Friday, 1 March 2013

The spare-room subsidy

Wednesday saw a full-scale debate in the House of Commons, on a Nationalist and Green motion, on the subject of the Housing Benefit under-occupancy penalty. Greg Mulholland and Simon Hughes raised concerns which have still not been addressed by the government, but minister Steve Webb, in a powerful response to Dr Eilidh Whiteford's impassioned opener, demolished two myths:

Convicts will not be exempt from the penalty. It is true that accused persons remanded in custody on even serious charges will not be subject to it, but as the minister pointed out, we are still innocent until proven guilty in this country - unless this is another civil liberty which Labour intends to remove should they get back into power.

Housing benefit will go up, not down, when service personnel leave to serve away from home. As the minister explained: "The young serviceman or women, who will be on a wage, is deemed to be making a substantial contribution towards the household rent—say £70 a week or so—but when they have been away for more than 13 weeks, that non-dependent deduction does not apply any more, so the housing benefit goes up substantially. There will be a charge for under-occupancy, which might be, say, £14 a week. Instead of paying £70 to the household housing costs, the young serviceman or woman will not have to pay anything, so if they value the room at £2 a day, they could still pay that £2 to mum and dad and be more than £50 a week better off. Rather than seeing mum and dad’s housing benefit fall, therefore, they will see it increase."

There are doubts as to whether the amount of cash the government has set aside for local authorities to provide for exemptions, like overnight provision for carers, is sufficient, but at least the minister has promised to keep the situation under continuous review.

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