Housing Benefit and Universal Credit in the Social Housing Sector (Regular Payments)

– in the House of Commons at 1:32 pm on 12th February 2014.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck 1:36 pm, 12th February 2014

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish the right of persons in receipt of housing benefit and universal credit in the social housing sector to receive said benefits at regular intervals;
to provide that such persons should not be financially penalised in relation to the number of bedrooms in a residence;
and for connected purposes.

I would hope that my Bill would receive support from Members in all parties. It is an olive branch for those who, perhaps wrongly, underestimated the real consequences of walking through the Government Lobby to support the introduction of the bedroom tax. Perhaps I am being too generous in saying that, but the alternative—that those who supported the introduction of the bedroom tax knew fully of the dire consequences it would have on those affected—quite frankly beggars belief. Make no mistake about it, the full and sole intention of this Bill is to sweep away the dreaded bedroom tax. It seeks to restore justice for up to 660,000 people—some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens, two thirds of whom are disabled. They have been inhumanely let down by the Government's reforms to housing benefit in the social sector. The tax has caused heartache and devastation to thousands of residents up and down this country. It is a tax whose forced implementation has put extreme pressure on councils, housing associations and social landlords. It is a tax that has put extreme pressure on the ordinary working people who are forced to deal with those unable to move and those unable to pay.

On the introduction of the tax, Ministers argued that the changes would encourage people to downsize to smaller properties and, in doing so, help to cut the £23 billion annual bill for housing benefit; would free up living space for overcrowded families; and would encourage people to get jobs. Significantly, it has achieved none of those objectives. At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions has trumpeted the measure as, “returning fairness to housing benefit.” The words “fairness” and “bedroom tax” should not be uttered in the same sentence.

This tax is a problem in each and every constituency up and down the country; this is not simply a problem in Labour-dominated authorities. I was contacted only last week by a distraught resident from the Tory shires who is hoping that my Bill will be successful, because he, a disabled man, is living in a three-bedroom property and has just received an eviction notice for bedroom tax arrears. He is not alone. The bedroom tax sufferers in Liberal Democrat and Tory constituencies number around 250,000. Perhaps we should ask them whether they think this abominable tax has restored fairness to housing benefit.

My Bill seeks to restore fairness and to end the misery that the bedroom tax has caused. There are hundreds if not thousands of appalling examples of suffering. There was the mother of two who suffered a crippling illness. She committed suicide after realising that she could not pay the bedroom tax. Her family received correspondence later saying that she should have been exempt from paying the tax.

A widow, aged 59, pleaded with the Prime Minister not to force her to move. Her husband’s ashes had been buried in the garden under the rose bushes that she had been given by her friends at the funeral. She did not have a disability or health problems, but this was a family home for goodness’ sake, and that means something. A home is where people bring up their children and cry tears of joy. In this case, there were many tears of sadness when the husband unfortunately passed away.

This next case is hard to comprehend; it really is difficult to try to get to grips with. The family of the 1999 child of courage who spent years battling multiple cancers is suffering at the hands of this horrible reform. These people are not living a life of luxury in palatial properties; they are living in a place in which they feel safe and which they call home. It is time to listen. I am sure that most fair-minded individuals would agree that a bedroom is not spare when carers sleep in it, when couples use it because one of them has health problems and they cannot share a bed, or when it houses vital medical equipment, yet this indiscriminate tax deems it so.

The reality is that yet another measure introduced by this Government is in total and utter chaos. It lies in tatters, with the victims left to pick up the pieces. As thousands suffer, there is a real risk that the bedroom tax will end up costing more than it saves. The National Housing Federation has said that the savings claimed by the Government are “highly questionable”, partly because those who are forced to move to the private rented sector will end up costing more in housing benefit.

Surely, as politicians and members of the general public, we are entitled to question the motives behind the introduction of the bedroom tax. The tax does not deal with the problem of under-occupation. In fact, the Government’s costings on the yield raised from the bedroom tax explicitly assume that people will not move into smaller properties. There are simply not enough smaller properties for people to move into.

Some 180,000 households were deemed to be under-occupying two-bedroom homes, yet only 85,000 one-bedroom homes became available during the whole of 2012. The savings projections of the Department for Work and Pensions assume that not one of the 660,000 households affected would respond to the policy by moving to a smaller home. Put simply, this is yet another example of the Government balancing the books on the backs of the disabled and the vulnerable. The tax must be scrapped now.

Housing associations say that tens of millions of pounds are likely to be lost through the build-up of arrears. Reports this morning estimate that 144,000 people have fallen behind with their rents since the introduction of the bedroom tax and that 14% have received eviction notices. Was that really meant to happen? Was this eviction of the poor really the plan of the Government?

In October, research by the University of York, which was based on data by the housing associations that have tenants affected by the bedroom tax, suggested that the policy could save up to 39% less than the DWP had predicted. In the past week, it has emerged that more than half of the £500 million that the Government claim will be saved by the hated tax will be spent on re-housing disabled people. These are vulnerable people who already live in properties that have been adapted for their needs and who have built up local support networks with their friends, family and neighbours. The future for them lies in communities that are unknown and foreign to them. They have been cast out like the proverbial dog in the night.

In the past months, it has emerged that a loophole in policy exempts thousands of people. Instead of looking at that loophole—[Interruption.] It is suggested that that loophole has been closed. As Ministers scramble to mop up the mistakes, another challenge to the hated tax has arisen. A judge has overturned the tax in the case of a Rochdale man who argued that one of his bedrooms was used as a dining room. The appeal was upheld on the basis that the dictionary definition of a bedroom is a room that contains a bed that is used for sleeping in. An avalanche of appeals is on its way.

I am proud to see that, only last week, the Scottish Labour party shamed the Scottish National party into abolishing the bedroom tax. I must put it on the record that I am also proud that one of the first acts of a future Labour Government will be to end this full frontal attack on the vulnerable. However, we cannot afford to wait until the general election of 2015. I urge the supporters of this tax to think again. The question is this: are they happy to see the misery and social disruption of the vulnerable and disabled?

I began this speech by expressing the view that those who voted in favour of introducing this dreaded bedroom tax may have underestimated the human suffering that it would cause. That is no longer in any doubt, so I urge them all to do the honourable thing and support my Bill.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

The House divided:

Ayes 226, Noes 1.

Division number 211

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Aye

No

Question accordingly agreed to.

Ordered,

That Ian Lavery, Grahame M. Morris, Ian Mearns, Katy Clark, Mrs Linda Riordan, Mark Durkan, Lucy Powell, Pat Glass, Pamela Nash, John Cryer, Ian Lucas and Chris Williamson present the Bill.

Ian Lavery accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February, and to be printed (Bill 174).

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not know whether you noticed, because you are blind in some of these matters—deliberately so—but the Tory Whips were standing outside the Chamber during the Division and persuading Conservative Members not to vote, so we on the Opposition side of the House hope that that means that they have changed their minds and will get rid of the bedroom tax as soon as possible. If they will not, we will.

My point of order relates to the bedroom tax. Mr Speaker, you will recall that earlier this year, when asked how many people had been affected by the loophole in the bedroom tax legislation, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, a Member of this House, said that the number was between 3,000 and 5,000. In a written answer, the Minister of State, Esther McVey, also a Member of this House, said that she did not know how many had been affected. Lord Freud, a Minister in another place, said that it was an insignificant number. Today, however, he told the Work and Pensions Committee of this House that the number was 5,000. We have been doing their work for them, and from freedom of information requests to local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, we already know, from just the third that replied, of 16,000 cases. I know that there is a means whereby a Minister in this House can correct the record, but how can a Minister in the other House correct the record in this House?

R

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert tweeted following the vote to say:

"Labour engineered a vote by shouting against their own motion, otherwise it would have passed with no vote."

https://twitter.com/julianhuppert/status/433624822414061568

Submitted by Richard Taylor

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

As I understand it, at this stage the matter is essentially the property of the Committee. I readily accept that it is a Committee of this House, as the hon. Gentleman has just advised me. The matter is with the Committee. If the Minister has made a mistake—I make no comment on that, because I do not know—he will have the opportunity to correct it. If the Committee believes that he has made a mistake and wishes to pursue it with him, it is open to the Committee to do so. At this stage, therefore, there is nothing further to add. To the extent that I have already advised, it is a legitimate matter for the Chair because of the involvement of a Committee of this House. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and to all colleagues.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, I can confirm that that was exactly what the Minister told us this morning, and we will be pursuing the matter further.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

The hon. Lady has put the matter on the record. Ever anxious to be helpful in the provision of information, she will feel that she has done her duty. We are deeply obliged to her.