Motion A

Moved by Lord Freud

That this House do not insist on its Amendments 3B and 26B to which the Commons have disagreed.

7:45 pm
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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that we have debated this measure comprehensively over the passage of the Bill through this House. Perhaps, though, your Lordships will allow me to take some of our time this evening to explain again why we believe that this change is necessary.

We have been open about the fact that this measure is essential to curb housing benefit expenditure. Left unchecked, expenditure on housing benefit would reach 26 billion by 2014-15. That is unsustainable and unjustifiable, not least because of the current economic climate. As I have said before during our earlier debates on this subject, we do not think that it is reasonable to expect the taxpayer to fund the cost of somewhere approaching 1 million spare bedrooms. At 500 million a year the cost is substantial, and there is no realistic possibility of finding that money elsewhere.

Some in this House, and indeed in the other place, have suggested that we should perhaps abandon this measure altogether as it will not deliver savings if substantial numbers of tenants move into the private sector. I assure noble Lords that if that really were the case, we would not be implementing this change. It is important to look at the bigger picture. If there were movement into the private rented sector, that would free up accommodation in the social rented sector, enabling it to be let to others who may otherwise have been renting privately. Alternatively, it could be offered to people who are currently placed in often expensive temporary accommodation. So, while I can understand how some may conclude that this measure would result in an increase in housing benefit expenditure, I firmly believe that it will achieve precisely the opposite as the effects ripple outward.

During this final stage of the Bill's passage, the noble Lord, Lord Best, has offered amendments to protect some social sector tenants, all of which would reduce the expected savings from this measure. I pay tribute to him for the manner in which he has pursued his amendments and the wealth of knowledge that he brings to bear on this issue. I do not doubt for one moment that these were anything other than well intentioned but the Government have been unable to accept them. Aside from the financial implications, there is an important issue of fairness. We have talked about that a lot in the context of these changes but we must make sure that we recognise the need to be fair to tenants living in the private sector in receipt of housing benefit.

On the face of it, what has been suggested through earlier amendments is an approach that protects claimants in social housing but not those in the private sector. I do not believe that there is a clear rationale to pay claimants in the social sector to keep a spare bedroom but not those renting from a private landlord. The Government's clear view is that we do not fund spare bedrooms in the social sector or the private sector. The cost to the taxpayer would be excessive and totally unjustifiable.

Although we have had to take a tough decision to press ahead with these changes, that does not mean we will not protect people in vulnerable situations. As noble Lords know, we are adding 30 million a year of extra help to the discretionary housing payments fund from 2013-14 for disabled people living in significantly adapted accommodation and for foster carers. Local authorities will of course still be able to consider discretionary housing payments for other groups. I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Best, and others would prefer the certainty of specific exemptions for these groups. We understand the arguments for that but do not believe that a blanket exemption is the most effective or affordable approach. Any exemptions would also add complexity to the system, which we want to avoid.

We also have special rules to provide protection for groups such as the recently bereaved, so that they do not see an immediate reduction in their housing benefit. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who I do not see in her place tonight, is concerned about the impact of these changes on those who need care. Therefore, I reassure her once more that we will allow an extra bedroom for those requiring overnight care from a non-resident carer, in the same way as we do for claimants in the private sector.

We have more than a year before these changes are due to come in and we recognise how important it is to prepare for them. It is essential that all those affected by this measure, whether directly or indirectly, understand how the change will affect them so that they can take action well before April 2013. Therefore, we will use this lead-in time as effectively as possible to support local authorities, customers, landlords and others to plan for these changes. I beg to move.

Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Moved by Lord Best

At end insert "but do propose Amendment 3D as an amendment in lieu"

3D: Clause 11, page 5, line 21, at end insert-

"(3A) The Secretary of State shall commission an independent review ("the review") of the impact of the provisions of sections 11 and 68 of this Act.

(3B) The review shall assess the impact of those provisions on-

(a) families; (b) the incidence of poverty;(c) the incidence of homelessness;(d) levels of underoccupancy;(e) local authority resources;(f) rent arrears; and(g) any other consequences of sections 11 and 68 of this Act which the Secretary of State or the reviewer consider should be covered by the review.

(3C) The review will commence six months after sections 11 and 68 of this Act come into force (or, if the provisions of sections 11 and 68 comes into force on different dates, six months after the latter of those provisions comes into force).

(3D) The review will conclude with the making of a report within six months of the review commencing; and shall be repeated one year after it commenced.

(3E) Reports made under subsection (3D) shall be laid before both Houses of Parliament."

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Lord Best (Crossbench)

My Lords, in response to the Minister's defence of the inclusion in the Bill of this underoccupation penalty, perhaps I could briefly spell out the position that we have reached this evening.

Before Christmas, this House asked the other place to reconsider the idea of requiring several hundred thousand tenants in council housing or housing association homes to move out or pay a fine if they were deemed to have a spare room. The amendment that we sent to the other place would have meant that although the requirement to move out or pay up would still stand for all these households, it would not take effect unless a suitable smaller home to which they could go was available. This would have removed the injustice of penalising people through a reduction in their housing benefit, which they would have to make up from the rest of their extremely low income, when they had no option but to stay put. The fine, or bedroom tax, of an average of 14 per week would have to come out of the tenant's other income-for example, from a single person's income from jobseeker's allowance of just 68 per week-even where they had no chance of escaping this significant reduction in their living standards. Of course, rent arrears will follow, which means evictions and more cost. Long-standing residents in council housing, not least in rural areas, would have to move away over considerable distances to avoid the financial penalties of staying in their own homes.

Despite support from your Lordships on all sides, in the other place this amendment was rejected on financial grounds since the measure was expected to cut the deficit by some 470 million per annum. I put forward a modified amendment, which your Lordships again accepted. Under it, the delay in imposing the penalty charge until an alternative smaller home could be offered would not apply to all the households hit by the underoccupation rule, but only to the most vulnerable, such as disabled people, war widows, those caring for severely disabled people or children under one year-old and others not required or expected to seek work.

On the issue of caring for a disabled relative, perhaps I could elaborate a little on the Minister's comment that a spare room would be allowed for a carer looking after an older relative. This will apply only to a non-family member who is a carer and lives there all the time, exercising their caring duties. However, that spare room is often for the daughter who comes on a temporary basis when her mother comes out of hospital or to look after another member of the family. Having that bit of space can save the National Health Service money as well. Strong speeches were made in favour of the amendment in the other place, including from the Conservative Benches. For example, the particularly acute position in Northern Ireland was highlighted. There was recognition that disabled children often need their own bedroom, as do adults when one of a couple is disabled, and older people for whom an extra room for a family carer who just visits from time to time can be so important. These arguments have fallen on stony ground and the Bill is now back with us.

So that there are no threads still to be untangled, perhaps I could pick up on a couple more of the points that the Minister made in defence of this measure. He very fairly made the point that an additional 30 million in discretionary housing payments has been found to give the extra benefit back where there are foster children in the home-that is very welcome-or where the property has been adapted and it would be foolish to move people out to somewhere smaller and have to adapt that property, possibly with the adaptations to the previous property going to waste. However, the 30 million that has been found to increase discretionary housing payments in those cases has come from increasing the fine for everyone of 13 per week-the original average figure that we heard in Committee-by an extra 1 per week for everyone who is not exempt. Although the 14 that we now face means that the extra funding will help as many as 40,000 households-I am pleased that it will-the remaining 670,000 households will all pay another 1 a week, which is where that funding has come from.

I turn to the amendment that has now come back to this House. I must say that I was tempted to bring forward an amendment that would lessen the cost to the Government since it is clearly the level of expenditure that has inhibited the Government from going anywhere near my amendments so far. However, frankly, to modify the earlier amendments by taking out yet another group of those trapped by the penalty would become invidious as we try to choose between different categories of highly vulnerable people, and select some but not others for the already limited protection that the earlier amendments would have afforded.

Instead-and I apologise to those who hoped that this House could save the day but will now be deeply disappointed-the amendment that I have brought before your Lordships takes a different tack. It would rely on high-quality research to show the consequences of this measure. The amendment places an obligation on the Government to review the impact of the underoccupation penalty on the families concerned and on levels of poverty and homelessness; to calculate the cost to local authorities and housing associations; to look at whether levels of underoccupancy actually fall; and to consider other foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. The exercise would begin six months after implementation of the provisions in the Bill. It would be completed within a year and repeated a year after that. My hope is that the Government would prove willing to make some in-flight corrections and to take mitigating action if the evidence shows clearly that the consequences of this measure are dire.

In response to a Motion that I moved on the regulations that introduced earlier housing benefit cuts, the Minister put in hand a thoroughgoing research project on the impact of those changes. I have been delighted by the extent and quality of this research project and I remain very grateful to the Minister for that initiative. I know that he fully understands the value of high-quality research and hope that he feels able to go forward with this amendment. After the long journey we have all taken in pursuit of this matter, that would at least mean that a modest outcome would result from all our deliberations.

8:00 pm
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Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour)

My Lords, I support Motion A1 as the best outcome we could possibly hope for in the current circumstances. However, I would like to suggest another area that the review should look at in terms of a foreseeable consequence, which is the impact of this measure on social support networks. I was an adviser to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation-funded project carried out by some of the people involved in the review instigated as a result of the noble Lord's earlier intervention: namely, Sheffield Hallam University, which has been looking at the relationship between poverty and place over a three-year period. It produced a report last year which considered these research findings and set them against various explicit and implicit assumptions in government policy. One of the points made in the report was that if forthcoming social housing and housing benefit reforms obliged low-income households to relocate, this might most affect those with the strongest connection to their existing neighbourhood. Surely this goes against so much of government policy. These reforms will make it harder for people to find work because social networks are very important in helping low-income people find work. They will make it harder for those with children to enter or sustain work because social networks are so important in terms of help with childcare. The reforms will undermine the big society. Social networks are the capillaries of the big society. The report suggests that the reforms will reduce people's feelings of security, safety and sense of belonging. I am sure that this is not what we want. I do not know whether the Minister will respond positively to my suggestion. However, if he does respond positively, as he did with regard to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Best, for a review, I hope that he will take on board the impact of this change on social support networks.

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Lord German (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I commend the thrust of this amendment. However, as has been demonstrated, the way in which it is drafted may mean that it does not include everything that we would wish it to include. I would expect the Minister to comment about the way in which a review should be conducted. I do not wish to sound like a well-worn record but I have a long-standing view about the way in which major shifts and changes should be reviewed. It is absolutely essential that any part of the Bill which has profound implications for change should be reviewed in a proper manner. I wish to use two analogies-a route map and a set of milestones. We use a route map to get a sense of direction, find out where we can turn off a route and make diversions, whereas a milestone signifies the distance that we have travelled. Reviews which rely solely on milestones do not necessarily fulfil the point to which the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred: namely, to make changes on route. That is one of the key issues for any form of review of major change.

The Government's principal success in this field was their appointment of Professor Harrington to undertake a series of milestone reports. One of his reports was colloquially referred to as his report number one and a half. He continually places on record what he sees as being the changes which are necessary. He has followed different routes and different avenues in looking at the whole issue of the WCA and the way in which it is adopted. That has enabled the Government to make changes as they are going along. I commend the suggestion to the Government that they should think carefully about appointing independent people to conduct a continuous evaluation so that we not only have the milestones when formal reports have to be submitted but changes can be made as the need for them arises. Such a process gives flexibility to the people who are conducting the evaluation to address problems as they emerge.

I make no apologies for returning to the issue of foster carers. I raised it in Committee, on Report and I raise it again today. As we have just heard, the sum of 30 million is intended to support 40,000 households which contain disabled people or foster carers. What analysis has been done of the adequacy of that sum or of whether 40,000 households is the correct figure to cover people who fall into both those categories? I refer specifically to foster carers. We have a distinct shortage of foster carers in our country. Only 65 per cent of children in care are in foster care, which means that many thousands of children who could benefit from this provision if appropriate foster homes could be found for them are missing out. However, it is natural and reasonable that social services departments and fostering services place increasing emphasis on the importance of finding a good match vis--vis a child and a foster carer. That has inevitably led to a longer time span in appointing foster carers. Did the Government take that extended time span and the increased demand for foster carers into account when calculating the support that they would make available to the groups I have mentioned? We do not know how many of the 40,000 households include disabled people and how many include foster carers. I should be grateful to my noble friend if he could respond to those points.

In conclusion, I commend to the Minister the review process proposed in the amendment. As has already been pointed out, some noble Lords may think that the amendment should include other matters. Its proposed new subsection (3B) (g) would allow other matters to be taken into account. One might want to refer to the problems caused by disrupted education. I believe that noble Lords have referred to that in previous debates on the Bill. It seems to me that the amendment may not have the right wording but its sense of direction is very appropriate. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to accommodate its main thrust.

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The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds (Bishop)

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the amendment and for his persistence on this issue. He has continually sought to get us to think of ways in which we can provide support for those who may be in need as a result of the Bill's provisions. Therefore, I support Motion A1.

There has been much debate about what effect the Bill will have in practice when it becomes an Act. Some believe that it will result in a very positive change of culture which will be of benefit to all. Others believe that we still massively underestimate the Bill's effect in terms of the number of people whose lives will be damaged and who will be made homeless as a result of it. A tremendous variety of assessments have been made regarding how many people will suffer as a result of the Bill, not least the number of children who will suffer.

I spent this morning with staff of a charity called Streetlights, which seeks to support those who are unemployed in the City of Westminster. It is based just round the corner from here in Great Peter Street. It provides food for those who are homeless and at the same time, in seeking to provide holistic support, points individuals and families towards legal and mental health support. Streetlights is backed by the Church Urban Fund, and I was there this morning, partly because of the fund's promotion of today, 29 February, as a "spare day" to encourage volunteering for places such as those run by Streetlights. I was therefore able to talk both to those who run Streetlights and their clients about the effects of homelessness in general and the particular effects that those in charge there envisage as a result of Clauses 11 and 68. They are convinced that homelessness will increase significantly as a result of the bedroom tax proposals and other measures in the Bill. We cannot know whether they are right or not, but it is a real concern among charities that are seeking to find volunteers who will be able to provide necessary support and are pretty unclear as to whether they will be able to do so.

I therefore support very firmly the idea of a review, so that when there is some evidence that we can talk about, we can look at the ways in which we can support and help those in most need. I was very grateful indeed in our earlier discussions on the Bill for the Minister's promise of a review of the impact of the benefit cap as it comes into effect so that we can find out what is actually happening as a result. I very much hope that he will be able to repeat that sort of assurance and promise now. I support the amendment.

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Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I should like to encourage my noble friend to support at least the thrust of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best, as it gives us some reassurance that we will be able to track the changes that will happen as a result of these provisions. I profoundly hope that my noble friend is right to say that rent levels will reduce as a result of the Bill. I fear he is wrong but I will big enough to admit that I was wrong if what he has said turns out to be the case. However, the stakes are quite high. Whether he is right or I am right the Bill will produce effects on the housing of households at the lower income levels in a way that could be dramatic. However, time will tell what the effects will be. I hope that he is right and I am wrong.

I endorse the comments made by others about the persistence of the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the advantage that we have had of his expertise. We owe him a great debt, no matter which side of the argument we are on. I urge him to maintain his persistence because although the review he is suggesting is important, it will come in after the event. Before that we will have a process of regulations to implement some of these provisions. I would encourage the noble Lord to continue with his persistence through those regulations because some in-flight corrections may be possible within the envelope that my noble friend on the Front Bench has available to him. If the noble Lord, Lord Best, is prepared to continue his interest and my noble friend on the Front Bench continues the open-door access policy that he has demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction -certainly mine-constructive tic-tac might be achieved before the review is implemented and that would have a positive effect. I would be happy to contribute to any continuing discussions of that kind during the regulations process.

The only other thing I want to say is that I am now convinced that as a result of the housing aspects of the Bill we are dealing with symptoms. We need a fundamental look at housing policy. We cannot do housing benefit like this. We are imposing consequences on an unlucky few who happen to be in the wrong place through no fault of their own. That is very difficult to justify. Of course there is deficit reduction and we cannot wait for housing policy to change. A housing policy change that embraced some of the fundamental core issues facing our nation, as opposed to symptoms, would take a long time, but the journey has to start somewhere. The experience that the Minister has had from this debate puts him in a strong position to go to his colleagues across government to develop housing policy in the social rented sector with rents that people can afford. It will take time and will involve winners and losers. It will also be a tough policy, but at least if it were consistent and done against a background of a wider housing policy, it would be fairer in the long run. If it is the view that we are spending too much on housing support-20,000 million a year is a lot of money-we must be very careful when addressing the question in the round. I seriously encourage my noble friend, as a result of the consequences of the Bill, urgently to adopt that position within government and with his ministerial colleagues in order to address this issue as soon as possible.

8:15 pm
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Lord Boswell of Aynho (Conservative)

My Lords, having listened to this debate and many of the discussions in Committee on the Bill, I commend the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Best. I hope that the Minister will accept it, first, because the noble Lord has performed a considerable service in bringing his expertise to bear on the issue. I need not go on about that, other than to say that as someone who has no claim to expertise in housing policy I have increasingly come to the view that in many areas of social policy and social advance housing policy is cardinally important because it impacts on all the other areas. Therefore, by extension, the review that the noble Lord proposes will begin to consider some of the ripple effects of these changes on other situations or aspects.

Secondly, perhaps the most relevant analogy that I can make is that we never quite know when we embark on a major element of social change how it will end up. We all have political positions, we ground them in advance, and we then have to sit back and wait for the consequences. Generally, it is unwise to go for the big bang, although Ministers have to do that. I give as an example the changes made in industrial relations policy unsuccessfully in the 1970s. They were then brought in successfully and seriatim in the 1980s rather than in one big advance. We are not in that situation today and I can understand where the Minister finds himself.

We need a process and I shall pick up just two points from the debate. One is from my noble friend Lord German who stressed in his very happy analogy of the Harrington report the importance of independence. The amendment specifically states as a rubric that the review should be independent. As a government supporter, I am entirely relaxed about that; we should follow where the argument goes, look at the consequences and amend them.

I also pick up a point made by my noble friend Lord Kirkwood. He talks about in-flight corrections. We have two stages to this process-the regulations to come, which might be called pre-take-off corrections, and the review following the experience of the initial running of the system, which we should look at carefully. The Minister should do that with a measure of flexibility. We know that resources are very limited. The noble Lord conceded that when moving his amendment, but we should be ready. It is very much in the spirit of the discussion that we have had throughout this long saga, in which the Minister and other noble Lords have played a commendable part. We have done our best in limited circumstances. We sort of launch in hope without certain knowledge of where we will go but, given the noble Lord's amendment, with a determination to keep our eyes open as to what is happening and to make such corrections as may be appropriate and just.

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Baroness Sherlock (Labour)

My Lords, I shall say just a brief word. Barristers always say that you should never ask a question in open court unless you know what the answer will be. I fear that Ministers often take a similar attitude to research: do not ask a question unless you know what the answer will be and you know that you will like it. I commend the Minister, because I have had the impression throughout the passage of the Bill that he is not that kind of Minister but is genuinely interested in information. Because of that, I hope that he will feel able to give a generous response to the encouragement of many Members of the House to look for information.

I have two things for the Minister to think about. One is to follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, which is that if the Minister is right and rents change as a result, we will all be interested to learn that. If they do not, we will have learnt something about the market. If that is the case, that creates a question rather than just answering one: what is happening with the state of the housing market and what other levers are available to the state? It would be extraordinarily helpful to the country as a whole if the Minister would use his position in government to commend that set of questions to his colleagues, rather than stopping at that point.

My second point is in response to the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, which concerned the broader effects, particularly on families with children. Many noble Lords will be aware that when the United States engaged in significant welfare reform, one fear expressed at the time was that many people would simply disappear from the system altogether. Research was undertaken and that proved to be the case. I have expressed concern at different points during the Bill's passage about what happens to vulnerable children, in particular, and, more broadly, to vulnerable families. Perhaps the Minister can take this opportunity to reassure the House that the Government will do all that they can to track what is happening to individuals so that they do not fall out of the notice of the authorities.

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Baroness Grey-Thompson (Crossbench)

My Lords, briefly, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Best, on his determination with the amendment and offer him my support. I will not repeat the words of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, but he is absolutely right when he talks about reassurance. It is so unfortunate at this stage of the Bill that many people who may find themselves in really difficult situations, perhaps through being in the wrong place, will be extremely disappointed that we cannot take this further. As we have read in the press yet again today, many disabled people are being portrayed as benefit scroungers. That causes me great concern as we make some of these changes. The review is vital if we are to ensure that our worst fears are not realised.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

My Lords, we support the Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and I, like others, thank him for the persistence, diligence, precision and passion with which he has pursued this subject from the start of our proceedings. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, who said that this is no way to go about tackling issues of underoccupation; a much broader, more sophisticated approach is needed. It is a pity that we are stuck at this stage with, basically, having to live with what is in the Bill, subject to the review.

We have been told again that the amendment that we sent to the other place is an infringement of its financial privilege. It disdainfully clings to that financial privilege, which it could waive, without regard to the consequences for hundreds of thousands of households who will bear the financial burden of these cuts, in the same dismissive way that the Prime Minister today announced that the Bill would complete its parliamentary passage before noble Lords had even convened to consider it further. They brush aside our amendment, with its protection for families, notwithstanding that for some there are no smaller properties for them to move to; regardless of the fact that, for some, their disability involves them in additional costs which will be more difficult for them to meet and given their housing benefit reductions; and ignoring that many do not have a route to work to mitigate loss of benefit. The noble Lord, Lord Best, was absolutely right not to water down the amendment further and try to pick and choose which of those categories of individual is more deserving of escaping this iniquitous provision than the others.

Throughout the various stages of the Bill, we have sought to press on the Government the innate unfairness of the provisions concerning underoccupation. As we have heard, the arguments advanced have variously included the following. There is the appropriateness of adopting the CLG definition of underoccupation-a measure which provides sensible flexibility for households as family arrangements wax and wane, health conditions change, and young children grow older. There is the acceptance that only if there is suitable alternative smaller accommodation should families be expected to move, notwithstanding that that may be totally disruptive to their lives, and that meeting a housing benefit shortfall by getting a job or working more hours should not be insisted on where claimants are simply not able to work.

The losses in housing benefit a week, whether of 12, 13 or 14, cannot be borne without driving more households closer to or into poverty. Most are not sitting on substantial savings to cushion the loss of benefit; if they were, they would be ineligible for housing benefit in the first place. Moving to the private sector is likely to lead to increases in housing benefit costs for the Government rather than reductions. Taking in lodgers to contribute to the housing benefit shortfall will simply not be possible or desirable in many family circumstances. It is a false economy to force disabled people to move from a property which has been substantially adapted. To make it more difficult for those involved in foster caring makes no sense on many levels.

Your Lordships have supported those arguments, but they have been rejected by the Government in Committee, at Report and, now, at ping-pong. The only acknowledgement of the havoc, despair and poverty they will create is a 30 million annual top-up to discretionary housing benefit. Even that, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Best, is funded by an increase in the housing benefit reductions for all.

The Government know full well that these clauses will not solve the problem of underoccupation of social housing. They cynically do not want to solve it, otherwise their intended savings will simply not materialise. The offer they make is to move further afield, away from your community, support network, friends and jobs-not a sensible proposition, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Lester-to take a lodger, to use your savings or to earn more money. That is essentially a bogus offer, because most will simply not be able to take it up.

If we cannot persuade the Government, the least we can do is to have arrangements which will confront them with the consequences of what they implement. That is why we support the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best, which requires an independent review of the consequences of Clauses 11 and 68. Of course, it will not be just that review which explains what is going on. Local authorities, councillors, MPs, and voluntary and community organisations-and, indeed, the courts-will get the blast from this in little over a year from now, as the cuts begin to bite.

We do not deny the need to tackle the deficit, nor that that means some hard choices, but it is genuinely difficult to understand why this contribution is sought in this way to this extent from this group of people. The alleged cost of our previous amendment, 100 million, is, when we think about it, just 20 per cent of one company's tax avoidance schemes.

However, that is what both partners in government have chosen to do, and we have not been able to persuade them otherwise. We hope that an independent review will reinforce the points that we have made and still persuade the Government to a different view. If the review concludes otherwise, we can have no complaint.

This is not the end of the matter; it remains work in progress; but this debate marks the conclusion of our deliberations on the Bill, a Bill that we have been able to improve in some respects, but which, in too many ways, imposes unacceptable burdens on the most vulnerable. They are entitled to better from their Government.

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, let me start with two points. The first is that we plan to move ahead with these changes. The second is that I pick up the point made by my noble friend Lord Kirkwood. I heard very clearly what he said about housing strategy. On this measure, of the 3.3 million tenants living in the social rented sector and receiving housing benefit, only about one in five is expected to be affected by this change. Some will move to more suitably sized accommodation and will get support to do so. However, if social sector tenants choose to stay where they are and meet the shortfall through employment, we will offer them help in doing that. As noble Lords know, this measure applies only to working-age people. The substantial investment that we are making in the work programme and in universal credit will ensure that people are supported to find work and that work really will pay.

We have already tripled our contribution to the discretionary housing payment budget to allow local authorities to give additional support where they consider it is needed. Perhaps I may answer the detailed questions of my noble friend Lord German on the 30 million extra for the discretionary housing payments fund. As he pointed out, that could assist around 40,000 cases. We estimate that within that number there are 35,000 potentially affected claimants who are also wheelchair users living in accommodation that is being significantly adapted to suit their needs. The other 5,000 are made up of foster carers and, in particular, those between assignments who would potentially be affected by the measure.

The amount that has been added to the discretionary housing pot will be kept under review to see whether it is meeting the level of demand in different areas. If my noble friend Lord Kirkwood would like to classify that as an implied correction, I would not quarrel with him. However, we think that the amount is right. Of course, there are other discretionary housing payments. In total, 90 million a year will be available from 2013-14, and local authorities can spend up to two and a half times their allocation with funds of their own. I know that many noble Lords will point out that local authorities are not exactly flush with funds but that is the technical position.

Clearly, this is a big change-I do not deny that. Effective communication and implementation will be vital and we have already started working with stakeholders on this. We will need to evaluate the measure. I confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that I believe in research and do not necessarily need to know the answer before I read it. We will carry out research on this measure, once it has been introduced, to understand the effects of the changes, but I do not see the need to put that in the Bill.

As noble Lords will understand, I am not yet in a position to provide the full details of that research project, but I can commit to bring forward fuller proposals when the regulations are debated after Royal Assent. I shall also seek to involve the noble Lord, Lord Best. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to him. I may not have agreed or been able to accept some of the things that he has said but he has said it with precision, knowledge and a genuine understanding that I have learnt from and appreciated. He may not have felt it but he has had an impact. As I said, I shall seek to involve him and other key stakeholders in developing the research proposals, the implementation strategy, and the draft guidance for local authorities and housing providers.

In his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Best, sets out the groups for whom the impact of the measure should be assessed. I look forward to discussing with him the timing of any evaluation and those whom it covers. Without wanting to pre-empt that discussion, I expect the evaluation to look at the effect on different groups such as families, and any wider effects that it may have on-for example-homelessness. Clearly, vulnerable children are another area. Taking up the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, we should look at social support networks as well, and I undertake to do so.

I close by reiterating that this measure is not about making people move. Rather, people living in the social rented sector, like those in the private sector, will have to make informed choices about where they live and what they can afford. Some may choose to move but for people who do not want to do so there are a number of options to help to meet the shortfall, and we have discussed those over the past months. They include the employment option, increasing working hours, asking others in the household or the extended family to contribute, or taking in a lodger. We have now done this to death and I close by asking the noble Lord to withdraw his Motion.

8:30 pm
Photo of Lord Best

Lord Best (Crossbench)

I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken from all sides of the House, including the Bishops' Benches. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who made the point that breaking up social networks by requiring people to move or face a penalty that they find very difficult is disruptive. Once it is known that a Member of your Lordships' House is involved in these things, we of course get targeted. One of the most moving e-mails that I received was from a woman who, with her husband, has two rooms and will, I am afraid to say, face a charge of 25 per week. Her husband is partially disabled and they live on a very meagre income. Her mother is a neighbour, living not very far away, and this lady provides a full caring service for her. She has looked into the possibility of moving elsewhere and she can move some miles away. However, she is not going to be able to get back to see her mother twice or three times a day. She cannot afford that 25 a week and is going to have to do something. These are the kinds of social network issues that are raised by this measure.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, who spelt out the need for milestones when one brings in new legislation of this kind. To the categories that we ought to look at, he added the disruption of education. Moving children to a different area and taking them out of school can set them back, and that can have life consequences.

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who has talked on children's issues eloquently throughout the Bill. From the intelligence on the ground, he is worried that the level of homelessness will increase, and that is certainly an issue that research would look at carefully.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, who has throughout on this and other aspects of the Bill been absolutely tireless, makes the point that rents may not go down, as the Government hope. I hope that the Minister does not get the blame when the housing benefit bill does not fall. For example, I received some new figures just this week which show how the number of claimants of housing benefit has gone up recently because of the effects on the economy, with more unemployment and more people having to claim housing benefit. That is not the Minister's fault and I hope that the Treasury does not hold it against him. The housing benefit bill is very hard to curb. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, draws attention to these knock-on effects of everything that one does and calls for a much wider review, which sounds entirely sensible.

The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, to whom I am grateful, stressed the importance of housing more generally and the value of an independent evaluation of the kind that is proposed in this amendment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised a point to which the Minister responded. I believe that he is genuinely interested in the outcome of an independent review, upon which good policy can be based.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, highlighted-quite rightly, as it probably has not had quite enough attention in this debate tonight-the fact that very many disabled people are in the accommodation that we are talking about, with fixed incomes and no opportunity to go out to work. They will be particularly badly hit and we must look carefully at that.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, having followed this every inch of the way and to whom I am extremely grateful for his support, made the point that the long list of potential escape routes, such as taking in a lodger or using up one's savings, are not really viable alternatives to having to move or pay out. He concluded that this was going to place unacceptable burdens on the most vulnerable.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for accepting the necessity for an evaluation and for committing himself to bringing forward full-scale proposals when the regulations come to us. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made the point that when regulations come before us, we have another chance to look at these matters; we even have a chance to vote on them, and we are able to hold the Minister to account on this. I think we will be pleased with what is brought forward, not least because he also committed himself to full consultation on this research project with the stakeholders concerned; to consulting, discussing and working with the stakeholders, including myself, the subsequent action-the strategy and the guidance-that follows from this.

Therefore, I must be satisfied with the Minister's response. He will, he said, be keeping under review the very key ingredient: the level of discretionary housing payments with which local authorities are provided to top up and help people who are in difficult circumstances. I do not think local authorities are going to be very keen to bail out the Government on this one and make up the deficit themselves, but if the Treasury finds, as a result of the research that we do, that there are sufficient hard-luck stories where one cannot really resist having to pay out more housing benefit, the discretionary housing benefit will be one lifeline which could be substantially influenced by research, when it comes along.

At the end of what seems to have been a very long innings on all of this, I thank the Minister for his response and for the courtesy and good humour with which he has approached all aspects of this Bill; I am grateful to him in all those respects. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Motion A1, as an amendment to Motion A, withdrawn.

Motion A agreed.

Sitting suspended.