[Jim Sheridan in the Chair] — Housing Benefit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 10th March 2011.

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Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 2:30 pm, 10th March 2011

Governments and local authorities are often accused of making people suffer a postcode lottery. The fact that yet another matter will be open to the discretion of local authorities with tight budgets could create a strong postcode lottery dependent on area, not just in different parts of the country but in neighbouring areas. That will lead to uncertainty among claimants, who will not know when they sign a lease whether they will receive discretionary housing payment or not. There will be new claimants, and those sitting in houses in the hope of receiving discretionary housing benefit might have months of worry—perhaps will have even started to look for other housing—before knowing whether they will be covered by their council’s discretion and receive the money.

I suspect that in many areas, because the money will not go far enough, the discretionary housing payment might cover some but not all of the gap between people’s rent and their housing benefit and local housing allowance, so the anxiety about whether they will have to move will continue even after they are awarded the discretionary housing payment.

The other panaceas that the Government seem to think will solve a lot are the nine months’ transitional protection, which was mentioned only four times in their response rather than 20, and the independent review, which is mentioned throughout the document, although I did not count how many times. Phrases such as “the independent review will be comprehensive” and “it will cover” crop up throughout the report, as though we will have to wait for the review before some of the questions are answered. That is particularly worrying.

Another issue that we considered was the shared room rate, which the Government say in their response will be renamed the shared accommodation rate. It is meant for younger people, who are expected not necessarily to have single tenancy of a complete property but to share with others. It is proposed to raise the age limit for the shared accommodation rate from 25 to 35.

I am not sure that the Government have thought through the implications. I held a housing summit in Aberdeen to which a lot of people from the public rented sector came along, particularly from housing associations, and they were greatly exercised. Do the Government know how many houses in multiple occupation exist? Is there enough accommodation for that group of people? In my area, there are virtually no HMOs, because it is quite complicated and bureaucratic to register as one. A number of people who fall into the category will not be able to access a room in shared accommodation. Have the Government considered changing the rules to make it easier to share? It is illegal for tenants on housing benefit to sub-let, and there are all sorts of other barriers in the rules that make it difficult for people on housing benefit to share housing.

Have the Government considered the divorced or separated dad who is 34 years old and has access to his children at the weekend? What will it mean to bring children into a house in which other people live? Have the Government considered the child protection issues involved? Will the single room rate apply to the divorced father under 35 who looks after his children one or two nights a week?

What research have the Government done to ensure that accommodation for that group exists at all? In some rural areas, there are no HMOs. Will young people all be expected to flock into cities and more populated areas if the accommodation for which they qualify does not exist in their area?