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Housing: Under-Occupancy Charge

Volume 748: debated on Wednesday 9 October 2013

Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to suspend the under-occupancy charge.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, there are no plans to suspend the removal of the spare-room subsidy policy. A formal evaluation of the policy is being carried out; this has already commenced and will be conducted over the next two years. To support people transitioned to this reform, we have more than trebled the discretionary housing payment fund to assist those facing extreme difficulties.

My Lords, two-thirds of the families affected are disabled—fact. Half of those in a recent sample are already in arrears—fact. Most local authorities are limiting discretionary payments to three months only—fact. Furthermore, there are no smaller properties to move to—fact. So disabled families cannot work, pay, obtain financial support or move. When will the Government have the guts to admit that their policy is impossible as well as cruel and follow our commitment to repeal it?

My Lords, there were a lot of issues buried there. I will just point out that, when you look at the disabled figures, and if you look at the people on DLA, which is an independent measure, the figure comes down to 27% of the total. For those with the higher rate of DLA, it is 17%. I also remind the Opposition that this is a substantial saving measure. Some £500 million has to be found, and there is a degree of cynicism about whether you can find that through closing tax loopholes. I also ask the Opposition a question—

I suggest to the Opposition that they think about the challenges that they will face when they extend their extra-bedroom policy to the private rented sector, which will cost them another £500 million and rising.

Will my noble friend explain why the Opposition are so opposed to the changes that are being proposed on the subsidy, when it will undoubtedly help people suffering from chronic overcrowding in social housing and will help young people who find it impossible to get single accommodation? Will not the effect of removing the subsidy be to correct the market failure in social housing?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. I have talked before about the 250,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation, with 1.8 million people on the waiting list. But the economic signals going on in the social rented sector are very odd. The demand from single people and couples represents each year 61%, for the latest year we have—and it has not changed much. The number of homes provided that have single bedrooms comes to only 13%. Over the past decade, the social rented sector has built virtually no new single bedrooms, at 30,000; that compares with the private rented sector, which has produced in that period 280,000. There is a real economic mismatch going on in terms of what we are encouraging the social rented sector to build, and we need to make sure that we are building the type of accommodation that people in this country actually need.

My Lords, the Minister is paying no attention to the effects on the people involved. Has he seen the report in the Daily Record, which says:

“The Tory minister in charge of the bedroom tax has told Scots with motor neurone disease to take in a lodger or have their benefits cut.”?

Will he apologise for this insensitivity and rethink this measure, that being just one of its many iniquities?

My Lords, I have not, of course, made any specific recommendations to people. Let me just go through the point. We are monitoring this change very closely. It is in its early stages as people start to adjust. We have put in a lot of discretionary housing payments; the total is £180 million this year. The early returns—and I stress they are early returns—show that local authorities are either managing those well or are underspending at this particular time.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that last week the courts ruled that a woman with multiple sclerosis was entitled to have a bedroom separate from her husband because otherwise her human rights were breached? The courts have now ruled that disabled children and disabled adults can have their own rooms. These savings are vanishing before our eyes, and there are no rooms for people to move into because there are no smaller properties. Do the Government accept that the National Housing Federation has described this policy on its six-month anniversary as being a “cruel failure”? Is that not right, and will the Government not change their mind now?

First, I congratulate the noble Baroness on moving to her new position. I look forward to many constructive exchanges with her, although perhaps not this one. We are currently moving to ensure that disabled children who need spare rooms will have them, and regulations on that are going through consultation. In the case of disabled adults where there was a judicial review, the judges decided that the policy was appropriate and did not breach any equalities duty.