Housing: Underoccupancy Charge — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 2nd March 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords) 3:22 pm, 2nd March 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect disabled people and victims of domestic violence from the effects of the under-occupancy charge.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We have already taken steps to protect disabled people and victims of domestic violence by providing local authorities with £560 million in discretionary housing payment funding since 2011. A further £870 million of discretionary housing payment will be provided over the next five years, which will allow local authorities to make long-term or indefinite awards so that people in difficult situations such as these are protected.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords)

I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Government are spending a quarter of a million pounds appealing two bedroom tax cases in the Supreme Court this week: one from a rape victim who had had a panic room installed by the police and the other from a family caring for their severely disabled grandson. I intuit that the Minister will not want to comment on the cases specifically, but he mentioned discretionary housing payments, which are always the Government’s defence when the bedroom tax comes up. But the Government’s own evaluation found that a third of people hit by the bedroom tax did not even know that the payments existed. Can the Minister tell the House what he is doing to improve the situation for disabled people and rape victims and how people will know about the discretionary housing payments?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

To start with, roughly 40% of people knew about the discretionary housing payments—that figure has now increased to 66%, I think. So there is information out there. I thank the noble Baroness for making the point that the Supreme Court is looking at this area right at this moment—today; I am necessarily more circumscribed than normal in some of what I can say on this area in the next few minutes.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Liberal Democrat

My Lords, have the Government thought of changing the law so that the partners or spouses of disabled people who are also their carers would be eligible to have the spare room—which is often needed for very bulky items such as hoists, wheelchairs and so on, as well as a bed—so that the carer, who is the husband, wife or family member, may have what one might call respite sleeping?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The noble Baroness has put her finger on a Supreme Court issue, which I will just have to duck today.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, if it turns out that the funds available to local authorities, which the Minister mentioned, are in fact inadequate to meet the defined needs of disabled people and others who should come within their orbit, will the Government make more funds available?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We keep this under review and, as I said, we have increased the amount quite substantially for the next five-year period. Currently, local authorities have been somewhat underspending and we get a small return of the money that they do not spend. The bulk of local authorities, at the halfway point of the current financial year, have been spending under 50% of their allocation.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, two-fifths of local authorities whose policies are online make it clear that payment is short term, while nearly a third specify a fixed period for discretionary housing payments. The Minister’s own evaluation report warned that,

“this funding is by its nature short term and offers tenants little certainty over their future”,

which is particularly relevant to disabled people and domestic violence victims. How much longer will the Minister pray in aid discretionary housing payments to justify an unjustifiable policy?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

On the noble Baroness’s first point, we have made it absolutely clear in our guidance that these can be longer-term payments. One thing that we have done by having a five-year settlement is to give local authorities the confidence to make longer-term payments. The guidance in the manual says that,

“it may be more appropriate to make a long term award in cases where a claimant’s circumstances are unlikely to change, and making a short term award will cause them undue distress”.

We have recognised the exact point that the Baroness makes.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

My Lords, is it the case that current regulations allow for an additional bedroom for a disabled adult who requires overnight care but not for a disabled child in a similar situation? If that is the case, is that fair?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will have to repeat the answer that I gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas.

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Bishop

Can I take the Minister back to the first question of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, about panic rooms? His answer was that there is information out there but when someone has had a panic room installed through a sanctuary scheme, there is a clearly defined problem. It seems that we need to find some way to make sure that that advice automatically gets to them. Has the Minister considered any way in which we can encourage local authorities to have a duty to give that information about the discretionary housing payments?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The information on this is disseminated. When people are written to, informing them that they are subject to the removal of the spare room subsidy, the information is made available to them on that occasion. Awareness of that is growing.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour

Given the well-known problems in housing with rentals and finding accommodation, have the Government given any thought to extending their policy on the underoccupancy charge to the private sector?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The way that this was introduced was to replicate what happens in the private sector, where the LHA does exactly that: it provides the family with what they require. The removal of the spare room subsidy brings the same system into the social sector as was introduced into the private sector by the very party that the noble Lord sits in.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, two-thirds of those affected by the bedroom tax have a disability. Will the Minister tell us what proportion of those people affected—the two-thirds—are actually receiving discretionary housing awards? The money does not stretch to them.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I have gone through these figures before. When you look at the numbers of disabled people who are subject to the spare room policy, 63% of the original number were disabled on a DDA basis but, by the time you take it on to the higher rate DLA basis, the figure was down to 17%.