Welfare Reform: Underoccupation Penalty
Private Members’ Business
Roy Beggs (UUP)
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Mickey Brady (Sinn Féin)
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the underoccupation penalty provision within proposed welfare reform legislation, which has the potential to make many people homeless; and calls on the Minister for Social Development to outline the measures that he intends to put in place to mitigate the impact of this provision.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I ask the Assembly to support the motion. Like yesterday’s motion on the assessment of incapacity benefit, this falls under the incoming Welfare Reform Bill. We, as a party, in not only this mandate but throughout the previous mandate, have spoken out against many of these changes — cuts packaged as reforms.
First, I will explain what underoccupancy is. Underoccupancy, or spare bedroom tax, is part of the British Government’s Welfare Reform Bill, which will come before the Assembly in the near future. It is a reduction in housing benefit based on the number of bedrooms in your home that are defined as spare rooms. The definition assumes that couples are sharing and some categories of children are sharing. Tenants who are of working age will be penalised through a 15% loss of housing benefit, approximately £7 a week, for one bedroom deemed to be additional and a 23% loss, approximately £14 a week, for two or more. That is a cut of £364 and £728 a year respectively. Many families will be forced to seek alternative accommodation. Other families will accrue rent arrears and become at greater risk of eviction and homelessness. Others will experience greater poverty as they struggle to make up the housing benefit shortfall. This will be felt particularly harshly amongst tenants in the private sector in receipt of housing benefit, many of whom already struggle to make up the shortfall in benefit to cover their rent. Other families will be forced to move away from established support networks and extended family. That is particularly significant for people who are already struggling with the challenges of poverty, disability, mental health issues or chronic ill health. There will be implications for the informal care of the sick or elderly, where continued care relies on family members living within the vicinity.
Reduced housing benefit is not cost neutral when it leads to thousands of people on benefits seeking relocation. It will impact on the allocation of social housing, as it restricts the profile of suitable properties that a homeless family might be offered, as tenancies will have to be more strictly matched to property size, despite the profile of housing stock. There is a chronic shortage of two-bedroom properties.
There are approximately 220,000 social housing tenancies in the North, of which 70%, which is 154,000, are underoccupied, according to the British Government’s current definition, and for which, therefore, housing benefit is liable to be cut. Those statistics are provided by Shelter from Housing Executive figures. They represent an annual cut of somewhere between £56 million and £113 million in housing benefit paid in relation to social housing in the Six Counties. In addition, around 38,000 tenants are in receipt of housing benefit in the private rented sector. That represents an additional cut of between £13 million and £28 million in housing benefit paid to private sector rental tenants in the North.
Private sector rental tenants are already making up an average of £28 a week housing benefit shortfall in their rent. When faced with homelessness, those tenants, given their low income, will seek to be rehoused in the social sector. A study carried out by Professors Gray and McAnulty of the University of Ulster, which was published in September 2010, found that over 60% of private rented sector tenants were in receipt of housing benefit and that only 60% were in receipt of a partial payment. Of those who already paid the difference between the contractual rent and housing benefit, two thirds reported finding it very difficult to do so. Almost half of those from the private rented sector presenting as homeless in 2009 cited a shortfall in housing benefit as the main reason. Gray and McAnulty estimated that a 5% de-investment in the private rented sector, which a cut in housing benefit represents, would displace 2,000 households and that a 10% cut would result in 3,800 households seeking alternative accommodation. In addition, changes in entitlement from 25-year-old singles to 35-year-old singles is likely to make 6,000 people homeless. Add to that a percentage of the 154,000 of those within the social sector seeking to downsize when faced with a cut in their housing benefit.
Many low income, private rented sector tenants are renting former social housing that has been sold off as part of the right-to-buy policy that was introduced by Margaret Thatcher. That is likely to result in increased overcrowding and all the social problems that entails, as rent-poor families share accommodation as a way of avoiding arrears, eviction and homelessness.
The profile of housing stock in the North will not provide sufficient housing of the type many families will need to meet the requirements of housing benefit entitlement. A cut in housing benefit is likely to be only one of a number of cuts in benefits faced by low income families, whether in or out of work, in the wake of the British Government’s imposition of welfare reform. The Six County Equality Commission and the British Government’s parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights have criticised the British Department for Work and Pensions for failing to carry out impact assessments on the cumulative adverse impact of welfare reform.
Breaking the connection between insecurity of employment and insecurity of housing has been hugely significant historically. In the past, loss of job has been accompanied by loss of home. That is particularly disruptive where people are moving in and out of work, and it leads to more transient neighbourhoods and more crime.
The provision of and access to housing has particular historical significance in the North and is closely associated with the struggle for civil rights. Segregation remains a reality here, and disruption to established communities, if thousands of families are forced into seeking alternative accommodation, would have a destabilising effect. The imposition of regulations that are likely to have a destabilising impact is unreasonable, given the fact that the North has only recently emerged from conflict. Parity has worked because, historically, it has not been strictly adhered to, and it allows for a level of flexibility, which takes into account different circumstances in the North.
The British Government have accepted that welfare benefits are possessions for the purposes of article 1 of protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 1 of protocol 1 provides that any interference with or deprivation of established rights to property must strike a fair balance between the right of the individual to peaceful enjoyment of their possessions and the public interest. Since the British Government accept that benefits are to be considered as possessions, any loss of benefit has to meet a legal requirement of being for a legitimate aim and must be proportionate to that aim. A human rights adherence rationale presented by the British Government in relation to welfare reform relates to Britain.
The human rights implications of welfare reform have not been considered in relation to the specifics of the North. In the North, the imposition of underoccupancy rules does not strike a fair balance, because they are detrimental to the individual and to the public interest. The notion of a fair balance implies that any detrimental impact on the individual is counterbalanced by being advantageous to the public interest, which means that the British Government can justify one with reference to the other, and the general good takes precedence. It cannot be considered proportionate in the North, because the specifics of our housing stock mean that a cut in housing benefit is more likely to result in homelessness than in relocation. Unlike in Britain, underoccupancy rules will result not only in the deprivation of benefit as a possession but, as a direct consequence for a significant number of families, in the loss of housing itself, a more significant possession in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Increased homelessness cannot be regarded as being in the public interest, the criterion cited by the British Government to legitimise cuts in housing benefit. Technically, it can be argued that adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights commitments in relation to the passing of the welfare rights Bill in the North is the responsibility of the Assembly. However, given the operation of parity and the financial and administrative restrictions imposed by the British Government, it is reasonable to argue that the British Government have an obligation to consider the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to the specifics of the North. That obligation should continue until such times as the Assembly has the kind of fiscal autonomy that will allow it to determine and meet its human rights obligations independently of Westminster.
One possibility is greater discretionary powers to exempt existing tenants from loss of housing benefit where suitable alternative accommodation is not available. Suitability would include type of housing stock, the importance of maintaining community cohesion and the recognition of extended family responsibilities. As that divergence is based on material circumstances that would result in unintended consequences rather than policy, it should not be declared as a breach of parity, and, therefore, should be funded by the British Treasury. If all these people are displaced, where will they go? We already have a great shortfall, and I think the Minister would accept that there is a huge shortfall in the provision of social housing. I know that he is doing his best to try to redress that balance, but that shortfall continues, so where are those people to go? I ask the Assembly to support the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Alex Easton (DUP)
We have to bring our social housing into line with the rest of the UK for two main reasons. First, it will ensure that parity with the rest of the UK is maintained, which we are required to do, and, secondly, it will end the two-tier system that we currently have in Northern Ireland. It is not just or fair that a person in our social housing system can remain in the same residence when their personal circumstances change with no consequences. In the private rented sector, people’s housing benefit is dependent on size criteria. In my opinion, there is no reason why people of working age in our social housing sector should not be subject to the same criteria.
Let us be clear about what this change means. People who have one or more extra bedrooms will have a choice about what course of action they wish to follow. They can remain in their own home, making up the additional rent that housing benefit will not cover, or they can downsize to a property of a more appropriate size. For the majority of people, that will cost approximately £10 a week, which is a substantial amount for those already on a low income, but, given the welfare bill, it is something that we simply cannot afford.
For some people, this change will cause worry and alarm, as many who may be deemed to have an extra bedroom will not view it in that way. Some couples, for example, prefer to sleep in separate bedrooms. Children may use spare rooms to have their own bedroom, regardless of age or gender. Shared parenting can sometimes mean that a court judgement requires that a child visiting a non-custodial parent must have access to their own bedroom. For some of those scenarios, the option to remain in a residence that is deemed too large may mean some tough decisions. For others, it may not be a choice but a necessity. The changes that that will bring must be communicated in such a way as to ensure that everyone who is affected is aware of their choices and is made aware that they have a choice. We must also ensure that the stock for those people to move to is available in a timely manner. This change should also ensure that the issue of overcrowding that exists in some of our social housing properties can be addressed.
I welcome the proposed safeguards that are already outlined regarding some pension-age tenants not being subject to size criteria. There are safeguards in place so that, if someone loses a partner, they will not be asked to relocate or find additional financial resources within a certain period of time, and disabled residents who use their extra bedroom to store vital equipment will not be affected by the change.
I also welcome the discretionary nature of additional moneys for a person with exceptional reasons for needing to remain in their property. We must remember that the objective of the change is to encourage more accountable use of social housing stock, to encourage more personal responsibility from those who have our welfare system to pay for their rent and to encourage people into the job market.
This is not a change to be feared. In my opinion, this change will bring a number of benefits to people in the social housing sector. However, I recognise that there will be an impact on others and ask the Minister to further identify measures that will help to mitigate the impact of those changes.
Michael Copeland (UUP)
Before I speak to the motion, I want to look at it, as it states quite clearly: “That this Assembly notes with concern the underoccupation penalty provision within proposed welfare reform legislation, which has the potential to make many people homeless”. That is the preamble, and there is not a word of it that anyone here could take any real exception to. We then have a call on the Minister that is yet again aimed at him, and we could be forgiven for that, because the responsibility lies with him. He is called on to: “outline the measures that he intends to put in place to mitigate the impact of this provision.”
The truth is that there will be an impact from this penalty, and it will be an impact that the Minister may or may not be able to mitigate. In many ways, it symbolises and highlights what a number of people outside this place see as its inherent problem. The Minister is not required to service or acquiesce to the demands or views of the Chamber on this issue, but he is required to maintain parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. As other Members said, there is some merit in the notion of stock management in social housing, but there are also factors that make Northern Ireland, in my view, slightly different.
Cameron Watt, who, peculiarly enough, is a Conservative blogger, has some statistics that might be of interest. He says that many social landlords in the past have purposely allocated families properties with an extra bedroom, the view being that that would allow them to develop a stable home in a stable neighbourhood with stable relationships and allow for the expansion of their family. That is terribly laudable. In Northern Ireland, however, a consequence of that would be that two thirds of the Housing Executive’s 90,000 tenants could fall foul of the penalty. We have already established, and the Minister has accepted in the Chamber, that 70% of the 90,000 households are already workless and are, therefore, benefit dependent. In some cases, they will be faced with making up a shortfall of £13 a week. For those in well-remunerated employment, £13 a week is the price of two packets of cigarettes — it is not a lot. However, for someone on benefits, no matter what way you cut £13 a week, it is £13 a week spent on this that cannot be spent on something else. The notion that people can relocate to more appropriate properties does, I am sure, fly in the face of what practically every single Member in the House who has people on a waiting list knows. The remark is so silly that it can only be equated with Marie Antoinette’s famous faux pas, “Let them eat cake”. If there is no bread, there is no cake. The problem is that the housing market in Belfast has developed over a period of years to suit the current system, and it no longer matches that need.
A house is a pile of bricks and mortar with a roof on it. It may or may not be double glazed, and it may or may not be hard to heat. However, the truth is that, no matter how humble it is, it is someone’s home. There is a difference between a pile of bricks and mortar with a roof, referred to as a house, and a home, be it, in some cases, ever so humble. A home, and its walls, contains memories. Although society may well view that as a social house belonging to society and that society can therefore do with it as it wishes, the person who lives in that house may take a different view. It is unfair of us to burden the Minister by consistently demanding that he does the impossible, but it is, sir, your role, and I know that it is a role and responsibility that you shoulder bravely. However, the people outside will listen to the words that we use in here.
We can all quote individual cases and say how terrible it is. However, you then go back to the heartland of your constituency, where somebody pokes you in the chest and says, “Fair enough, but what are you going to do about it?”
Roy Beggs (UUP)
The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.
The sitting was suspended at 12.30 pm.
On resuming (Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the chair) —