Government denies protection for most vulnerable

Protecting Vulnerable PeopleAlthough the House of Lords was very successful in securing significant change to the Welfare Reform Bill, some of its more pernicious measures remain.

Not least of these are the under-occupancy provisions under which working age tenants of local councils or housing associations will lose some of their housing benefit, if they have one or more bedrooms than they are deemed to require.

This is irrespective of whether a "spare" bedroom might be needed, for example –
• if a couple might need to sleep apart because of illness
• whether the room is needed to store medical equipment; or
• whether it might be used for doing homework.

It is even irrespective of whether it might cease to be "spare" in the very near future because of children being too old to share.

Truth be told, these measures were not really intended to be about tackling under-occupation.  The government costings assumed that a clear majority of tenants would not move but would take the housing benefit hit - £14 a week or more.  The Government’s proposals could affect some 670,000 households. They take no account of the fact that for most there is no prospect of moving to a smaller property because they are simply not available.

Working with others, we tried to secure amendments so that the housing benefit deduction would not apply unless the tenant refused an appropriate alternative offer of accommodation, where there is no more than one "spare" bedroom (the standard actually applied by DCLG) and certain exemptions apply.

These exemptions mirrored the very exemptions which the government have introduced into the benefit cap, and would have applied in particular to those receiving the DLA (Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment or “PIP” in the future), recognising that such households have additional costs. We also sought exemptions for households which undertake fostering.

The government have argued that people could meet the housing benefit shortfall by getting a job, but have resisted amendments which exempt individuals who the government themselves recognise are not able to work, even if there are jobs available.

These measures are unfair, illogical and will increase deprivation.  They will see families uprooted from their communities and support systems.  The ensuing confusion will only harm society – not make it stronger.

Our last modest amendments were again stamped on by the coalition in the Commons. At the final round of ping pong, the Minister accepted, in principle, the need for research and a proper evaluation of the future impact of the under-occupancy provisions. However, the Government will not provide exemptions from the harshest effects of these provisions for the most vulnerable sections of our society.

Lord Bill McKenzie of Luton is Labour's Shadow DWP Minister in the Lords

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