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Former housing minister speaks up for Andrew George's bill to blunt the bedroom tax

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Former housing minister speaks up for Andrew George's bill to blunt the bedroom tax

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Central Government and also in Housing

Former housing minister speaks up for Andrew George's bill to blunt the bedroom tax Former housing minister speaks up for Andrew George's bill to blunt the bedroom tax

Former Labour Housing Minister and MP for Greenwich and Woolwich Nick Raynsford today spoke in the House of Commons in support of Andrew George's successful Affordable Homes Bill, designed to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax. Here is his speech in full:

I am very pleased to be here to speak in support of the Affordable Homes Bill and I congratulate the Hon Member for St Ives on seizing the opportunity of his good fortune in the ballot, to introduce a Bill that will have a really significant impact on the living standards and housing prospects of very substantial numbers of our fellow citizens.

As the Hon Member for St Ives has made clear, his Bill has two main purposes. First, to limit the circumstances in which social housing tenants are subject to deductions in their Housing Benefit (or Universal Credit) because of the impact of the Bedroom Tax. Second, to encourage the development and take-up of low-cost home ownership and other intermediate housing market options to assist people in need of housing who are unlikely to qualify for social rented housing but cannot afford the often prohibitive costs of open market housing for sale. Both of these are objectives which I support.

In a number of respects I would like to go further than the provisions in this Bill. Indeed, the Hon Member for St Ives has made clear his own inclination to go beyond the specific measures in the Bill. But the Bill as presented is a good start in the right direction.

Taking the two main objectives in turn, I applaud the three specific limitations proposed on the impact of the Bedroom Tax. The Bedroom Tax is one of the harsh measures introduced by the present Government. From the outset it was misconceived and has been promoted on a false, indeed one might say fraudulent, premise – that is that the objective was to encourage better use of the country’s social housing stock.

Misconceived because there was no way it could achieve its supposed objective of prompting tenants under-occupying social tenancies to move into smaller homes because of the inadequate supply of smaller homes to accommodate them. This was repeatedly made clear to the Government when it was preparing its plans, but it ignored the evidence - the overwhelming evidence - that the policy would not work.

Fraudulent because the real reason for its introduction – to cut approaching £½billion a year off the cost of Housing Benefit – could not be achieved if the ostensible objective of the measure, to encourage tenants to move into smaller accommodation – was realised.

This whole ghastly process, which has caused anxiety, misery and hardship on a large scale to hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, was all based on a false premise without any evidence base to justify what was being done; a truly dreadful example of the worst type of policy making.

Ideally, the whole wretched policy should be consigned to the dustbin immediately – and indeed it will be after the General Election, assuming, as I do, that the Labour Party forms the next Government. However, in the meantime, the Hon Member of St Ives has given us an opportunity to significantly limit its negative impact, by restricting its application in three specific ways.

a) First, by excluding cases where significant adaptations have been made to a property to meet the needs of a disabled tenant or a close relative who lives in the house. Quite why the Government didn’t accept the need for such an amendment from the outset is difficult to understand, as it is clearly wasteful of public expenditure to drive disabled people out of a property that has been adapted for their needs, if, as a consequence, they move into another property which will need expensive adaptations to be carried out to make it fit for the disabled person to occupy. But this is yet another illustration of the perversity of the whole policy. So this exemption is long overdue and will remedy one of the blatant injustices and endemic nonsenses inherent in the Bedroom Tax policy.

b) Secondly, an exemption is proposed for tenants and close relatives in receipt of Disabled Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payments, who because of their disability are not able to share a bedroom with someone with whom under the Bedroom Tax regulations they would be expected to share a bedroom.
Again, a sensible, humane exemption which ought to have been agreed from the outset. Instead, the Government agreed that Discretionary Housing Payments could be made in such cases, ignoring three principle objections:

i) first, not everyone who might qualify for a DHP will apply for it,
ii) second, not every Local Authority will approve DHPs in all appropriate cases, and
iii) the DHP regime is temporary and the Government has failed to confirm that it will continue to be available beyond 2014-15, despite being pressed by the Work and Pensions
Select Committee to give such a guarantee.

So, far better to exempt those in receipt of DLA or PIP from the Bedroom Tax, rather than depend on the vagaries of DHPs.

I do, however, have an anxiety about the precise wording of Section 2(1)(b), which I have mentioned to the Hon Member and which I hope can, if necessary, be remedied in Committee.

As Hon Members will know, there are two levels of Bedroom Tax – 14% where the tenant is deemed to have one bedroom more than strictly required, and 25% when the tenant is deemed to be occupying two or more bedrooms more than their need.

This exemption is qualified by sub-section 2(1)(b)(v) so that it doesn’t apply where the tenant has two or more bedrooms more than strictly needed, even though the tenant has established that they cannot share a bedroom and so need one bedroom more than their strict entitlement. This would appear, therefore, to leave the tenant exposed to a 25% benefit reduction in such cases, rather than the more limited 14% reduction, which would appear to be the fairer provision.

I may be wrong in seeing this as a potential loophole that needs closing, and if so I will be delighted to hear from the Hon Member, but if there is any reason for anxiety on this, I hope that the Hon Member will agree to consider an amendment in Committee.

c) Thirdly, we come to the last and most far-reaching exemption. Section 2(1)(c) exempts tenants from liability to the Bedroom Tax where neither their landlord, nor the Local Authority where they are Council tenants, has made them a reasonable offer of alternative accommodation into which they could move to avoid losing benefit.
This addresses the appalling unfairness under which tenants who cannot move into smaller accommodation because their landlord or the Local Authority has not sufficient homes to meet demand, still end up having their benefit cut.

The DWP’s own evaluation admits that in the first six months of the Bedroom Tax, only 4.5% of affected tenants had been able to downsize, and even though subsequently the percentage of tenants registering for a move had risen to 19%, the DWP confirmed, and I quote, that social landlords “had not yet been able to accommodate most of those who wanted to move to a smaller home”.

So once again, we have a common sense amendment to stop penalising people who have had no opportunity to move into smaller accommodation and so avoid the impact of the Bedroom Tax. This is long overdue, and once again a far better safeguard that the hope of getting a Discretionary Housing Payment.

As I have already made clear. I would personally prefer to go further and repeal the whole wretched policy, but the three exemptions in this Bill are a significant step in the right direction, so I welcome them and wish the Bill a successful passage.

Turning now to Clause 3, this addresses a very different, but also very important housing need. We are all well aware of the huge constraints facing people who aspire to own a home but are squeezed out by astronomical house prices in most parts of the country, or by their inability to raise the level of deposit necessary to qualify for a mortgage. The option of shared ownership, shared equity or other discounted sub-market sale schemes, has been an important, albeit not yet widely available, route into home ownership for people in such circumstances. Developing such options and parallel intermediate market rental schemes, also has the merit of reducing pressure on social housing waiting lists, which are, as we all know, under huge pressure because of the acute shortages of affordable housing in most parts of the country.

The irony of the current situation is that despite the obvious logic of such low-cost home ownership and intermediate rented housing schemes, and the evidence from so many social housing providers and others that such options are very popular and in high demand, they have as yet not been developed to a sufficient scale to really make an impact on housing needs. That is the background to Clause 3 of the Bill which requires the Secretary of State to carry out a review of the availability of such arrangements, the need for intermediate housing options, financial products to support this section of the market and to identify the obstacles and impediments to its expansion. Now this of course is only a report. But if it acts as a catalyst to stimulate this section of the market into increased activity, then it will be worthwhile.

I know, from talking to the Hon Member for St Ives a month or more ago when he was framing his Bill, that he had hoped to go further and specifically was interested in promoting a new financial regime to help overcome some of the obstacles which currently can cause difficulties when shared owners seek to sell their home and move on, as well as helping the development of Community Land Trusts. These are worthwhile objectives and I hope that the Hon Member will seek to press these issues, whether by means of amendments in Committee or by seeking assurances from Ministers. However, given the constraints facing Private Member Bills, particularly in a year which will end sooner than most because of the General Election, I understand why he has taken the cautious path of limiting the provisions on the face of the Bill.

Mr Speaker, this is a very worthwhile Bill, which addresses real and serious injustices and social needs, and which deserves the support of the House in its Second Reading.

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