Motion to Approve
That the draft Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2012 laid before the House on 28 June be approved.
Relevant documents: 6th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 7th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Considered in Grand Committee on 15 October.
My Lords, we have already conducted a debate on these regulations in Committee and I am under no illusion about the strength of feeling that many noble Lords have on this measure. Clearly we have been through the issue thoroughly as we went through the Bill. We went through that a number of times. The Commons gave us a response and noble Lords will remember that at the conclusion of those debates I proposed undertaking some research to make sure that we understood the impact of this measure. On that basis in the Bill process it was decided not to proceed any further.
Let me summarise some of the main issues. We are not introducing this change lightly. There are a number of important principles behind this reform. There is a major financial imperative behind it; there is a compelling argument for reining in housing benefit expenditure and spending more generally. I know that many noble Lords do not disagree with the need to bring spending under control, but would no doubt wish to find a saving of £500 million a year from somewhere else. The question is, exactly where from? I have not yet heard any clear alternative for finding this kind of saving. That is why it would be quite wrong for the Government to backtrack on this measure now.
Another reason for this reform is that we believe that it will result in more efficient use of social housing stock over time, which in turn should help us to tackle some of the overcrowding. At the very least I hope that noble Lords agree that we need to do everything we can to improve the way that we use our housing stock. Doing nothing is not an option, not when we are paying for something approaching one million extra bedrooms for those affected by this measure and when there are more than a quarter of a million households living in overcrowded conditions in the social rented sector in England. In 2010 we inherited the highest level of overcrowding in the social rented sector since the published data began in 1993, with 7.1% of those households in England living in overcrowded accommodation. That is a fact we cannot ignore.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has asserted that this measure will risk costing more than it will save. Even if some people move—the Housing Futures Network research suggests that around 25% of people might move—that does not mean that we will not save money.
Where a claimant moves to smaller accommodation, it is important to consider the bigger picture rather than to look at just that one household. Even where a claimant moves into the private rented sector, that frees up accommodation in the social rented sector that can be relet to other families needing that accommodation. The relet may still generate housing benefit savings if, for example, the property is offered to claimants who would otherwise be renting privately or who were currently placed in more expensive temporary accommodation. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
As an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert “but this House regrets that the measures under the draft Regulations to introduce size criteria restrictions to the calculation of housing benefit for working age claimants living in the social rented sector are blunt and take no account of whether alternative accommodation is available; will result in cuts to the incomes of some of the poorest in society; fail to provide sufficient safeguards to protect the most vulnerable claimants and ensure that they are not pushed into poverty and homelessness; will not achieve their aim of tackling under-occupancy; and will risk costing more than they will save.”
My Lords, for many people who are out of work, disabled or on low incomes, housing benefit is a crucial safety net and a vital support to help pay the bills at the end of the month. I am moving this Motion of Regret at the measures to introduce size criteria restrictions in the calculation of housing benefit for working-age claimants living in the social rented sector because we see this as a very important issue.
It is but one of the changes to housing support introduced by the coalition which overall will result in around 2 million households receiving lower benefits. The National Audit Office tabulates the range of losses as running on average from £5 a week for those affected by the CPI uprating of local housing allowance to £91 a week for those affected by the overall benefit cap. The size criteria restrictions—called the bedroom tax by the noble Lord, Lord Best—are estimated by the DWP to affect 660,000 claimants with an average weekly loss of £14. Most underoccupy, as defined, by just one bedroom with the average weekly benefit loss being £12. Half of those affected will lose between £10 and £15 per week. Of those affected, 390,000 will be local authority tenants and 270,000 will be housing association tenants. Alarmingly, 420,000 of the households contain a family member with a disability. Noble Lords will recall the extensive and intense debates on this issue and the strong views expressed by your Lordships’ House in opposing these measures. The Minister referred to them a moment ago.
The overriding issue is fairness. The arguments have not changed and will not go away. Hundreds of thousands of tenants have been penalised for the circumstances in which they find themselves, with no ready means, for most of them, to mitigate what is perceived to be their alleged offence. Of course we recognise the need to deal with the deficit, but it is who you choose to bear the burden that is at issue here. In an era when we are producing tax cuts for millionaires, we are asking 660,000 of the poorest people in our country to bear a cut of £14 a week. Most people deemed to underoccupy will not have a smaller alternative property to which they can move. All housing benefit claimants of working age considered to have spare bedrooms will see their benefit cut by 14% for one extra bedroom and 25% for two or more extra bedrooms. The reality is that this is not a serious attempt to address underoccupancy but is about cutting people’s benefit.
Of course underoccupancy must be addressed. We agree with the Minister on that. Many councils have imaginative schemes to do so for the elderly, who are not affected by these regulations, as well as for working-age tenants. The DWP’s own impact assessment is clear that there is a mismatch between household size and the availability of suitable houses in the social sector for underoccupying claimants to downsize to. The NAO’s report reached the same conclusion, noting that there is a mismatch between need and availability. Modelling by the National Housing Federation found that while 180,000 social tenants in England are underoccupying two-bedroom houses, only 85,000 one-bedroom social homes became available for letting in 2011-12. It concludes that the lack of mobility in the sector is not a product of tenants needlessly underoccupying larger homes but rather of the logjam created by a national shortage of affordable homes.
What choices do tenants have if they are to avoid the benefit hit? The Government say that they can make up the shortfall by using their other income or their savings, which is the same argument we heard in relation to the benefit cap. Is this really living in the real world? What level of savings do the Government think these families may have? An alternative is that tenants can move into work or work longer hours. This is notwithstanding that many are not, under the stringent rules that apply to conditionality, required to be available for or seeking work. For those who are, it presupposes that they are not already trying to, that the current claimant obligations are somehow deficient and that the level of support available via the work programme is not helping them. As for taking in a lodger, for many, this will be an unworkable and unreasonable option putting the safety and privacy of the family at risk.
The alternative is to take the hit or move to accommodation that better suits the current size of the household, assuming that it is a stable size. But where? It is not very likely in the social rented sector, where there is not only a shortage of supply but, as has been identified, a dearth of one and two-bedroom properties. A move to the private rented sector would inevitably lead to higher rents and higher benefits. There would be no certainty of that being cancelled out, as I think the Minister suggested, by a move in the opposite direction to a cheaper area, but given the allocation policies of local authorities, that is likely to be only in the private rented sector.
The Housing Futures Network found that 50% of claimants would not be likely to move home when they were faced with a cut. Over one-third considered that they would be likely to run into arrears, so we have a certain recipe for driving the poor into greater poverty and debt. We have seen the now-familiar tactic of the bit extra in the discretionary housing payment fund each year, albeit funded by bumping up the percentage reductions for underoccupancy. While this will undoubtedly give some help where the properties of disabled claimants have been subject to significant adaptations and to foster carers between placements, it should be compared with the annual cut of half a billion pounds that the Treasury is seeking.
A review of the consequences of this is right, but it will not help with the misery that these provisions will cause in the mean time. The discretionary housing payment fund has a fixed budget and is having to cover an increasing range of circumstances, as we discussed on the benefit cap when my noble friend Lady Lister referred to it as “the loaves and fishes” concept. We challenge whether it is an appropriate or sufficient method to deal with disability issues. The DWP’s equality impact assessment shows the disproportionate effect the size criteria measure will have on the 420,000 sick and disabled tenants. An additional £25 million of discretionary housing payment for tenants whose homes have been adapted will undoubtedly be challenged as being insufficient mitigation, and rightly so. It is not a reliable safeguard against rent arrears, evictions and homelessness for chronically sick and disabled tenants.
True to form, the Government seek to offer some justification for this approach by juxtaposition with some other group, in this case, those in the private rented sector. As we have heard, the argument goes that private rented sector claimants receive housing benefit for accommodation based on the reasonable needs of their household, while in the social rented sector, it is based on the accommodation that they occupy. This is not comparing like with like. The nature of the tenancies is different and, in any event, when tenants are first placed in accommodation in the social rented sector, it would typically have regard to the size of the family. The reality is that household composition and need can change over time. The changes may not be permanent. Families grow with children and reduce as children fly the nest. The logic of underoccupation provision is that each change should drive a change of home; what a nonsense. It is a back-door way of undermining security of tenure in the social rented sector.
The National Housing Federation is deeply concerned that no flexibility has been given to social rented sector landlords to define whether a property is underoccupied. For example, if a home has a double bedroom and two box rooms, according to the regulations it would be underoccupied if a couple and two children were living in it, despite the reality being that the home is fully used. If the landlord reclassifies the property as a two-bedroom unit, it would lose money, which simply does not seem right. This is just another anomaly of the system.
This is a grotesque experiment in behavioural economics. The department has no idea how tenants will react, and the Government do not seem to care. Indeed, they hope that tenants will sit tight and take the hit because that way the Treasury maximises its saving. It is a callous piece of public policy that will put people into debt, drive increased homelessness and fracture communities, and we should have none of it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend in his amendment. I agree with him fully that the new regulations before us are unfair to vulnerable people. They are being introduced at a time of a housing crisis that is particularly acute in places such as London. The situation in London is that rents are too high and wages are too low. The right to buy was fine for some, but it reduced the number of social homes available for rent. The social homes should have been replaced but, of course, that did not happen. Now local authorities are already looking to acquire premises for alternative social housing, often on sites very many miles away from where the individuals concerned are actually living and where they have some sort of support. This would be particularly difficult for people who are disabled, for disabled people require the support services that are often where they happen to live. It is quite unfair that they should be placed in the position of having to worry about future housing.
As far as London is concerned, my own neighbourhood has a particularly acute situation. When I first moved to West Hampstead, the area in which I now live, it adjoined Kilburn and was never regarded as a very posh area. Unfortunately that is no longer the case. The rents now being charged are absolutely enormous, and I do not understand how ordinary working people can be expected to afford them. It is quite common for large houses to be converted into one-bedroom flats, and the landlords charge as much as £500 a week for a one-bedroom flat. That is the kind of area and range of accommodation that is available in the area, and I do not see how working people on very low incomes can possibly afford it.
As for underoccupancy, quite frankly domestic circumstances for people change. Children move away; sometimes, nowadays, they move back because they cannot find anywhere to live. There are people who require support because they are ill. Sometimes they die. Domestically the whole situation changes for people, and it is unfortunate that they should be placed in the position of worrying, every time there is a domestic change, about what is going to happen to their living accommodation. It really is quite unsatisfactory.
As for general housing, I well remember what the situation was like at the end of the war—I am old enough to remember that. There was an acute social housing crisis because a lot of London had been bombed and there was no accommodation available. So what did the then Labour Government and the subsequent Governments do at that time? They had a very bold policy of social housing that was radically put up; we used to call these houses prefabs, and some of them are still in existence. There was a set of regulations that involved rent tribunals. In those days, if you were overcharged, you could go to a rent tribunal and your rent would be reduced. That meant that you could go on living in your accommodation. If you were concerned about it, the rent tribunal had the final say about what the rent should be. That meant that your rent had some relationship to the general level of wages, and therefore people were able to go on living in their homes because they had legislation to support them.
In my view the situation in London is so serious and so dire that the Government should be looking at something rather like that, because unless you can do something about the level of rents that are being charged, those people are not going to be able to afford to live in London at all; and that is a ridiculous situation. I hope that the Government will think seriously about what has been said this evening, in particular about what my noble friend has had to say in his amendment, which I fully support.
My Lords, there is a logic, if a rather cold one, in suggesting that those on housing benefit should not be supported from the public purse if they live in homes larger than they need. However, as we have already heard, it is the lack of availability of alternative accommodation in reasonable proximity that may make this proposal so socially disruptive and prompts me to support this amendment.
If, as we are told, 660,000 households will be affected, a great many people might be on the move. A couple in middle life whose children have left home would be entitled to only one bedroom, although they may have lived in their rented home for many years. There would be no room for an adult child to return after a failed relationship, which then creates a greater burden on much-needed housing. It would be tough on those in their 50s in this situation when their pensioner neighbours would be excluded from the reach of this regulation. Households such as this will be given a stark choice: move to a smaller home or take a substantial cut in housing benefit—on average, £14 a week. Housing associations are telling us that even if people want to move, there is not sufficient housing stock of the right size to enable them to do so. In practice, tenants will mostly have no choice but to remain in their own home and cover the shortfall out of their other income; this on top of reductions in council tax benefit and rising fuel prices.
A significant proportion of those who will be affected have become single because of the breakdown of relationships and, in many cases, the removal of their children elsewhere. They want to see them regularly. What looks like unoccupied space in the house is very important to them. Many single people rely on the local social networks that they have built over the years. That is where they find such stability as they can. A job, even a poorly paid, part-time one, may be lost and not replaced. Depression may set in. Alcohol or drug abuse may compensate for loneliness. Social disruption has economic consequences. While the housing budget may reduce, other budgets may rise. Worst of all, those affected may think that they are not treated as being of much value in our society. A loss of human dignity has a great many social and spiritual consequences. We save a bit of money, perhaps, but we are a lot worse off in all sorts of other ways.
What concerns me is that that will not be simply an urban problem. In rural areas the possibilities of alternative accommodation are even scarcer, the disruption greater, and the harm to diverse social networks larger. The Christian charity Housing Justice estimates that between 25% and 30% of rural social housing tenants will be affected.
One reason why rural deprivation is so hidden in our small villages, hamlets and settlements is that they often have the very wealthy, the vulnerable and those living on benefits living in close proximity, even in small numbers. That is one of the reasons why rural England is comparatively socially healthy. People in rural areas often cope with smaller incomes than their urban counterparts, while the cost of rural living is actually higher. They live more simply, even if their accommodation is a bit larger than seems logical to someone devising a system in a government department. It would be a tragedy to undermine all this, and I believe that the potential cost to our social fabric, especially in rural areas, could be very large indeed.
My Lords, we have heard some powerful speeches in support of the amendment. I take us back to the debate in Grand Committee on 15 October and what the Minister had to say:
“A lot of people will decide that they will have enough money or that they will be able to take in a lodger or take extra work. Those are the kind of decisions that we expect to happen in the marketplace”.—[Official Report, 15/10/12; col. GC 485.]
How many of us think of our homes as the marketplace or the decisions that we make around our homes as market decisions? We are not just talking about bricks and mortar; we are talking about the homes that people live in and the local roots that nourish them. The Minister made it sound so simple, saying that people will decide whether they have “enough money”; we are talking by definition about people on a low income, as my noble friend Lord McKenzie said. Or, the Minister says, they can “take in a lodger”; my noble friend has explained why that is not always appropriate. Or, the Minister says, they can find “extra work”; that is not so easy, either to get a job or increase one’s hours.
According to the National Audit Office report, one-third of households surveyed by Housing Future expect to fall into arrears as a result of this policy. According to Citizens Advice, other debts are likely to increase because, initially at least, people will try to prioritise their rent. Yet the Minister made no mention of debt or arrears as a likely solution, if that is a solution, even though debt is identified by the Government as a primary cause of poverty. One thing that we discussed in Grand Committee was the disproportionate impact of this policy on disabled people. There is evidence about the particular effects on disabled people of debt, and how debt can itself create mental health problems.
I come back to a point that I made earlier, and I have made before. I know that I probably sound like a broken record, but I refer to the impact on social networks when people move as a result of this policy—to people’s lives and to their being able to find work. Often lone mothers can use those networks for childcare, and so forth. The Minister mentioned the evaluation that will take place, which I welcome. In our last gasp, when we were discussing the then Welfare Reform Bill and this provision, the Minister committed that the monitoring would include the impact on social networks. In every subsequent reference that I have seen to that monitoring, I have not seen a mention of that, so I would be very grateful if the Minister could recommit this evening that that monitoring will include the impact on social networks.
On discretionary housing payments, I will not labour the loaves and fishes point any further, but I would instead like to quote from the National Audit Office report that came out last week, which says:
“It is not clear how the current level of funding for Discretionary Housing Payments has been determined or whether it is likely to be sufficient for local authorities in tackling the impacts of reforms. The £390 million of funding over the Spending Review period represents around six per cent of the total £6.4 billion savings expected from Housing Benefit reforms during this period. This works out at around £200 per household affected … There is also no established process for reviewing the level of funding for Discretionary Housing Payments over time. For example there is no mechanism to assess whether the overall funding amount should change to reflect higher claimant numbers. Uncertainty about the basis for future funding in part reflects the fact that the Department is still reviewing how to provide support for housing as a result of broader welfare reforms … Monitoring of how payments are made by local authorities would improve the Department’s understanding of local need. At the moment monitoring is limited”.
I would be grateful if the Minister could tell your Lordships’ House what the department’s response is to those observations from the National Audit Office.
Letters have already been going out to people who are likely to be affected by this policy, and it is striking fear into their hearts. It is a mean-minded policy that shows scant concern for the lives of those affected—and, as the right reverend Prelate put it, shows no concern for the dignity of those affected. Human dignity is at the heart of human rights.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, attributes the phrase “bedroom tax” to me, so I take responsibility for this—because it is a tax. It is not about trying to ensure that people are allocated to the property that best suits their needs; it is about raising money and reducing the deficit. We all understand about deficit reduction. Where we differ on this is whether people on the lowest incomes should be contributing to that deficit reduction with what is in effect a tax. It is a payment, which the tenant makes out of their benefits—out of the other benefits they receive, such as disability living allowance, income support or child benefits. It goes to government; that is where the payment ends up, and it reduces the deficit. That is a perfectly valid objective, but I and others maintain that it should not be at the expense of people who are living on the very lowest incomes at present.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, attributed the underlying problem to the shortage of accommodation, which then means that rents are much higher than one would hope and expect that they should be. It is not the fault of the occupier that they pay a large rent. We say that it is a disgrace that people are paying these enormous rents, but it is not that people wish to pay large sums in rent; that is what the market has determined. It is very different in London, as the noble Baroness pointed out, as it is in so many other places.
I am collecting examples of people who have written to me with their own cases. One after another, they are cases in which any reasonable person would say, “In that particular case, it seems very unfair for people to have to pay a new tax that they didn’t pay before—in that case, I agree that there should not be this tax to be paid”. One such case I can cite comes from the diocese of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. I agreed very much with his words. I apologise to the Minister for repeating the content of an e-mail that I mentioned in Grand Committee, but it is such a typical case. The lady has lived 23 years in her council house and now it contains herself and her husband. It has three bedrooms. They have actually done quite a bit of work to the House; the garden is immaculate—this is their home. But it is a tax, and they will face a bedroom tax of £25 a week unless they can move out. They have been told that there is a place in another Norfolk town. It is 16 miles from where they live, but there will be a place there in due course. It is not available at the moment, but in due course they will be able to get a one-bedroom flat. The absolute last thing that they want to do is to leave the family home where they have been for 23 years, where their children still come back at Christmas and on other occasions, and where she has a base to look after her mother in the village. It will cost the social services an arm and a leg to have to send in carers to look after mum. At the moment she goes in three times a day: once in the morning, briefly at lunchtime, and once in the evening. She will not be there to do that once she has moved away to the town. This is all ridiculous, and anyone would say, “Look, in that case don’t charge them the tax. Leave them where they are”. Anybody can see that that is the sensible thing to do. However, it will be extremely difficult to make those special cases, and to find the resource that will bridge the gap in their rent in those cases.
Today the housing associations are very often the organisations, along with local authorities, which will have to collect the tax. They become reluctant tax collectors because the rent that they receive through housing benefit will no longer cover all of their rent. That gap of £14 for one room and £25 for two, that extra amount, that tax, must be paid, and housing associations have to collect it. The housing associations are doing good things, in trying to make sure that the problem is mitigated, and they inform people, telling them in advance. However, as I thought the other day when driving along, it is a little bit like the warning sign that says, “Beware low-flying aircraft”. There are some things that you can be told—but what do you do? “Yes, I am told that there are low-flying aircraft, but I can’t do anything about it.” This is how people who have been told in advance will feel next year. They will not be able to do much about it.
Regarding the opportunities to move, in a year’s time there will not even be the one-bedroom flat 16 miles away. The landlords are not able to supply the accommodation. Housing associations are responsibly explaining the options to people, but an awful lot of them are making serious provision against mounting arrears, because they do not believe that people will hand over the £14 every week. That money will just accumulate. Even if they go to the courts—and I hope that a lot of housing associations will not take that course—and say, “We have arrears mounting up”, the courts will make an award of perhaps £10 a week to pay them off, when it was already £14 a week. It will not be helpful, and the arrears will need to mount to £1,000 or £1,200 before the courts will evict people on the back of this.
This simply means that the landlord—whether that is the local authority or a housing association—will lose some of the income that it had had before. Housing associations and councils use those rental resources to do more nowadays than simply put the roof on and collect the rents. These have become powerful and important local players in helping the big society, working with local charities, doing employment schemes and all kinds of things in local communities. Those are the things that will have to be cut. That is the spin-off; the unforeseen circumstances that follow; the coming consequences. When the housing associations have to make provision for 35% more arrears—which is what some of them are doing—there is less to spend within local communities. There is less money for the other things that they do in those communities. In the poorest areas, that is money lost.
The one hope for Ministers and for the occupiers of these properties is that we can get the discretionary housing payments, which will be an opportunity for local authorities. We could give local authorities—sensible people in local government—that discretion. It is not an ideal solution, because each case has to be treated on its own merits, and has to be constantly reviewed, but if a substantial sum of money were available to each council for discretionary housing payments, then we might be able to rescue a number of people who we are otherwise treating in a most miserable fashion.
I keep working out these sums. We hear of the extra sums that are available as discretionary housing payments, but when you work out how much money is available, and look at the size and magnitude of the problem, these figures do not add up. I will spare your Lordships my more detailed calculations. I was very pleased that the Minister was able to find some extra money for those cases where people’s property had been adapted, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said. In those cases, it would be a nonsense to move them out, as the adaptations would probably have to be destroyed and the other property adapted in the same way. That £30 million—£25 million for that adapted properties and £5 million for the foster parents, who have foster children in their home—is great stuff.
However, this is a tiny drop in the ocean; very small numbers of people compared with the 660,000 from whom we will need to draw, over a period of time, something like £550 million in savings on the back of the bedroom tax. Remember that that is part of the £2.2 billion total housing benefit savings. All of that money will come from tenants’ pockets, because we are not seeing rents suddenly going down dramatically. The tenants are those who have £2.2 billion to pay. These are very small sums—the loaves and fishes which we wish would miraculously multiply and feed the many thousands—and it does not look possible. I say to the Minister that the small illustrations that I am gathering are just the tiniest drop in the ocean compared with the very many letters that Members of Parliament will receive; all those e-mails that in the end will all come back to the Department for Work and Pensions, asking “What can we do about these circumstances, in which it is very foolish for the community at large, as well as for the residents, to carry on with what is a bedroom tax?”.
My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend’s amendments, and express my concern about the impact of this bedroom tax. Before I do so, I declare my interest as leader of Wigan council. I will provide some hard evidence from Wigan about the impact that this would have in Wigan. In terms of council properties in Wigan, some 4,708 properties will be subject to the potential for a bedroom tax: 3,600 of the one-bedroom and over, and just over a thousand of the two-bedroom. In the private sector a further 300 houses will be affected. The financial implications, if the bedroom tax was paid on council properties, would be £2.9 million—an average of between £9 and £29 a week, depending on the property, and a further £250,000 in the private sector.
In introducing the measure, the Minister raised two factors which he said supported this. First, it would help to reduce the cost of the housing benefit budget, and secondly, it would tackle overcrowding. He could have added a third, which he sometimes uses: encouraging return to work. I could not deny those objectives, which many of us would share, but we are saying that this tax will not achieve any of those objectives. Cost reduction will only occur, of course, if tenants do not move, and pay the costs. If they move—and the evidence is that some will do so—different things will happen. I can give the example of a current case in Wigan. A mother aged 51 shares a three-bedroom property with her 26 year-old son. If they choose to move into the private sector, as they have indicated they want to do, they will look for separate properties: the mother for a one-bedroomed flat, and the son probably for a bedsit. In Wigan, the average three-bedroomed council house rent is £74 a week; for a one-bedroomed private sector property it would be £89 a week; and for a bedsit probably a further £75. Rather than saving housing benefit, therefore, the Government would be paying £5,406 more for that particular family, if they choose.
The second issue is about overcrowding. In a letter to one of my local MPs, the Minister said,
“The Government only expect a minority of claimants affected would actually seek to move”.
If that is the case—if very few people move—then how will that help overcrowding? If they are still in the same place, then it will not help overcrowding. The message from my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden was very powerful. She explained the London housing market, but it is not like that in Wigan. The problem is that people will not move because of the lack of suitable properties to move into. An insufficient number of affordable houses has been built in this country by a succession of Governments. We are now beginning to pay the price for that. The current waiting list for a one-bedroom or two-bedroom property in Wigan is five years, so people cannot move into these properties even if they wanted to. We have no shortage of three-bedroom properties in Wigan. You can move into a three-bedroom property more or less straight away. Therefore, there is a geographical imbalance in housing markets and the flat rate bedroom tax will not work. According to the Department for Work and Pensions’ own figures, 42% of families in the north-west of England will be liable for the bedroom tax but only 22% in London and the south-east, so clearly the measure is having a bigger impact on the markets that do not need it.
The third issue is about seeking employment. There are at least four jobseekers for every vacancy in Wigan, and that probably understates the number of people looking for work, so the people we are discussing will be in a very crowded job market. The consequences of this measure are not what the Government think they will be; there will be unintended consequences. Noble Lords have mentioned the impact on rent arrears. I believe the Cambridge study claims that 42% of people may fall into rent arrears. In Wigan that would mean just under 2,000 families getting into arrears. Substantial arrears would lead to a commencement of the legal process. Whether we like it or not, there will be evictions, which cost around £6,000 each. These people will probably largely move out of the public sector into the private rented sector and the cost of housing benefit will rise.
Noble Lords have mentioned the impact that the measure would have on incomes. By definition, people who receive housing benefit are on low incomes. Therefore, if the bedroom tax is introduced on top of all the other things that are to be introduced, poverty will inevitably escalate. As I said when we discussed the Local Government Finance Bill, the likes of Wonga.com and all the other payday lenders will rub their hands at the thought of more and more clients coming their way, seeking to get themselves out of a crisis only to get into a much deeper one. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich indicated, we want families to stay together and fathers to take responsibility for their children, but this tax negates the Government’s claim to be a family-friendly Government.
I am not sure whether people in Wigan would take in lodgers but I certainly remember that when I joined the council some time ago one of the big issues we had to deal with was that of houses in multiple occupation, such as terraced properties that were taken over by a landlord who let every available space to different tenants. Those properties had inadequate kitchen and bathroom facilities and constituted fire and health hazards. They were terrible and the council largely got rid of them. However, I can see these types of properties appearing again in the current situation because people will not be able to afford anything better.
During debates on the Local Government Finance Bill we discussed the single person discount which reduces the amount of council tax payable by individuals living alone. Clearly, that constitutes underoccupation as regards most properties in Britain. It is somewhat ironic that we are keeping the single person discount as a council tax benefit but if you are renting a council house such underoccupation will result in you being charged the bedroom tax. This is an unsafe tax. As I say, I do not disagree with the Government’s objectives but I do not think that this tax will achieve them. I think we will find that it leads to an increase in housing benefit rather than a reduction and increases poverty in this country.
My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships’ House for missing the first few minutes of this debate. I was involved in another debate in the Moses Room at the time and it was difficult to shift sufficiently speedily between that Room and the Chamber.
I can well understand why many noble Lords want to reprise our lengthy debates on the Welfare Reform Bill. I also understand why people still have major concerns in this area. I do not think that any noble Lord present would say that these changes will be easy to accommodate. Difficult decisions will have to be made. As we all know, the changes are intended to relieve some of the strain on the housing benefit budget. However, the only fair element is that the benefit we are discussing will be brought into line with the local housing allowance.
Some noble Lords share my concern about the future of housebuilding. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, said, the previous Government did not meet housing demand. I only hope that the present Government will be able to build extremely quickly the number of houses that are needed to cope with society’s demand for them. We await action as regards achieving the number of houses that are needed.
There are two major concerns about the way these regulations will be implemented. The first is the ability of the housing stock to adapt and provide accommodation of the size needed in each area in order to allow those who wish to move to a different sized property to do so. The second issue relates to the changes affecting specific groups of people. I would like to ask some questions in relation to both those issues. I preface my remarks with mention of behavioural change. I have heard it said frequently in your Lordships’ House and in Committee that people’s behaviour in this area is of the worst kind. However, people do not always behave in a way that leads to the worst outcome for them. Some people behave differently.
There are two key issues I would like to ask questions about. My first question to my noble friend is: what assessment has the Department for Work and Pensions made, given the contact it now has had with people who will be affected by this measure, about the likely outcomes and the directions people will take as a result of what is happening? There undoubtedly will be, of course, some people who will wish to move. The issue then is the ability of the housing stock to be adapted very swiftly. Can my noble friend tell us what discussions there have been with housing associations, local authorities and private landlords to see whether adaptations can be made for people to move, probably into smaller properties, where house building has moved onto larger properties? Where are we in readiness for the sort of behavioural changes? I hope my noble friend the Minister can tell us.
I also wanted to ask about the £30 million of DHP—the £25 million for adapted properties and the £5 million for foster carers. This was an issue we pursued at some length during the course of the passage of the Welfare Reform Act. This was a very welcome area but I would like to really understand the Government’s dynamic on adapted properties. Will £25 million be provided over a longer period and what assessment has been made of the need for that length of time? Will £25 million be sufficient to cope with what it is thought will be the behavioural arrangements for people who live in adapted property where it would make no sense whatever for them to be moved on?
The second area I would like to investigate is rurality and rural housing, mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. Having spent some considerable time as an elected Member trying to get more social housing into rural communities, I do not underestimate the difficulties there have been in building social housing in rural communities. It is very much more difficult if people want to move to have to move away from a rural community into a quite different environment altogether. What estimate has my noble friend the Minister made of the demand and the pressures there will be on rural housing? Has he taken into account the community shift that would have to take place given the shortage of accommodation in rural areas and often the very high price of private sector rented accommodation there?
I also want to examine the issue of redesignation of properties. This is also one of the approaches that some housing associations are looking at. For example is a bedroom really a study or is a partition wall not really a partition wall? Have there been any discussions with housing associations and social landlords about the role and about designation, and about who has the authority to redesignate housing in this area? There is undoubtedly some scope for action for here. There is no national register of what is a room size. It would very difficult and probably a bureaucratic nightmare to try to create such a reference document. However, is it possible to look at the way in which housing associations can define their property differently where the circumstances provide and who would have the authority to undertake the redesignation, which may take some of the pressure off the ability to find appropriate housing? I do not envy the job of the Government and my noble friend the Minister in undertaking this obviously difficult task and I would be grateful if he could give me some answers to those questions.
My Lords, this has been a powerful debate and I will do my best to answer the questions. We dealt with an enormous number of questions in Grand Committee and so, rather than me going on for a very long time, I would like to suggest that I confine my responses to the new issues that I have not already dealt with and then leave my responses on the other matters that are on the record in Hansard.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, referred to the NAO report and to 2 million households receiving lower benefits. That assumes that claimants will not adjust their behaviour by doing the things that we are hoping they will do, such as taking on work, moving to more affordable or more appropriate accommodation, and so on. We are beginning to see evidence from local housing associations that with the change from 50% to 30% people are changing their behaviour.
As regards the point about the pressure on the supply of affordable housing, the early signs from the LHA are that there is no discernable impact on the levels of homelessness, which have remained steady. The housing benefit claims from people renting in the private rented sector are increasing, which suggests that people are able to find affordable accommodation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, referred to the NAO report and to its observations on the monitoring of discretionary housing payments. We are currently considering the recommendations in the report and will look at how feasible it is to monitor the way that DHPs are used.
I have dealt with the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Smith, about movements. There are movements of people from underoccupied homes, presumably to smaller homes, which will allow larger families, if they are being supported in the private sector, to have cheaper accommodation and gain from making that exchange.
As regards the issue of room sizes, raised by the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Best, and whether there should be an adjustment for single bedrooms, we wanted to keep the system simple and did not want to introduce something that might require landlords to go around measuring rooms. Indeed, the stakeholders, including the National Housing Federation, have welcomed that. It is therefore up to landlords and tenants to decide between them whether a property is appropriate for their needs.
When it comes to designation of what exactly constitutes a property, it is up to landlords to take that decision. They are unlikely to do that on a wholesale basis, but there will be individual properties where it makes sense for landlords to redesignate them as not being appropriate. There may be an individual property for which it is straightforward to do that. To be honest, we are not expecting there to be a massive effect, but there may be some instances of that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, asked about temporary changes of circumstances. There are housing benefit rules to protect households from either temporary absence, such as going into hospital or being on remand, or where the death of a member of the household would result in the reduction of housing benefit. For example, housing benefit provides up to 12 months’ protection from rent restrictions if there is a bereavement in the family.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich asked about non-resident children. Where the tenant has non-resident children, housing benefit may already be paying for a room for the child or children in the place where they usually reside. It would be double provision potentially to fund an additional room in both parents’ properties.
The issue of rural impact was raised by the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord German. The use of the percentage reduction, rather than a flat rate, means that the impact, because it is proportionate, is likely to be lower because rents are likely to be less in rural areas. On the specific question asked by my noble friend Lord German on the approximate amounts, roughly 10% of the impact is likely to be seen in rural areas.
As to my noble friend’s question on what evidence we have received so far, the responses by local authorities and housing associations indicate that there is a lot of activity—whether you are talking about the West Midlands making best use of a stock partnership that brings together seven local authorities and 11 housing associations in finding people the right number of bedrooms, speed dating in the London Borough of Southwark, or the Stockport homes initiative to look for joint tenancies. Indeed, Wigan Council, the council of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, and Wigan CAB have developed Wigan Housing Solutions, which acts as a social lettings agency and is a natural progression from the existing bond-guarantee scheme. It is a bridge between the private and social sectors, with Wigan Housing Solutions helping to relieve pressure on the housing waiting list. There is a lot of activity.
My noble friend asked what we are doing about the housing shortage. That was probably his most important question. We are investing to provide more new homes for rent and to bring more empty homes into use, along with other measures substantially to increase housing supply. Our additional funding includes a £10 billion debt guarantee scheme to support delivery of new homes purpose built for private rent and for additional affordable housing. That is on top of the existing £4.5 billion investment in new affordable homes in the period to 2015, which will lever in an additional £15 billion of private finance. All this will help deliver up to 170,000 affordable homes by 2015 for rent and affordable home ownership. Already, 48,000 affordable homes have been completed in 2011-12.
We have put in place safeguards for the most vulnerable. As noble Lords have pointed out, we have added another £30 million to the discretionary housing payment fund. From 2013-14 that will make £90 million each year available to local authorities, and that is before including the extra we have added for the benefit cap changes. Of course, it will not cover every single shortfall and is not meant to, but we expect local authorities to think carefully about how they prioritise these payments and there is no reason to believe that they will not target help at the most vulnerable. There will be some difficult cases but it is too soon to know precisely how claimants might respond to these changes. However, claimants will not be left without access to advice and support to help them through these changes. I have already touched on some of the excellent examples of how landlords are responding to these changes. That is an activity that we want to encourage.
We will explore the effects of the size criteria changes through our research, including the effects on homelessness. Initial findings will be available in 2014, with the final report available in late 2015, and we will consider any findings very carefully. Our research will give us something tangible on which to base our future direction in continuing to tackle these long-standing housing problems. That is a responsible approach and one that is consistent with what we intend to achieve in terms of improving our supply of housing and the nation’s fiscal situation. As might be expected, we do not rely solely on research to tell us about the impacts from our reforms. The department monitors its policy changes in other ways, such as through feedback from stakeholders, local authorities, ministerial correspondence and contact from claimants, as well as through our own administrative sources. We will have a good idea of how these changes are bedding in.
We have debated at length the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that the measure is blunt and takes no account of whether alternative accommodation is available. Amending this measure so that it applied only where no alternative accommodation was available is simply not feasible. It would be very complex to make decisions about what constitutes alternative accommodation. In fact, it is not a blunt instrument. We have chosen an approach that gives claimants an opportunity to respond to the changing fiscal environment behaviourally. We are trying to find savings where it is possible for claimants to find different ways to meet a shortfall. That is why we have chosen to proceed with this measure.
There is nothing new in these regulations that we have not debated at length and several times. I have given a clear assurance about carrying out research on the effects of this change. That is something noble Lords asked for and something I have put in place. I hope noble Lords will understand my disappointment at this amendment being tabled, particularly when we seem to be going over old ground. I have done what I can to explain the Government’s position and I hope that I can urge the noble Lord not to press the amendment.
My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who spoke in the debate, particularly those who spoke in support of my amendment. I think that that was all noble Lords apart from—not surprisingly—the Minister, with perhaps a degree of equivocation from his noble friend on the LibDem Benches.
My noble friend Lady Turner spoke movingly about how the measures were unfair to vulnerable people—we heard about the London experience in particular—and about the impact of the right to buy scheme, about which we all too readily forget. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich spoke about the changes that take place in family groups over time. He and a number of other noble Lords acknowledged that there is insufficient housing stock. He spoke in particular about the rural dimension and the cost to the social fabric of disrupting the current arrangements.
My noble friend Lady Lister, as ever, spoke movingly, in particular on the point that homes should not be treated as a marketplace; that is not how we should view things. The impact of social networks was a strong theme that she rightly continues to pursue.
My noble friend Lord Smith told us about his practical experience of how these things are playing out in the area for which he has responsibility; about the problems arising from the lack of suitable alternative accommodation; and about the impact on rent arrears. He also gave us some history about HMOs and the drive to get rid of them in the past.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, confirmed our view that this is about raising money, not tackling underoccupation. The noble Lord made the point that it is not the fault of occupiers that they have to pay higher rents; it is the fault of the market. He spoke in particular about the significance of all this to housing associations, which effectively will have to collect the tax, about what it means to their finances, and about how potentially it could restrict the role that they can play and have played in the big society.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, talked about the NAO figures and said that they did not assume behavioural change. I accept that, but it is exactly the basis on which the Government have costed the savings that they hope to achieve. He said that homelessness appeared to be steady under the current statistics. The reality is that the big impact of the changes that are coming is just about to start. The underoccupation rule will come into effect in April, along with the benefit cap. These will be the big drivers of change and concern, driving people into debt and homelessness. That is yet to come—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Best.
The Minister said that he was unhappy to see the amendment before us tonight. I certainly do not propose to press it, because it would not change anything. The points that noble Lords raised are already on the record, or will be as a result of this debate. I do not promise the noble Lord that he has seen the last of this. We feel very strongly that the contributions in the Chamber tonight focused predominantly on the problems that the legislation will create. We are getting closer to them as the regulations come towards implementation. I have no doubt that we will have to return to the matter again and again in the hope that we can persuade the Government to change course. The circumstances that will arise when the regulations come into effect will help the Government realise how draconian, unfair and unjust their provisions are. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.