In 2015-16, about 685,000 socially renting households were either in arrears or had been in the previous 12 months, which represents 25% of households in that sector.
That seems a huge number: nearly a quarter of people in social housing in rent arrears. In one ward of my constituency, nearly half of our social housing tenants—46% of them—are in rent arrears. One single mum has seen her rent jump from £8 to £70 a week because of the benefit cap, and the bedroom tax is still wreaking devastation. Is this not a damning indictment of seven years of Tory assault on Britain’s struggling families?
In 2011-12, the first year in which the data were collected, the figure was 23.5%, so the current figure is similar to what we inherited from the Labour Government. On the benefit cap, Conservative Members believe very clearly that it is completely wrong for out-of-work households to receive support far in excess of that which their working neighbours earn when they go out to work. Discretionary housing payments are in order and the level is actually falling—in 2013-14, we were talking about 30% of households—so the figure is moving in the right direction, and the hon. Lady is wrong to oppose the fundamental welfare reforms we need to make sure that the system is fair.
Those tenants in the social housing sector who do not keep up with their rent payments are, of course, in danger of becoming homeless. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to councils such as Kettering Borough Council, of which I am a member, that make it an absolute priority to help people in those situations and stop them becoming homeless in the first place? In the first five months of this year, Kettering Borough Council has helped 78 households stay in their current accommodation.
I am happy to pay tribute to the work that Kettering Borough Council has done, and I reassure my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Justice’s protocol for social landlords stresses the value of preventive measures in respect of rent arrears and advises landlords to deploy alternatives to eviction wherever possible.
Has the Minister had discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about universal credit and the impact it is having on many of my constituents who are not being paid for weeks and sometimes months on end and are therefore going into arrears? That is in addition to being hit by the bedroom tax and other benefit changes. Has he had these discussions, or will he do so, because what is going on in my constituency is a disgrace?
We have had discussions with DWP colleagues, and I make two brief points to the hon. Gentleman. First, universal credit advances are available for new claims, and those should be taken up. Secondly, DWP research shows that after four months the proportion of universal credit claimants who were in arrears at the start of their claims had fallen by a third. So there is an initial problem, and the advance claims are there to cope with that, but over time the situation is improving.
The Government have significantly increased the discretionary housing payments that are available to local authorities to assist those affected by welfare reform changes. The whole emphasis of the policy on which the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr Jones is working is to try to shift the approach to emphasise prevention. That way, we will prevent people from becoming statutorily homeless in the first place, rather than just providing help at the point of crisis.