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Housing Benefit

Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 15 May 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to make changes in the under-occupancy rule for housing benefit.

My Lords, we have no plans to make changes to the removal of the spare room subsidy. As well as conducting a formal evaluation of the policy over a two-year period, we have started an outreach exercise with a number of local authorities to monitor implementation and ensure that sufficient support has been provided to local authorities and claimants.

I thank the Minister, but the reply was disappointing. Many people feel that this is by far the worst of the welfare changes that the Government have made. There is mounting evidence not only of financial hardship but of families and individuals coming under severe emotional pressure. A particularly sad case was reported just last week in which there was a tragic outcome. It seems that the warnings of many noble Lords in our earlier debates on this subject have been borne out. I urge the Minister to reconsider this tax and, preferably, to abandon it altogether.

My Lords, the policy as it stands is designed, first, to save money. We are looking to save £500 million a year here, which is within the context of the overall saving of £2 billion that we are trying to make over two years. The bulk of the burden has been on the private rented sector, on the LHA basis, and that has gone through reasonably safely. We are monitoring this particular change. All these changes have to be looked at very carefully and we need to keep a very close eye on this one, and we are keeping a very close eye on it. The change is designed to make sure that people can respond by trading down, pulling in lodgers or looking for work. People can make a behavioural response here, and clearly we are looking for that response.

My Lords, a couple were interviewed on television this morning by Eamonn Holmes. The wife had spina bifida and had to be in a special bed, which the viewers were able to see. The husband was therefore required to sleep in a second room. He stated that both of them will lose £60 per month and that they had made representations to the Minister’s department. Will the Minister look into this matter, which seems to me and many others to be very unjust indeed?

My Lords, we are looking to protect people in difficult circumstances by looking to the local authorities to apply the discretionary housing payments, which have gone up enormously. Overall, they are running at £150 million this year, and at £360 million for the SRS. Our expectation is that these hard cases will be looked after locally.

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister has just explained, there are a large number of exemptions which are made through local authority discretion. The Government have, however, insisted on a certain number of exemptions, and one of the most welcome is the recent exemption given to a disabled child who was unable to share a bedroom. Will the Minister extend that commitment to include a disabled adult who is unable to share a bedroom, and so put this matter beyond doubt, rather than leave it to the discretion of local authorities?

My Lords, we are looking for local authorities to deal with this matter with adults. We think that there is a difference between disabled children and disabled adults in that disabled children cannot know whether they pose a risk to themselves or to another child whereas adults and couples are able to exercise choice in how they run their lives.

My Lords, I am told that estimates in Hull suggest that some 6,000 people there are affected by the under-occupancy rule and that there are something like 70 flats available for them to be moved to. I hear similar stories from all over the country. Will the Minister tell us just what people are supposed to do when no smaller accommodation can be offered?

My Lords, there has been a substantial exercise by many local authorities and housing associations around the country to try to juggle people’s requirements. The figures on social-sector housing provision in England show that 31% of the housing has one bedroom, 34% has two bedrooms and the remaining 35% has three or more bedrooms. So there is provision. It is a question of getting people moved into the right accommodation. Let us not forget that 250,000 people are in overcrowded circumstances and 1.8 million people are on the waiting list for social housing.

My Lords, the Minister said very clearly that he was monitoring the situation carefully and keeping a close eye on what is happening. Will he tell us how many people have to commit suicide before he recognises that the policy is wrong?

My Lords, clearly I am aware of the recent very sad case, and I wish to reiterate my condolences to the family. It is not appropriate for me to comment further on that because it is a matter for the relevant authorities to investigate.

My Lords, what advice would the Minister give to this chair of a housing association? We have a family consisting of a disabled couple who have two children and live in a house that has one double bedroom and two single bedrooms. They cannot move because there is no stock in rural Norfolk for them to move to. They cannot work because of their disability and caring responsibilities. They cannot afford the bills. They are applying for discretionary housing payments but that will run out by about September. At that point they will run into severe arrears. Would the Minister advise me as chair of that housing association to evict that family at that point and to send them into bed-and-breakfast accommodation at a higher cost to us all as well as to them?

My Lords, the idea of providing discretionary housing payments is twofold. The first is to allow for the costs of making a change and a transition; and the other, in some cases, is to maintain the family in an appropriate home indefinitely. One of the most obvious examples of the latter is specially adapted homes where it does not make sense to move. So there should be a strategy of support for that couple regardless of whether it is in the short term or the longer term.