I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that people in receipt of Universal Credit and Housing Benefit and accommodated in the social housing sector be entitled to an additional bedroom related to caring responsibilities or overnight care;
and for connected purposes.
The Bill would exempt households with one additional room from the bedroom tax if a member of the household is entitled to carers allowance. It would also widen that exemption to households in which a person needs overnight care. Those simple measures would have a significant impact on a group of people who deserve support, rather than being unfairly hit financially, as they have been by this Government. I fully support my party’s plans to abolish the bedroom tax if elected in 2015, but it is also right that we should focus on the impact of the bedroom tax on the financial situation of unpaid family carers right now.
More than 6.5 million people across the UK are unpaid family carers, and they face a host of financial, emotional and practical challenges due to their caring. Ignoring that, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of this House voted for the bedroom tax to hit at least 60,000 of those carers. Since then, confusion has been caused by Government Members suggesting that unpaid carers are somehow exempt from the bedroom tax; they are not. A disabled person who needs overnight care from a paid care worker or non-resident relative is exempt from the bedroom tax, but where that care is provided unpaid by a partner or another carer living in the same house, they are hit by the tax. That is inconsistent and unfair.
I commend the work that other hon. Members have undertaken to try to address the problems caused by the bedroom tax. We have had many powerful debates on its unfairness and the impact it is having on our constituents. My hon. Friend Ian Lavery brought in a Bill to abolish the bedroom tax, and the House voted overwhelmingly to support it. Andrew George has also sought to secure wider exemptions from the bedroom tax for disabled households. Unlike other Members of his party, he has fought against the bedroom tax. The House also voted strongly to support his Bill, and I wish him success with it, but at the moment I doubt whether Conservative Ministers will work with him to allow it through.
My Bill differs in the fact that it relates specifically to carers. It proposes simple measures that would improve the financial situation of carers and their families. If it progresses, it would address one of the most unfair outcomes of the bedroom tax: the impact it has had on unpaid carers.
Subjecting carers to the bedroom tax was always illogical as well as unfair. One aim of the bedroom tax was to improve work incentives for working-age claimants.
The Government’s assumption was that if households were not able to downsize they would be able to seek work or increase the number of hours they worked to pay the bedroom tax, but for many unpaid carers that is not an option. Entitlement to carers allowance means that a person is caring for someone for over 35 hours a week—in effect, full-time caring. These are the carers with the heaviest work load. It is not possible for them to move into employment or to seek extra hours, as both would reduce their ability to care. Carers UK tells us that 2.3 million people have given up work to care. For me, it is an insult to carers who have had to make the difficult decision to give up work so that they can care for a family member to be penalised even further for that decision.
The Government have suggested that people subject to the bedroom tax could take in a lodger, but this is also impractical for many carers. It is inappropriate, in my view, to expect a person caring for a family member with a severe disability or with many health needs to have to take in a lodger. In any case, the need that many carers have is for a separate room so that they can get some sleep. Taking in a lodger would mean that the additional room would not be available for them to do that.
I would like to thank Carers UK for helping with the drafting of this Bill. Carers UK and Salford Carers Centre have given me examples of the impact of the bedroom tax on carers. I will talk briefly about one case from Salford, but Carers UK has examples from other parts of the country. If hon. Members talk to carers centres or carer support groups in their own constituencies, they will be able to find many similar stories.
Mr C is a full-time carer for his wife, who has multiple physical health problems. He has a demanding caring role that includes personal care for his wife, as well as cooking, laundry, shopping, emotional support, and attending medical appointments with her. They were rehoused into a two-bedroom social housing sector bungalow that is adapted to meet Mrs C’s needs. Due to Mrs C’s health problems, she finds it difficult to sleep at night and is very restless. Mr C uses the second bedroom to get a good night’s sleep so that he can cope with his caring role.
When the couple were rehoused, they were eligible for full housing benefit, but when the bedroom tax came in they were classed as having a spare bedroom. Mr and Mrs C are unable to move to smaller accommodation because the bungalow is ideal for them in all other ways. They have applied for, and been awarded, several discretionary housing payments that have partially made up the shortfall in housing benefit. However, like carers across the country, they know that there is no guarantee that any future applications for discretionary housing payment will be successful. Carers UK tells me that having to apply for discretionary housing payments causes stress to carers and increases their worries about household finances. I believe that the case from Salford is typical of the situation for many carers.
Government policy reflects a complete misunderstanding of the circumstances most carers find themselves in, and it fails to treat carers with the dignity and the respect that they deserve. To address this, my Bill calls for all households with one additional room where someone is entitled to carers allowance to be exempt from the bedroom tax. That would recognise the contribution that carers make to our economy through their caring and their consequent inability to change their financial circumstances.
The second part of the Bill addresses the issue of overnight care. Current exemptions to the bedroom tax fail to recognise all those who need an additional bedroom for care needs, because they apply solely to the overnight care needs of the tenant or their partner, and only when a non-resident provides that care. Those people are denied an additional room if the partner or other person living in the home provides the care unpaid. If a disabled child, older parent or another disabled relative lives with them and needs overnight care, those needs for an additional room are not taken into account either. The exemption for disabled children relates only to those who cannot share a room with a sibling, not to those who need overnight care. My Bill would address that imbalance and widen the exemption to any person in the house who needs overnight care, not just the tenant or partner. I know that that anomaly has had a negative impact on many carers and their families.
I have described a case where an additional bedroom is needed by the unpaid family carer to get the sleep needed to be able to continue to care. My Bill would make simple changes to exempt many carers from the financial burdens imposed by the bedroom tax, and help to free them from the uncertainty of relying on temporary discretionary housing payments. These are small changes which would have a big impact on unpaid family carers, who are already coping with all the challenges of caring. We owe it to those carers to recognise the contribution that they make through caring. We owe it to them to remove the one financial burden which should never have been imposed on them. I urge Members on both sides of the House to support this Bill.
I rise to oppose the motion. Let me say at the outset that Barbara Keeley, in moving the motion, has demonstrated once again her long-standing concern for carers, and I am sure that that concern is shared by Members on both sides of the House. There is no doubt that in every constituency there are thousands of people who sacrifice their own interests to look after the welfare of others who need special care. Very often, but by no means always, it is for a member of their own family, and, of course, it is true that were it not for the support that carers provide, the burden of providing that care and support would very often fall on the state.
The issue under discussion, however, is not whether carers provide valuable support, but whether it is right that taxpayers should be asked to pay for the provision of rooms in social housing which for the vast majority of the time stand empty and unused. [Interruption.]
We must never forget why the Government changed the rules for housing benefit to remove the public subsidy for spare rooms. There were two principal reasons. First, the change was necessary because the previous Labour Government were borrowing £1 for every £4 they spent. It was vital that public expenditure was brought under control and that the country started to live within its means. With the present coalition
Government committed to increasing spending on our national health service, it was necessary to look for savings in other areas and that included reducing expenditure on welfare. Those changes to housing benefit essentially brought the rules that apply to people renting in the public sector into line with the rules for people renting in the private sector, which were introduced by the previous Labour Government.
The need to control public expenditure and ensure that the country lives within its means is not the only reason it is right for the state to stop subsidising spare rooms. With about 300,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation, it clearly makes sense to encourage the most efficient use of our public housing stock. Some 820,000 spare rooms were being provided by housing benefit before the reform was introduced.
The changes to housing benefit already take into account the specific needs of carers. Housing benefit is based on the occupation needs of the household, and the resident carer is allocated, and entitled to, their own bedroom. The regulations do not allow a claimant an extra bedroom for a non-resident overnight carer, but local authorities already have the discretion to determine whether an extra bedroom should be provided even when a qualifying benefit is not being paid to a claimant, if there is sufficient evidence that they require care during the night from a non-resident carer.
As was made clear on Second Reading of the Affordable Homes Bill, promoted by Andrew George on
Given the very narrow scope of the Bill that the motion seeks leave to introduce, it seems to me that a more effective way for the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South to bring about the legislative change she wants would be to persuade the House to amend the Affordable Homes Bill. Bearing in mind that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition have pledged to reverse the housing benefit changes if they win the general election next May, many inside and outside the House will be as surprised as I am at her apparent lack of faith in her party’s chances of winning the election and consequently being able to restore the subsidy for spare rooms as they have pledged to do. Given that, even if the motion is agreed to, the resulting Bill will join a long list of private Members’ Bills—they already number more than 70—and that even with a fair wind it is unlikely to receive Royal Assent until just before the end of this Parliament, the Bill’s effect would at best be minimal if an incoming Labour Government reversed all the housing benefit changes.
The motion is a good reminder to the public that the election of another Labour Government would signal a return to the something-for-nothing culture that this Government have put an end to. I do not propose to divide the House, but I have placed on the record some of the points that will no doubt be expanded on if and when the Bill receives a Second Reading.
Question accordingly agreed
That Barbara Keeley, Alex Cunningham, Dr Hywel Francis, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Diana Johnson, Mr Virendra Sharma, Jim Shannon, Andrew George, Hywel Williams, Caroline Lucas, Laura Sandys and Andrew Gwynne present the Bill.
Barbara Keeley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on