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Housing: Under-occupancy Charge

Volume 762: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the number of those affected by the social rented sector size criteria who have downsized into smaller properties.

Across the seven months between May and December 2013, around 22,000 households affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy either moved to the private sector or downsized within the social rented sector. The final independent evaluation report will be published later this year. This will provide more up-to-date information on how people are responding to the policy.

My Lords, 22,000 out of 600,000 people is very few. Most tenants cannot move, as there are not the small properties; nor can they afford to stay without going without meals or going into debt. Some are desperately downsizing from two-bed social houses at £82 a week to one-bed private flats at £140 a week. These are of poorer quality and half the size, but cost almost double the rent and therefore almost double the benefit bill, which we all pay for. We are smashing lives. Why are the Government pursuing such ugly, faulty economics, and why are they pursuing such pointless cruelty?

My Lords, looking at the position in the round, people move from low-cost social housing to higher-cost private housing, but that allows another family who may have come out of private housing to go into social housing. You have to look at the bill as a whole, and the saving on this particular part of the bill is running at £0.5 billion a year.

Can the Minister explain what the Government are doing with housing associations concerning the removal of the spare room subsidy?

Local authorities and housing associations have responded with a range of programmes to manage the various benefit changes, including this one. It is instructive to look at the reports and accounts put out by housing associations. Affinity Sutton says:

“Overall, the impact on us has been less than expected”.

Sovereign says that a team of 12 tenancy support advisers has kept its arrears low; Midland Heart says that the year has concluded with arrears continuing to fall; A2Dominion says that,

“despite welfare reform changes, rent arrears have fallen”;

and Orbit housing group says:

“Our arrears have decreased … despite the impact of the spare room subsidy”.

My Lords, the Minister does not have to take the word of my very well-qualified noble friend Lady Hollis; perhaps he should talk to the Tory MP Nigel Mills. He highlighted the plight of tenants who wanted to downsize but could not, so were hit with higher rents—the very point he is making. He went on to say:

“It … wasn’t desperately fair on them or desperately good politically”.

He also said that the bedroom tax caused,

“a lot of grief for what wasn’t the hugest amount of money”.

Or he could talk to Daniel Kawczynski MP, who called for a “root and branch” review; or David Cameron’s former speechwriter, Clare Foges, who said of the bedroom tax:

“It is not working as has been hoped and will remain a fly in the one-nation ointment”.

She urged the Prime Minister to move on from it. We keep hearing evidence. Is it not time that the Government admitted that we all make mistakes and that this one is a very bad mistake, a very expensive mistake and a very cruel mistake? Please will they put it right?

There are signs of people both downsizing and going into work on a policy that was designed to save the state £0.5 billion a year and is doing so. One of the side-effects that is not properly appreciated is the extraordinary change in the numbers in social housing who are out of work. They have now reached the lowest levels that we have ever recorded.

My Lords, it is quite clear from the Government’s own evidence in the last Parliament that there are many instances where people in social housing are unable to downsize—the accommodation simply is not there. Could I ask the Minister to look very carefully at the Private Member’s Bill introduced by the then MP for St Ives, Andrew George, trying to deal with some of the worst aspects of this now rather discredited policy?

There are a substantial number of homes available each year. There are about 1.4 million single-bedroom social housing homes and, on the HomeSwapper site, there are now 55,000 one-bedroom homes and 142,000 two-bedroom homes to swap into.

My Lords, I congratulate those housing associations on keeping down their arrears through very heavy investment and a lot of hard work. I congratulate the Minister on producing and continuing to produce large sums of discretionary housing payments, which have been very important in alleviating some of the misery caused by the so-called bedroom tax. Will the Minister confirm that, although they obviously reduce the savings to the Treasury, the discretionary housing payments, which have saved a lot of people, will continue at their current levels or at higher levels in future?

The current year figure is running at £125 million, which is very high and up substantially—by more than £100 million—on the figures that we were looking at in 2010. I obviously cannot make any commitment at this stage on its future levels—that will go into a spending review—but clearly this has been an important way of making sure that this policy goes in without the kind of impacts that some people were concerned about.

My Lords, research published in the Journal of Public Health points to a disquieting amount of financial hardship as a result of the bedroom tax, as well as compromised diets, an impact on physical and mental health, and the disruption of important social networks. The Minister seems to think that downsizing is something simple. We are asking people to downsize from their homes, not just from housing, and we are disrupting their lives and networks. Will the Minister think again on this and take into account that, as my noble friend and many members of his own party have said, this is a cruel mistake?

I am not sure that noble Lords can have it both ways. Either there is not very much downsizing or there is too much disruption of networks. I do not think that both can be argued at the same time.