Opinion: Under Occupation – The Catch 22 of the Welfare Reform Bill

Most of the measures in the Welfare Reform Bill are extremely sensible. Designed to streamline a byzantine system where fraud was far too easy and anomalies like benefit recipients living in million pound mansions too common (though not as common as the Daily Mail would have you believe!).

During the passage of the Bill, the Liberal Democrats have managed to curb some of the worst excesses of our coalition partners. For example, we got rid of the idea that people on Job Seekers Allowance for more than a year would lose 10% of their housing benefit. It is measures like this that show why it is so important that the Liberal Democrats are there in Government sense checking our Conservative “friends” ideas. Clearly two heads are better than one. And proves that we are a moderating force on the worse excesses of the Tories agenda.

However, there is one measure in the Welfare Reform Bill that should still concern us. Under Government proposals in the Bill, 670,000 households in the social sector will be hit by an average £670 penalty every year because it has been decided they have a ‘spare’ bedroom. But that room isn’t necessarily ‘spare’. It is where a child whose other parent has custody stays when they visit, the place family members stay at a time of crisis, or the space a teenage child needs to study and grow. It is part of normal life. This is not the way to tackle under-occupation; we need more carrot than stick.

People in these homes face a terrible decision: do they stay in their home – near their family and friends, their support networks, their children’s’ school – but live in appalling hardship? Or move out of their home and attempt to find a cheaper place to live, away from the lives they have built up.

And the sad truth is, with so few smaller homes available, they may not even have that choice.

The reality is that decades of Government failure, of all parties, have led to a chronic shortage of available social housing, particularly smaller homes. For years, housing associations and councils have placed families in properties with extra rooms for a variety of reasons, including as part of sensible lettings policies to prevent, for example, large concentrations of children in high rise flats.

Many areas that were previously blighted by crime, anti-social behaviour, graffiti and vandalism have been transformed by housing strategies implemented at the local level, using local knowledge to build successful mixed communities. Sometimes this has meant putting a tenant in a property with more bedrooms than the stringent space requirements proposed by the Department for Work and Pensions would permit. This sledgehammer measure will take away this key allocations tool for social housing providers who will be reluctant to place tenants in a situation where they may not be able to pay their rent.

The Localism Act and the Housing Strategy show that the Government is committed to getting house-building back on track. It is clear that housing is higher on the Government’s priority list than it has been since the post war building boom. This will go a long way towards correcting the mistakes of the past and ensuring that in the future we have the right amount of the right kind of houses.

But until there exists the alternative homes for people judged to be “under-occupying” to move into, this is simply a punitive removal of benefits for people stuck in a catch-22 situation. No money to pay their increased rent, and no smaller home to move into.

As this Welfare Reform Bill goes reaches Report Stage in the Lords I urge our Lib Dem Peers to look again at this measure and see what can be done to mitigate the worst effects of a policy that our housing system simply isn’t prepared for.

Cllr Terry Stacy is the leader of Islington Liberal Democrats.

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4 Comments

  • However, there is one measure in the Welfare Reform Bill that should still concern us. Under Government proposals in the Bill, 670,000 households in the social sector will be hit by an average £670 penalty every year because it has been decided they have a ‘spare’ bedroom. But that room isn’t necessarily ‘spare’. It is where a child whose other parent has custody stays when they visit, the place family members stay at a time of crisis, or the space a teenage child needs to study and grow. It is part of normal life. This is not the way to tackle under-occupation; we need more carrot than stick.

    Well I rent in the private sector and receive help with my rent for my 3 bedroom property. I have a child who doesn’t normally reside with me. I have him to stay in the 3rd bedroom but I don’t get any help so why should you get the “extra” bedroom in social housing??? If you disagree with this policy then fight for EVERYONE to benefit!!!

  • 670,000 households in the social sector will be hit by an average £670 penalty every year because it has been decided they have a ‘spare’ bedroom..

    The 70 year old that lives next door to me alone in social housing that is too big for her to keep maintained, or heated alone has not one but three spare bedrooms. Her mum is still going strong at 90. It makes no sense to keep people in properties for decades that are far too big for them when there is such a high level of need. What this government really needs to do is mandate more social accommodation be built with the needs of an ageing population in mind, so that some of these people are able to move to places that are far less expensive for them to run and more generally more practical for those who are awaiting hip replacements or whatever. This should be integrated with other housing so old people are not pushed into ghettos.

    I have a lot of sympathy for anyone who has to move areas and might end up with kids at different schools, but this also happens to people that rent privately, who claim no benefits and actually have far less protection. I think this government is looking like it will do more to add to the housing stock than the last, but we’ll have to wait a year or so to see if the talk can be converted into action.

  • What does the party propose to do about the new proposals set out by the government to time limit support for mortgage interest payments to 2 years.

    The new proposal being put before government is that for all claimants in receipt of income support who are moved from Incapacity benefit or ESA to JSA will have Support for Mortgage Interest payments time limited to 2 years.

    Seems to me that the government are seeking to line the pockets of their friends with rather large property portfolios once again by driving up repossessions and driving down property prices.

    Funny how Conservatives did exactly just that when they where last in government when introducing the right to buy scheme.
    As more council homes become Mortgaged, Initially driving up the property prices for the Mid range and the higher end of the property market, and then when the collapse began and more and more people became unemployed and repossessions where on the increase, Property developers snatch up cheap repossessions and then rent them out at “extortionate” levels “mostly to benefit claimants”

    And now the Tories seek to do it all over again with a new push on the right to buy scheme along with these new proposals to time limit Support for Mortgage Interest Payments for those who are unfortunate to loose their jobs or who become ill.

    Along with reducing employees right’s, do you really not thinking this is all painting a very ugly picture.

    These are exactly the kind of things that I thought the Liberal Democrats went into government for, to limit the excesses of the far right Tory Ideologies. So far I have not seen any of this

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