New Clause 10
Welfare Reform Bill
12:15 pm

Circumstances in which a person is treated as occupying a dwelling as his home

‘(1) This section applies where a person is moving from a dwelling at which he qualifies for payment of Housing Benefit to another dwelling at which he will qualify for payment of Housing Benefit.

(2) Regulations may make provisions that such a person may be treated as occupying both dwellings as his home and be eligible for Housing Benefit in respect of both homes for a period not exceeding four weeks if he could not reasonably have avoided rental liability in respect of the two dwellings.

(3) Regulations under subsection (2) may allow for Housing Benefit to be paid in respect of both dwellings for a period exceeding four weeks where the applicant is awaiting the outcome of an application under Part III of the Social Security Act 1988 (c. 7) for a social fund payment to meet a need arising out of the move or in connection with setting up the home in the dwelling.’.—[Danny Alexander.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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Danny Alexander (Shadow Minister and Disability Spokesperson, Work & Pensions; Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The intention of the new clause is clear: it would remove the requirement for the claimant to have physically moved into the new home and become liable for rent on two homes. It is to cover the situation in which someone who is entitled to housing benefit on one home is moving to another home where they are also entitled to housing benefit. It would allow the period of four weeks to be extended where applicants are awaiting the outcome of an application for a social fund payment to meet the need arising from the move or in connection with setting up home in a new dwelling.

I am grateful again to Shelter for briefing and information in support of the new clause. The idea is that regulations should be amended to enable a household moving home to claim housing benefit on two properties for four weeks in circumstances in which it continues to have two rental liabilities but has not moved home. At present, housing benefit is paid for rent on two properties only when the household has moved to the new property. We are talking about the period before somebody moves to a new property and has liability for two rents, upon either of which housing benefit would be allowable.

By way of background, I would say that homeless households living in temporary accommodation often accrue arrears because, while they are not able to move into unfurnished, permanent accommodation atthe point at which they accept an offer of new accommodation—perhaps because it takes time to obtain furnishings for the new home—the liability for the rental on the new property cannot be delayed until such issues have been dealt with.

As a result of the anomaly to which I draw attention, the regulations governing entitlement to housing benefits on two homes can contribute to hardship, rent arrears and, sometimes, repeat homelessness. The new clause proposes a simplification of the existing rules to make them more symmetrical in terms of whether the person has moved to the new home during the four-week period. It would substantially improve the situation. I admit—I am sure that the Under-Secretary will say this too—that relatively few people are in such  circumstances. Given her positive response to the last new clause, I hope that she can be similarly positive to this one.

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Anne McGuire (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People), Department for Work and Pensions; Stirling, Labour)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. I hope that he will accept that the new clause is not necessary because the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 already contains the power that it seeks to introduce. The difference is that the existing secondary legislation imposes restrictions in cases in which a customer is waiting for a decision on a social fund application. I shall come to that point in a moment.

Regulations made under the 1992 Act are in force and allow housing benefit to be paid for up to four weeks on the former home as well as on the new home if the customer has an unavoidable liability on the former home. Regulations are also in force to enable housing benefit to be paid once a customer has moved for up to four weeks prior to the date of the move if the delay in moving is due to his waiting for a decision to be made on a claim for a social fund payment in respect of a move, and if he is disabled or aged over 60 or has a child aged under five.

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Tim Boswell (Daventry, Conservative)

I did not want to interrupt the Under-Secretary in the middle of what is clearly an important and complex technical point. However, she seems to be telling the Committee that although the payment relating to the new home could be backdated, it would not, by definition, be available on the first day of moving. Therefore, a tenant in that situation would potentially have a cash-flow problem.

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Anne McGuire (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People), Department for Work and Pensions; Stirling, Labour)

That is the exact position, and weare looking to alleviate it. As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey says, there are circumstances in which people have difficulties. I know that the local Jobcentre Plus office in his constituency has had problems because the delay in processing community care grants is causing a delay for people in the position that he highlights.

We feel that the measure goes wide enough and that any further widening would be a matter for regulation rather than for primary legislation. Therefore, the issues under discussion are matters for regulation and not for the Bill.

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Danny Alexander (Shadow Minister and Disability Spokesperson, Work & Pensions; Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, Liberal Democrat)

I accept the point that the Under-Secretary is making. For the sake of the completeness of the debate, can she give the Committee an idea as to whether, in the light of this conversation, she is of the view that it might be worth while amending the regulations in order to allow the powers to be taken in the way that I describe, as opposed to the way in which they are currently taken?

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Anne McGuire (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People), Department for Work and Pensions; Stirling, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman has raised a reasonable point. In the light of the examples that he has highlighted—and, given that we want to consult on the regulations—I hope he would accept that we do not want to disadvantage anybody. I will obviously reflect on this short debate to see whether, in the new  regulations, we can accommodate what he admits are unusual but important circumstances for an individual. With those comments, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Danny Alexander

Danny Alexander (Shadow Minister and Disability Spokesperson, Work & Pensions; Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for that response. I had not intended to draw particular attention to the circumstances in the local Jobcentre Plus, but she is quite right to draw the Committee’s attention to that as an example of the circumstances that I am trying to describe. I am particularly grateful for her undertaking to reflect further on whether the regulations might need to be updated in the light of some of these circumstances. I am therefore happy to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.