would urge my noble friend the Minister to give very careful thought to this. I hope that the House will not divide on it tonight, but I hope that he will be able to give some thought perhaps even to putting down an appropriate amendment at Third Reading.
My Lords, dinner beckons. Nevertheless, there are seven good reasons for accepting this amendment.
First, it is cost free. The facility to pay rent directly to landlords is there for certain beneficiaries, so it would simply be a case of using this for others.
Secondly, it helps to give financial responsibility and decision-making to claimants, as it would allow them to choose to have the rent paid in this way.
Thirdly, it is what the rest of us do with our mortgages or rent: it goes straight out of our bank accounts, normally the day after payday—in my case, usually the same day—so that we cannot get our hands on it in the mean time. The difference is, of course, that many of these claimants do not have bank accounts, or a joint bank account if they are a couple, and therefore do not have the ability to make such arrangements for direct payments. Furthermore, if they have a basic bank account, such accounts cannot go into the red, and so if there is not money to pay the rent, it simply will not be paid, even with a direct debit mandate, leading to the build-up of arrears.
Fourthly, this amendment is strongly supported, as has been said, by housing associations and by local authorities. Both know that arrears will build up more quickly without this amendment. For housing associations, the interest on borrowing will increase as their assured-rent income will decrease. To give the example of one housing association, 85 per cent of Riverside tenants choose to have their rent paid directly, as many of its tenants do not have bank accounts, and many more fear the bank charges if they go overdrawn. This is an important way for low-income households to manage their finances. If this existing facility is withdrawn, pilot studies show that, as has already been mentioned, rent arrears are likely to rise sharply, putting tenancies at risk. In addition, funders have indicated that they are likely to regard lending to housing associations as higher risk and thus to increase the cost of funding. In the long term, it will mean that social housing providers will simply be able to do less. Income streams to local authorities will similarly be threatened if direct payments, which exist now without any problems, are ended. CoSLA, the association for local authorities in Scotland, estimates that this will cost about £50 million a year in Scotland alone.
Fifthly, many vulnerable families will be at risk. To quote again from CoSLA:
“COSLA is deeply concerned that Housing Benefit paid direct to claimants without sufficient safeguards will result in an increase of rent arrears and evictions, sending households spiralling into debt and facing homelessness”.
We know the families for which the risk of not paying the rent directly will be the greatest: those with debts, where the pressure to pay these off—whether to the gasman or to the loan shark—will be pressing; those with a family member with a drink, drug or gambling habit, where temptation to use the rent money will be high; and those with immediate demands, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has said, for money to feed their children and yet who want to ensure that the roof over those children’s heads, albeit not today’s problem, is equally vital, so want to have that rent assured. While we know some vulnerable groups will have their rent paid directly, we can see no reason to wait until borderline cases get into problems, struggle and get into rent arrears, before we allow them to have the rent paid directly. Why risk that for no good reason?
Sixthly, it will make sure that we do not dissuade private landlords from coming into this sector.
Seventhly, the strongest argument: the noble Lord, Lord Best, who chairs the Local Government Association and has forgotten more about housing associations than most of us will ever learn, tells us it is the right thing to do. We concur.
My Lords, my intention is to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Best, so that he withdraws his amendment. I start by trying to convince the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and my noble friend Lord Cormack of the reason why we are doing this. It is not an arbitrary thing. We are not doing it because we want to annoy housing associations or local authorities. We are doing it for a very simple reason. If you are a tenant in social housing whose housing benefit goes straight through to the landlord and you take a job, all your arrangements for paying for your housing have to change. It is a major change in your arrangements and a real block on you taking the job. It is a major thing for you to organise, and you have to learn, when you take that first job and your housing benefit goes down within universal credit—because that is the change—that the money no longer goes through automatically to the landlord.
We have to break that link. It has to be the same arrangement whether you are working or not working. We deliberately excluded pension-age people from this because we are not expecting them to work. We do not need to worry about the people who find it difficult to work. It is working-age people who we want to go into work.
I listen to the Minister’s passion—“We have to do this, we have to do this”—and I find myself thinking that that would be fine if we were in normal circumstances and the benefits were not changing but were pretty much going on as they always have, and people were not going to be facing major drops in their benefit levels or having to adjust to having to move because of all sorts of rules about underoccupancy or because of the tying of benefits to the consumer prices index and so on. There are so many ways in which people on benefits are going to be losing—that is the context—and this is not the time to be determined to bring all these people into line with people in work. Can we not wait until things are stable and then maybe introduce the rather nice idea of bringing these two groups together?
The answer to that is very simple: the universal credit will, each year, inject an extra £4 billion into the pockets of the poorest people. That is what the universal credit does. It will start coming in in 2013-17, when hopefully the laws of the business cycle will still be working and we can expect an upturn at some stage. As we move into that situation, the concern will be what happens to the universal credit. This measure is for universal credit. It does not stand outside it.
I apologise for interrupting again, but £4 billion is surely a tiny amount relative to the losses in projected benefits. This huge budget would normally go up very extensively each year, would it not? I do not have all the numbers in my head, but £4 billion in a tiny fraction of the actual real losses in benefit that people are going to face.
Absolutely not; £4 billion is a very substantial figure. Over the course of this SR, we are looking at a loss of £18 billion spread over the four-year period. The noble Baroness can do the sums. The most important thing about universal credit is that the money goes into the pockets of the lowest two quintiles very efficiently. I contend that the noble Baroness’s argument is not a real argument.
My Lords, if I understand the Minister correctly, he is saying that this is all part of getting people off benefits and into work, which we absolutely support. However, this will also cover those people who are never going to work—those in the support group—as well as people with young children who are not in work for some time. Therefore, we are not talking only about people who are on the cusp; even those people will lose the right to have their rent paid directly.
No, my Lords. We have made it absolutely clear that we expect those who are vulnerable to continue to have payments made directly to the landlord. Indeed, in the private rented sector, where this process has already been in place and has worked rather well, 80 per cent of people pay their landlord directly, and 20 per cent are regarded as vulnerable and have a payment made directly to the landlord. That is how it works there. At the moment in the social rented sector, 95 per cent have direct payments and 5 per cent pay the landlord themselves. Therefore, there is a real disparity there.
I want to provide some reassurance for noble Lords who think that this is a draconian measure. I need to explain to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that we are doing this for a real reason. It is not arbitrary; it is intended to make sure that there are no artificial barriers for people who would stay in the comfort zone of not working. We need to make it easier for them to make that transition, and that is one thing that we are doing. This will empower people and allow them to manage their finances.
I shall now come to the reassurance factors, which I hope will have noble Lords nodding happily on the Benches. I am determined that, while we introduce this system, the housing sector will remain financially stable. I talk regularly to banks and to rating agencies in particular about what we need to do to make that happen. I am absolutely convinced that we can have our welfare cake—the transformative cake—and financial stability for the housing sector. I shall do nothing that undermines the security of the housing sector in this area. I absolutely understand that this country needs more housing, and it would be madness for us to undermine that ambition.
I completely understand the two imperatives here. We are working closely with local authorities and housing associations in running half a dozen demonstration projects, which are designed to find out exactly how to make direct support payments for housing costs so that they work with universal credit. I have been incredibly pleased that the industry has shown real enthusiasm for taking part in these demonstration projects, with no fewer than 70 different groups looking to join in. During the selection process, we have been delighted at how much choice we have had, and we are finding out what is going to work to get the two things that we need. These demonstration projects will allow us to identify those who are likely to struggle financially. The projects are testing not whether we should introduce direct payments but how to support landlords and tenants ahead of the scheme being introduced. The important part is to get the safeguards operating properly. We need to see when people are not able to handle the system and switch payments to the landlords, and then find out how to recoup the money over the period when landlords do not have it so that their security of income is locked into the system. That is what we are trying to find out here.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned the London & Quadrant research, and we are aiming to apply that to the demonstration projects. It shows the importance of communications. Clearly, we want to improve the outcome and throw out the doubling of arrears.
I have talked before about how to support people—a matter raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hollis. We need to get proper banking products into the system. At least one thing that we need is a simple direct debit system. The money should flow in and out on the same day so that the example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, works. We do not want a gap there, and we must be able to manage that. The point is that if we can manage it with a banking product, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, suggested, then people can float off from benefit dependency into the world of work without—
I speak as someone who is rather preoccupied with financial inclusion. The Minister is describing a process, but if there is a product—a bank account—that works for low-income or unemployed people and the account is in debt, how does one know that the bank will pay the direct debit? Can he be confident that it will pay if there is a deficit in that account?
My noble friend is trying to be helpful and I appreciate that very much. Is he saying that this amount of money that is earmarked for paying the rent will be used for paying the rent and for nothing else, and that, unless he is assured that he has the product that will deliver that, he will not move in this direction?
I am saying that we are working really hard with the banks and the banking community to make sure that we have an escrow arrangement of that nature, and we are doing this at several levels. We can have a general agreement, which I shall discuss with the banks as a whole, to provide a generalised protection. However, I am quite interested in getting particular banking products that will provide a simple bank account and elaborating on what could be a new level of support for some of the poorest people in our community. We have a one-off chance with universal credit to ramp up support for the poorer people in our community, and we are putting a lot of energy into achieving that. I have talked about this before. It is one of the hidden gains that we can get out of the introduction of this new system. Rather than people living on drips of money from here and there, we can really start to help them, supporting them in managing their finances and getting true independence. This is a core part of what we are going to be doing with universal credit, and part of that relates to housing. Housing will be a major part of people’s total income stream. We are not doing this for fun or to annoy anyone; this is absolutely part of what we are trying to do with universal credit.
I need to deal with one other point—the issue of safeguards raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. We are concerned about the safety and welfare of claimants and, where we have a concern, we need to put direct payments in place. There are vulnerable groups who are not able to manage the potential freedoms, and for them we will make sure that we go on with existing arrangements for direct payments.
We have commissioned a consortium led by Professor Paul Hickman—I am sorry, but this is a bit of an announcement late at night—from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University to evaluate the effects of direct payments to claimants in the six demonstration project areas, which I shall announce soon. The other key team members are Dr Kesia Reeve, Peter Kemp of the Oxford Institute of Social Policy, and Stephen Finlay from Ipsos MORI, names that I know that the noble Lord, Lord Best, approves of. That will give us a cumulative understanding of the impacts of direct payments and inform the detail of delivery under universal credit.
Research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2007, Paying Housing Benefit to Claimants, on both private and social tenants’ experiences of and their hypothetical attitude toward the management of their own housing benefit confirms that a significant proportion of social tenants have the potential to manage their own housing benefit payments. We will also have an advisory group for the demonstration projects and a wide range of local government, money advice, voluntary sector and other external stakeholders who will be invited to join that group.
We had a slight exchange about what “choice” means and we have been teasing each other about the imbalance of power when you have choice. It concerns us that while there is theoretical choice today, only 5 per cent of people take it. As it stands, tenant choice does not go far enough, which is why I am concerned about it. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Best, will accept that we are making incredible efforts here to be transformative and not to undermine the housing sector, and on that basis will feel that there is enough going on for him to withdraw this amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all of those who have joined this debate. I am sure that we all feel much reassured by the passion that the Minister brings to this subject and by the genuine efforts that he is making to see that the behavioural change that he wants is triggered and that the disadvantages of going down this route are mitigated. The excellent research that he is announcing tonight—and I thank him very much for it—might show that it is not possible for only 20 per cent of the tenants within the social sector to be regarded as vulnerable and to have their rent paid directly and that there is a rather larger number.
However, I think the Minister is keeping an open mind as to what proportion of the sector will get their rent paid directly, and I greatly welcome him saying how much he is concerned not to undermine the social housing sector, the production of new homes, the sector’s lending and the security of income within that sector. If those discussions with bankers fail and the products do not materialise, we must place our faith in the Minister and hope that he will recognise that the difficulties still exist and that rent direct to the landlord is going to be necessary for a larger proportion of people. On that basis, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.54 pm.