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Housing: Under-occupancy

Volume 774: debated on Monday 17 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent meetings have taken place between ministers and citizens affected by the under-occupancy charge.

My Lords, we met with an extensive group of stakeholders during the development of this policy and continue to do so on all policy areas. However, no recent meetings have taken place on the underoccupancy charge. Citizens and stakeholders are able to keep Ministers informed of their views through correspondence. The overall funding for discretionary housing payments has been increased: £870 million has been provided for the next five years to help those who are vulnerable.

Having recently become involved with a charity in the north-east of England which helps and speaks up for people with learning disabilities, I have been struck by the number of cases in which the bedroom tax has greatly increased the problems that some of these people are facing. Will the Minister agree to meet with me and some of those affected? Also, will the Government look urgently at new ways of helping the people who have been hardest hit by this policy?

The problem that I have in answering the noble Baroness right now is that, as she will be aware, we are currently awaiting a judgment from the Supreme Court on groups of people affected by the spare room subsidy policy. During this time, it is not appropriate for Ministers or officials to meet with particular groups. We had the hearing at the end of February, so we are expecting to hear the outcome of the case quite soon. After that, I will engage with the noble Baroness.

Is it not extraordinary that the previous Question was, rightly, about homelessness—indeed parts of the Shelter report addressed major problems—yet in this Chamber we have consistently heard disagreements and challenges to, and non-acceptance of, the very idea of underoccupancy? Would it not be a nice change if people recognised that most of the underoccupancy challenges do not have much validity? The people in those homes should think about downsizing appropriately or, if not, paying the relevant rent for overoccupying them.

The number of those affected by the policy has now come down by 21%. Some have downsized; many others have got jobs. In the last years, the number on waiting lists has now come down very appreciably—by nearly half a million—as councils are able to manage those waiting lists more flexibly.

My Lords, the problem with the previous question is that the bedroom tax does not apply to the retired. It is actually the retired—well represented in your Lordships’ House—who have more accommodation available than younger people bringing up families, where their home should be their castle. Does the Minister concur that, if we were looking in that area, it would be an incentive to older people to downsize, not younger people with families?

The policy is clearly directed at people who have a spare room. These tend not to be people with families; in many cases, they are empty nesters. They would be a typical group—people who have had a larger place but some of the people living in it have then moved on and they now have spare rooms. There is a point in time at which one should address the issue to get the downsizing. This policy looks to make sure that that time is during working age and not later.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of Housing & Care 21. As the Minister will be aware, there is a major problem coming down the road on retirement housing, particularly the imposition of a cap on housing benefit, which will impose itself on people in retirement housing where rents and the cost of housing are higher—often higher than the proposed cap on housing benefit. How are the Government going to address, beyond just using discretionary funds, the needs of these retired people who will be disadvantaged and also stop the undermining of future development of retirement housing in this country?

We put out a Ministerial Statement in September outlining our approach to supported housing, including sheltered housing, which looks to divide the support into two, with one element coming out of the housing benefit bill up to the limit of the LHA amount in each area, which is then topped up by local authorities through a fund. This will help them drive the commissioning of the appropriate level of housing, and supported housing, for the people in their area.

My Lords, given the harsher council tax support scheme, it is estimated that one in three of those affected is in arrears and debt. Of the people affected by the bedroom tax, two-thirds are estimated to be in arrears and debt. Of UC claimants for housing allowance, it is estimated that more than three-quarters are in arrears and debt. These debts are manufactured by government policy and will blight lives for some in deep debt for many years to come. We have a new Government and I am sure that neither the Minister nor the Prime Minister wishes this state to continue. What are the Government going to do about it?

There is a lot of complexity around the arrears issue, which we are looking at. The overall figures on arrears are much lower than some of the dramatic specific figures that the noble Baroness mentioned. The overall position is that housing association rent collection is running at 99% on average, and the bulk of housing associations—92% of them—say that they are outperforming their business plans on levels of arrears. There are specific issues, but there are a lot of definitional problems—I have said that to the House before—about what is an arrear and whether, if you are a day late, you go into arrears. We are trying to separate out what one could call book arrears from genuine arrears of the kind about which the noble Baroness is concerned.