To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the comments by Lord O’Shaughnessy on 29 June (HL Deb, col 660), how they intend to ensure that no former tenants of Grenfell Tower are disadvantaged in terms of their social security if they are moved to larger, or more expensive, accommodation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her insightful question. I put on record on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions our heartfelt condolences and support for all those affected by this appalling tragedy.
To answer the noble Baroness, the Government are clear that there will be relaxed benefit rules for anyone affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, and our staff are handling people’s claims with sensitivity, understanding and flexibility. As part of this, our very recent guidance to local authorities makes it absolutely clear that they should treat these residents as a priority for extra discretionary payments to help with their rent if they are rehoused in a larger property.
First, I welcome the noble Baroness to her new position. I thought that in the Statement later we would get a welcome assurance about rent protection, but she seems to be suggesting that the rules will still be applied—the bedroom tax and the benefit cap—but that the Government will look to local authorities to make discretionary housing payments, which are usually made on a temporary basis, on a discretionary basis, as the name implies, out of a limited pot. This is not good enough, as was made clear in the High Court judgment on the benefits cap last week, which said that it does not provide a satisfactory safeguard and gives no peace of mind. What the people who have been affected by this terrible tragedy need more than anything is peace of mind. Will the Government ensure that they will not rely on discretionary housing payments in this or any other situation of vulnerability, because they do not provide security and peace of mind?
First, I thank the noble Baroness for welcoming me to my new role. I entirely agree that peace of mind and reassurance should be at the forefront of our minds. That is why it is a priority for us to ensure that people affected by the tower fire get the financial help they need. Noble Lords may be aware that at the heart of the discretionary housing payments scheme, which is enshrined in primary legislation, is the principle that it is for local authorities to determine when an individual is eligible for extra assistance with their housing costs. That said, my department issued new guidance to local authorities on 23 June to ensure that residents affected by the tragic events of Grenfell Tower are treated as a priority for extra discretionary payments and advice. I quote the guidance:
“in these circumstances any requests for DHP to meet rent shortfalls should be treated as a priority”.
My Lords, may I unpack this a little bit? I add my welcome to the Minister; I am just sorry that her first outing in this brief is in the circumstances, but I look forward to engaging with her on other subjects.
My noble friend is trying to explain that if, as the Government have promised, they rehouse families who were living in Grenfell Tower nearby at the same rent, because they are having to rehouse a lot of people very quickly in an expensive area, there is a reasonable chance that somebody will end up in a bigger house than they would normally have. At that point, the bedroom tax will kick in and they will end up having their benefit cut.
I understand the Minister wanting to say that local authorities have discretionary funds. The only problem with that is that they are temporary and discretionary. If the family is going to move into a permanent house, they want the reassurance that they can stay there for as long as they want—as long as the kids are in school—to carry on being able to make a new home. I know that her department is trying very hard to work with these families, but will she look again at this and try to find a permanent solution?
I thank very much the noble Baroness for her question and her welcome. I absolutely understand where she is coming from. First, I make it absolutely clear that all emergency and temporary accommodation is rent free for everyone affected. The noble Baroness will know that it is very difficult for us to compel local authorities to ensure that there is no shortfall but, that said, we are doing everything in our power to ensure that that simply does not happen.
As for the benefit cap and the removal of the spare room subsidy, it is for the Department for Communities and Local Government to manage the accommodation, but we can say that those placed in temporary accommodation are not subject to the removal of the spare room subsidy. We have already relaxed the benefit rules for anyone affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, and our staff are handling people’s claims with sensitivity. All I can say is that we are doing everything that we can in our power to ensure that people will not have to suffer a shortfall if they are moved on a permanent basis into a larger property.
My Lords, declaring my interests, I know that the Government have announced an indemnity for those tenants illegally subletting their social housing in this tragic block. How many such indemnities will be issued, and is subletting a general problem in council-run social housing?
My Lords, I do not have the exact answer on indemnities. All that I can say is that we are doing everything that we can to ensure that nobody suffers in any way from a financial standpoint as a result of this terrible tragedy. Indeed, as a department we are making sure that we have expert staff on site in the local community assistance centre and seconded into the victim support unit located there. We are working closely in providing every victim with a key worker to ensure that payments can be made immediately. Indeed, a number of payments have been made already—249 cash payments of £500 and 112 payments of £5,000—and 841 people have also received discretionary payments from the fund, which is a government grant.