Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Cambridge MP Receives Assurances On Spare Room Policy

MP Julian Huppert has sought assurances that no-one will lose benefits through the government’s spare room under-occupancy policy if they cannot be offered a suitable alternative home. 

He raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith yesterday (March 11) in the House of Commons because he claimed the policy relies on people being able to move and in some areas of the country - such as Cambridge - that is difficult to achieve. 

And if he asked if there would be enough money for local authorities through the discretionary housing budget to make sure that no-one loses benefit in that case. 

Mr Duncan Smith told him that the government had set aside £280 million over two years for councils to be able to negotiate and work out suitable solutions for their tenants. 

Julian has also asked Mr Duncan Smith by letter to confirm Prime Minister David Cameron’s assurance made last week in the Commons that families with a severely disabled child will be exempt from the changes. 

Cambridge City Executive Councillor for Housing, Catherine Smart raised her concerns with Julian over the effect of the policy on families which include a disabled person. 

She said: “Often the extra room is needed to enable the family to care for the disabled person at home and alternatives would be very much more expensive than the small amount of housing benefit that would be saved by imposing this restriction. 

“I am also concerned about the effect on other children if they have to share a bedroom with a sibling who does not sleep well because of their disability.” 

And she was worried that money provided by the government for Cambridge’s discretionary housing benefit might not be enough to be able to offer all the help that is needed. 

Julian said: “We know there are cases where people may need a spare room, such as those with a disabled child or those with a disability who have an occasional carer. This is why I pushed the government to substantially increase the money available for discretionary housing payments and why I have sought further reassurance from the Minister. Local authorities must be in a position to help those in genuine need. 

“I was encouraged that the Prime Minister gave an assurance that families with a disabled child will be exempt from the changes but I want to make sure they will receive the help they need. 

“At the same time we must also make sure that those people who are prepared to move but cannot be found suitably sized alternative accommodation do not have their benefit reduced - that would be unfair to them. It is important that they first be offered a suitable alternative, near enough to children's schools and other essential facilities. 

“In Cambridge, we have people in overcrowded housing, where a couple and children may be sharing a one-bedroom flat. They cannot understand why we are paying more for a single person to live in a 3-bedroom house than they get for their larger family. There are about 7,000 families in our city waiting for social housing at the moment. 

“This is just not fair. It’s about getting a fairer balance while at the same time protecting the most vulnerable. Ultimately we need to build more social housing - and more is being built - but in the meantime we do need to support those in overcrowded housing to have something with enough bedrooms for them” 

The full wording of Julian’s question and Iain Duncan Smith’s reply yesterday are as follows: 

Dr Julian Huppert: The Government’s under-occupancy policy relies on people being able to move into appropriately-sized housing, but in specific parts of the country that is very hard to achieve. Does the Secretary of State agree that no benefit reduction should take place until people have at least been offered somewhere appropriately sized and located? Will he make sure that there is enough discretionary housing budget for councils to ensure that that is the case? 

Mr Duncan Smith: I agree, particularly with the last part of the question. We have set aside £280 million over two years for councils to be able to negotiate and work out with their tenants the best and most amenable way to go. My hon. Friend’s question is constructive, in sharp contrast to the Opposition. All they can do is moan about a policy, but in 13 years they did nothing about overcrowding, with the lowest level of house building since the 1920s.