Mark Jewell

Liberal Democrat campaigner working for Ashton, Larches, Savick and Lea Learn more

A question of fairness – An interview with Steve Webb MP

by markjewell on 17 July, 2013

Steve Webb MP Minister for Pensions

Steve Webb MP Minister for Pensions

Is the government going to address the fundamental unfairness around the spare bedroom subsidy penalising those people who are willing to move and downsize, but cannot because of a lack of suitable housing?

This was the question I put to Steve Webb MP, as part of a bloggers interview, at the Social Liberal Forum on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Manchester.

Although I lost my County Council seat in May, I have continued to be an advocate for people within the area I live. I continue to see how the necessary welfare reforms are being implemented on the ground and how they are impacting peoples’ lives. In general these cases are not simple but may also include loss of benefits whilst appealing an ESA/benefits decision, accumulated debts, mental health issues, and a number of other issues.

When invited to be part of the bloggers panel that would interview Steve Webb, I jumped at it. It was too good an opportunity to miss. There were seven other members of the panel all asking their own informed questions. You can read some of their blog posts at the links below.

For my part, I broadly support the objectives of the spare bedroom subsidy. With nearly one million spare bedrooms in the social rented sector, the additional payments for these rooms total £500 million per year. At the same time, there are 250,000 households living in overcrowded accommodation in the social rented sector.

In a land where there are sufficient one and two bedroom properties to downsize to, this would be fair given the financial savings that have to be made to reduce the deficit. This seems grossly unfair when no such option or choice exists for many individuals and families. It feels too much like balancing the nations finances on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.

In his response Steve acknowledged this was not comfortable territory for us. He highlighted how Labour introduced an under-occupancy benefit reduction as part of their local housing allowance reforms in 2008. The coalition’s benefit reduction reflects that under occupiers in social housing should not receive more generous payments than individuals renting in the private sector. He went on to explain there are a number of exemptions for vulnerable people, including the disabled, pensioners, foster carers and armed forces personnel. Furthermore, the  government gave local authorities £25m per year for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) to assist vulnerable people risking arrears. He pointed out that in 2011/12 £11million of the DHP was returned.

Could the discretionary housing allowance, given to local authorities, be the answer to the unfairness of being penalised for the failures of previous governments to build more 1 and 2 bedroom homes? It is a question I am seeking clarification on. How much did my local authority get. How much have they used or given back. What criteria do they apply?

I doubt this wholly answers the question. In itself it is asking local authorities to perpetuate a view of the deserving and undeserving poor.

It is an aspect of coalition policy I am very uncomfortable with. When this issue is mixed with a loss of benefits due to poor assessment decisions, forcing claimants into deeper debt and the uncertainties of court actions or even eviction, there is no greater example of addressing the deficit on the back of the poorest and most vulnerable. I would prefer to see the emphasis placed on helping social landlords to build more housing, and motivating them to take a more proactive role to better match households to suitable accommodation. I would also like to see the exemptions extended to those suffering mental health problems or learning difficulties. Without the social care support in place to help them, they already have enough on their plate without this additional burden.

Liberal Democrats must come up with an alternative to this policy if our logo of ‘A stronger Economy, in a Fairer Society’ is to ring true for the 660,000 claimants affected whilst also addressing the 250,000 households living in overcrowded accommodation in the social rented sector.

Mary Reid’s Post

Steve Webb MP

   1 Comment

One Response

  1. iain bb says:

    Hi Mark, I finally got round to doing my postingson Steve Webb and the SLF:

    Steve Webb at the Social Liberal Conference by Iain Brodie-Browne on Birkdale Focus

    Social Liberal Forum, Radical Reform Group : 60 years apart yet one common mission? by Iain Brodie-Browne on Birkdale Focus

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