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Women’s Aid — [Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:08 pm on 14th March 2012.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:08 pm, 14th March 2012

What my hon. Friend says echoes what I said at the beginning of my speech about how the benefits system relates to specialised individual needs. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort on that matter.

I suppose that my direct question to the Minister is whether those in receipt of local housing allowance who go into women’s hostels will receive just the basic housing allowance; or will the hostels be able to charge an additional amount, to be covered by the local housing allowance? My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill made that point starkly when he talked about the pressure on Monklands Women’s Aid. There may be a misunderstanding, and if so I am sure that we would love to receive clarification.

The Minister appreciates that some women and, as I have said, some men are forced to leave their homes as a result of domestic violence and need not just a roof over their head but significant support. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth highlighted that.Like other hon. Members, I hope that the Minister will consider how to finesse the new system of local housing allowance to take account of those additional services. Otherwise, I fear for the long-term viability of women’s aid organisations that provide hostel accommodation.

I am echoing comments that other hon. Members have made when I say that some women who have left home may have little or no experience of budgeting, or may be in such a state that budgeting is the last thing on their minds. The direct payment of rent in those circumstances would benefit some people. I agree with the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye that, in principle, giving people the independence to pay their own rent is good practice. Indeed, we introduced that when in government, because it lessened some of the stigma effects—the “No DHSS here” signs and other such things—but we must be realistic and say that in some specific circumstances people would benefit from having their rent paid directly. I hope that the Minister will consider a range of exemptions, to allow those who want it and who feel that they need it at the time in question to access direct payment. I may be wrong, but I understand that the Minister, or the Department, is currently considering such exemptions. Perhaps she will be able to give us interesting news.

The Minister will be aware that on Monday a Delegated Legislation Committee debated the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Domestic Violence) (Amendment) Regulations 2012. The Government’s proposal to ease some of the JSA conditionality on those coping with domestic violence was unanimously accepted. We certainly welcome that decision, which implemented elements of the Welfare

Reform Act 2009. Although there have been, as I said earlier, some robust Divisions on welfare reform provisions, the regulations in question were welcomed by my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms.

However, I want to ask for the Minister’s view on an issue on which the views were not unanimous: how welfare reform will affect the capacity of women’s aid organisations to seek housing for women. There are serious concerns about the effect of the change to the shared-room rate of local housing allowance under the Welfare Reform Act 2012 on victims of domestic abuse and the possibility that it will make it difficult for some women to move easily from hostels to independent accommodation. The fact that the age limit is being extended from 25 to 35 makes it difficult, particularly for women who have been used to an element of independence. Is the age of 33, given all the other things happening in the life of such a person, really the time—I should not say “you”, Dr McCrea, but in Scotland “you” is the vernacular for “one”—when you should think about going into shared accommodation, perhaps with strangers? There is concern about that; I have certainly picked it up from women’s aid organisations.