Friday, 28 February 2014

Fairness in housing benefit

Wednesday's debate in the House was nominally about closing a loophole in the regulations relating to the number of rooms housing benefit would pay for. As minister McVey explained it, the offending rule was introduced in 1996 to cover a quite different situation - and the man who introduced it, Peter Lilley, was in the chamber to confirm this was the case.

However, the debate was used to reexamine the basis for the restriction in HB (the cut in the spare-room subsidy as DWP describes it). Amidst all the bombast from the opposition benches, some sound points were made, though we have heard most of them before, both in the chamber and (more objectively) at Liberal Democrat conference.

It seems to me that the macho refusal on the part of Treasury and DWP to join the real world, as some MPs put it, is morally and, if it persists, electorally, insupportable. Some respectability could have been retrieved if Liberal Democrats in the coalition had insisted on the review called for by the party conference had been initiated promptly, instead of being postponed until the end of the parliament by Nick Clegg.

There are ways for the coalition to end the real hardship of those at the wrong end of the cuts while saving face. The government would be able to resist opposition calls to repeal the legislation if it genuinely put social housing on the same basis as the private rented sector, i.e. by applying the spare room cut only on change of tenancy. At the same time, it should recognise that there are difficulties virtually unique to social housing, like adaptations for the long-term ill. Exemptions for these cases should be written into amending legislation. (It should be noted that David Cameron stated that the exemptions were already there in a Prime Ministerial answer a few weeks ago.) Finally, something that does not need legislation, local authorities should be given a strong nudge to use Discretionary Housing Payments to make up the difference where there is no suitable alternative accommodation in the area, either social or commercial. There is evidence in this corner of Wales that councils are, out of incompetence or political opportunism, not making DHPs where they should, and I don't suppose the situation is much different in other corners of the kingdom. The DHP budget is one of the few which is generous. Indeed, most councils handed back unspent DHP funds at the end of the last financial year.

Of course, we need more housing relevant to the needs of 21st century Britain. Incentives from government should be geared to that. Perhaps the big and rich supermarkets, which are already branching out into banking, insurance and mobile telephony, could put their unused land-banks to a social purpose by releasing them for housing. It should be noted that Tesco is cutting back its programme of new supermarket and hypermarket openings.

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