November 2013: Housing Benefit

Thank you to everyone who took part in my most recent e-consultation on the spare room subsidy; more than 300 of you replied and it certainly provoked lively debate.

I absolutely recognise that this is a divisive and difficult issue, and that this may not be one of the more popular measures the Coalition Government has implemented to address our housing problems. However, when I set up my e-consultation I was determined that it should ask difficult questions, so I did not want to shy away from this issue!

The question I asked was:  Do you agree with changes to Housing Benefit that base payments on the number of bedrooms needed?

The results were:

  • 69% did not agree that housing payments should be based on the number of rooms required
  • 31% did agree with this system.

One thing that was notable was how many people voted one way, but commented in the body of their email that neither extreme was desirable. Indeed, one individual explained “I think my answer is along the lines of ‘Yes, but’ and it could perhaps as easily have been ‘No, but…’. 

Of those who supported it, many noted that they supported it in principle, but did not feel implementation should be strict initially. Interestingly, several people raised the idea that the charge should be put in place only where the recipient had been offered a smaller home, but refused it.  A few people noted that we should move away from the mindset that a Council house is a house for life, as this is not sustainable in the modern world. One respondent highlighted that she lives in a two bedroom home with her husband and three children, and can see no prospect of being offered a suitably sized property in the near future. Sadly, I find this to be a common situation here in East Dunbartonshire.

Of those who are against it, the overwhelming concern was the lack of suitable smaller housing for this policy to be truly effective.  I sensed that many respondents were not against asking people to consider moving where their home is vastly too big for their needs, but that assessment should happen on a case by case basis to ensure it is fair. One constituent, who has a son with disabilities, pointed out that parents like him already have to cope with a great deal of stress, and uncertainty over living arrangements could make the situation even worse.  Many people also noted that it is difficult to ask people, particularly older people, to move away from the communities they have been part of for some time.

Personally,  I am supportive of the measures to ensure tenants are supported in the same way whether they are renting from a private landlord, the Council or a housing association but I do recognise that, as it is implemented, the Coalition Government needs to be prepared to look at whether changes should be made.

In March 2013 the Liberal Democrats successfully secured important new changes to the policy to give full protection to foster carers and families of members of the armed forces, as well as discretionary exemptions for children with disabilities. We have also successfully campaigned for massive increases in discretionary housing payments (DHPs) to help vulnerable people. We have increased total DHPs from £20 million in 2011 to £180 million today.

At our 2013 Federal Conference, we called for an immediate evaluation of the impact of the under-occupancy penalty, establishing how many larger homes are freed up, how much money is saved, the cost of implementation and the policy’s impact on vulnerable tenants.

My colleague, Steve Webb, has announced additional money to local authorities to help those most in need as a result of these changes. In fact, within the past year, the Coalition Government has allocated an additional £20 million that local authorities can bid for. If they have exhausted, of believe that they will exhaust, their discretionary housing payment budgets, they can also ask the Government for a top up. Barely a dozen local authorities have asked for additional funding.

So far, I have not had many constituents contact me who have been affected by the changes. However, please do let me know if you are, or if you know someone who is affected and in difficulty please do encourage them to get in touch.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to participate – it is always appreciated!

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