Underoccupancy Charge: Carers — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:50 pm on 10th November 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 2:50 pm, 10th November 2014

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to exempting unpaid carers from the underoccupancy charge.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

An unpaid resident carer is allocated a bedroom, unless they are the partner of the housing benefit claimant, in which case they will share a bedroom. A non-resident unpaid carer who regularly undertakes overnight care in respect of the claimant or their partner is also provided with a bedroom.

Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Does the Minister really think it justifiable to make carers who are providing round-the-clock care apply repeatedly for a discretionary housing payment in order to remain in their own homes—a process which, by the way, is lengthy and bureaucratic, and very uncertain in terms of getting the discretionary payment? Is this really a fair way to treat people who are providing vast amounts of care and saving the state vast amounts of money—often at great personal cost, as the Minister knows? I ask him again: will he consider an exemption for carers from this pernicious tax?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

We clearly value carers greatly, and we have put support into the system at different levels for them. In this case we have given local authorities some guidance to make it absolutely clear that they can make longer-term determinations of discretionary housing payments. We have also made it clear that DHPs will be paid next year as well as this year.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Government’s own review of the spare room subsidy shows that discretionary housing payments are inconsistent, short-term and temporary. Indeed, the evidence is that most of the applications for those payments are made by the very groups who should be exempt—carers and those who have had adaptations made to their homes. Many local authorities are now means-testing the disability benefits of people in receipt of those allowances. Regardless of what may happen to this policy next year, is it not now time for the Government to fully exempt people in those groups, such as carers and those with adapted homes, so that they are not subject to this inconsistent approach to government funding and can get certainty in their lives?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

As I said, we have made sure that long-term discretionary housing payments can be made. We have also provided guidance to make it clear that where claimants are using their disability payments for needs caused by their disability, such as paying for care or Motability schemes, those would not be included in the calculation.

Photo of Lord Christopher Lord Christopher Labour

My Lords, is it not the case that it is not just outrageous but downright cruel to require a partner—presumably a wife or a husband—whose day may be appalling anyway, to sleep in the same room as the disabled person? I find that statement utterly outrageous.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

About 40,000 couples in which one is looking after the other were covered by the spare room policy when it was introduced. That is about 6% of the total. The discretionary housing payment system was set up precisely to look at circumstances in which the couple could not share a room—because, of course, many of them could, even though there was a disability.

Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench

My Lords, a lot of people are looking after severely disabled children, or older adults with long-term conditions—particularly dementia. In order to get some sleep, they have to chop and change, and need additional carers such as other members of the family coming in. They desperately need the extra room. Can those sort of carers usually get an exception to the rule and be allowed to have an additional bedroom?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

This is precisely the kind of circumstance for which the discretionary housing payment is designed. It has not been found possible to have a general rule, and that is why this system, which has gone through the courts in quite some detail, has been found to supply support where necessary.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, if, as the Minister suggests, disabled families with family carers are effectively covered by DHPs, why not simply exempt them? If he is wrong—which I suspect he is—why are we, quite knowingly, making lives that are already hard even harder, perhaps thus ensuring that the family carers will themselves become disabled?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The courts have gone through this in some detail now and found that it is reasonable for the Secretary of State to take the view that it is not practicable to provide a further exemption for an imprecise class of persons, and that the flexibility of the DHP scheme can be relied upon to provide the additional help.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Does my noble friend not accept that this policy, which appears to be insensitively applied, does not sit happily with Conservative philosophy?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

We have aimed to get rid of some of the areas where people are just not taking part in the economic life of the country. One of the things that has been happening is that the proportion of people who have been outside the labour market and in social housing has dropped dramatically from a peak of 49% at the beginning of this Parliament to 41% now—the lowest-ever level. We need to look to help all people that we possibly can to take a full part in the economic life of this country.

Photo of Lord Bradley Lord Bradley Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, the Minister’s department claims that the focus and scope of the family test is on strong and stable family relationships, with particular focus on extended families, particularly when they are playing a role in raising children or caring for older or disabled family members. Can the Minister explain to the House how the bedroom tax passes this test?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The removal of the spare room subsidy is designed, at its heart, to save money—it saves £500 million a year—and make sure that housing is allocated more efficiently. There are signs of that policy now working.