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Local Housing Allowance Rates

Volume 827: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the freeze in local housing allowance rates.

My Lords, the local housing allowance policy is kept under regular review. We monitor the average rents and shortfall levels for claimants to assess the impact of the policy. A significant support package was announced in the autumn Budget, including uprating benefits by 10.1% and extending the household support fund for 2023-24. Further support—discretionary housing payments—is available, and since 2011, nearly £1.6 billion in DHPs have been provided to local authorities.

My Lords, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this further freeze in private rental support means that two-thirds of lower-income private renters must cover at least a quarter of their rent from elsewhere. For many, this means a real cut in the value of inadequate benefits that are supposed to cover basic needs such as food. Cash-limited local authority discretionary housing payments are no answer, especially as their budgets have also been cut. Does the Minister accept that one consequence of this freeze is likely to be increased homelessness? What is his advice for those faced with a growing, unaffordable gap between help with housing costs and actual rents?

I absolutely hear the noble Baroness, because we recognise that rents are increasing—there is certainly lots of anecdotal evidence of that in the press. However, the challenging fiscal environment means that difficult decisions were necessary to ensure that support is targeted effectively. That is why the Chancellor announced at the Autumn Statement a substantial package of cost of living support to target the most vulnerable households. As I mentioned earlier, one of the initiatives for those who require additional support is the discretionary housing payments available from local authorities, which are best able to target those funds.

My Lords, the overall level of housing benefit indeed remains a difficult political decision. However, does the Minister agree that it is the way the current local housing allowance system is structured that produces such an arbitrary and unfair system, particularly for private sector renters in high-rent areas? In the face of such overwhelming IFS evidence to prove this, are the Government giving any consideration to reframing the way that housing benefit is calculated in order to remove this growing unfairness?

Again, I note the comments made by the noble Baroness. We are very aware of this, and we are aware of the juxtaposition of what central government can do and the role of local authorities. As I said earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, local authorities are best placed to understand exactly where the funds that we give them are best targeted. However, there is more than that; I mentioned the discretionary housing payments, but we also have the household support fund. There are a number of other initiatives which are important to mention as regards helping people, particularly to stay in their homes.

I accept what my noble friend says about the Autumn Statement, but is there not one sector of the public who are particularly badly affected? That is the people who are unfortunately unemployed and who are totally dependent on the local housing allowance and therefore disadvantaged, according to the local authorities that I have checked with.

Yes, indeed, and this plays into what we spend a lot of time doing in our department, which is looking at universal credit and the benefit cap, including the need for housing. We therefore recognise the importance of safeguarding the welfare of claimants, particularly those who, I am afraid, have got into debt. Looking at how they are able to afford housing is a key part of that.

My Lords, in the light of the rise in rents in the private sector, the likely rise in local authority rents and other social housing and the inadequacy of the local housing allowance to make good that, what is the Government’s estimate of the number of evictions that are likely to take place in both the public and private sector—that is in both social and private sector housing?

I certainly do not have an estimate of what the evictions will be, but we are very aware of the pressures around and we focus on the homelessness prevention grant, which is given out. That is to ensure that people are not evicted from their homes. It is very important that we do whatever we can to support people with their houses, particularly in areas where there is the greatest pressure, and the homelessness prevention grant will help as an extra comfort blanket for that.

My Lords, what proportion of people receiving the local housing allowance are unemployed and therefore heavily dependent on this money to pay their rent?

Although I do not have that particular figure—perhaps it would come from local authorities—I will certainly be very happy to write to the noble Lord with that information.

My Lords, let us try to understand the system. The Government set up a system where you were meant to be able to rent one of the cheapest 30% of properties in an area on the local housing allowance rate and then they froze those rates in cash terms while rents kept going up. That forces people on low incomes to compete for fewer and fewer properties in their local area. This is not at the margins. Roughly 1.5 million people on universal credit get the housing allowance. Over half of those are having to top up their rents by an average of £100 a week. The inflationary increase that the Minister mentioned for the adult allowance on universal credit was a top-up of £100 a month, but £34 extra a month is coming in. How does that work?

The noble Baroness might like to be reminded that the LHA was originally set at 50th percentile of local market rents and then the policy was reformed, as she will know, in 2011, when it was reduced to 30th percentile. The reforms were made for a reason, because the scheme was unsustainable, with excessively high LHA rates in some areas. Having said all that, we are very aware of the pressures at the moment, as I said earlier, and that is why we have other initiatives to help those who are really struggling— I acknowledge that they are—in some cases with their housing costs.

My noble friend has mentioned several times discretionary housing grants, which are available to top up the difference between the local housing allowance and rents. Should not more be done to make those better publicised and if, as the noble Baroness said, there is pressure on the local authorities that have these grants available, would it not be more economical to top up the discretionary housing grants for local authorities if the Government are unable to review local housing allowances?

Yes. My noble friend makes a good point, and it may well be that better communication is required. I will certainly look into that. However, local authorities, as I said earlier, have broad discretion to spend in line with their local priorities, supported by the non-statutory guidance provided by my department. That provides a list, crucially, of priority groups to assist with their decision-making. Obviously, that needs to be informed perhaps by better communication in terms of where the needs are. There is no evidence that it is not working, but I will look at that.

My Lords, there is evidence that the freezing of the local housing allowance affects families most severely, particularly those subject to the benefit cap and, most particularly, lone families. In his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the noble Viscount mentioned the importance of targeting resources where they are needed. How can he justify this policy given that we know what the effect will be?

I would answer that by saying that it is not a question of justifying it but of looking at the whole way in which we are helping people at the moment. That is why it is worth reminding the noble Baroness that, for example, working-age and disability benefits will increase by 10.1% in 2023-24, which I will be speaking to later in the Moses Room. In addition, the benefit cap will be increased in line with CPI. We understand the pressures that people are under and that is why we will also deliver further cost of living payments worth up to £900 for claimants on means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioner households and, as I mentioned yesterday, £150 for those on disability benefits.

My Lords, the Minister seems to suggest that people should contact the local authority if they are in trouble. Has he contacted all local authorities to see whether they can help those people? If he has done so, can he publish the findings?

I will see whether we are able to publish the findings, but perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord that there is continuous interaction between central government and local authorities in terms of the funds that we give them. As I said earlier, it is for them to prioritise the targeting of the funds but, equally, we want some feedback on how well those have been targeted. That is happening.