I’ve never been much of a fan of the House of Lords. But you have to doff your cap occasionally when they have a debate of real interest based on a real knowledge of an issue. So it was with the rather uninspiringly-titled debate Motion to Annul – Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2010 held on 24 January. The debate, which resulted in government Minister Lord Freud promising to undertake a review of the housing benefit changes after a year or so, can be found in full here.
There were exceptional speeches from Richard Best, Victor Adebowale and Patricia Hollis, amongst others. It was notable that there were no speeches in favour of the government’s position, apart from the Minister – you could say there was a progressive majority. It’s worth a read, but here is a selection of a few quotable quotes.
Lord Best (Crossbench): The charities working in this field ……… all note the likelihood of several thousand tenants facing homelessness. Apart from this wrecking the life chances of the families concerned, the charities point out that the extra costs of homelessness could more than outweigh the housing benefit savings. Homeless Link notes that, on conservative estimates, if even one quarter of those identified as at severe risk were to become homeless, then all the gains from the housing benefit cuts would be lost.
Lord Adebowale (Crossbench): We have not thought through the impact on families and on the societies in which they live-on social services, on health, on mental health and on employment….. we know that the poor will suffer. We know where they will suffer, we know how they will suffer and we know what the impact on public services will be, but we do not have a clear plan B.
Baroness Thomas of Winchester (Liberal Democrat): The $64,000 question remains…….. will these housing benefit regulations mean that landlords will reduce their rents, thus bringing the huge housing benefit bill down, to general rejoicing by taxpayers and the Government, or will it mean that not enough landlords will, or can afford to, reduce their rents low enough for LHA claimants, that the discretionary housing payments will be spread too thin to make much difference and that therefore thousands of people will face eviction, child poverty will increase and local authorities will eventually have to pick up a very large bill?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour): …… the DWP‘s own figures show that the increase in housing benefit has been caused not by increased rents but by increased demand for HB from more tenants in both the private and public sectors. Only 13 per cent of the increase in HB can be attributed to private sector rent increases. In other words, the increase in the HB bill has not come about because HB has driven up rents and, therefore, has sought to catch up with the rents that it has inflated. Instead, the HB bill has risen because more and poorer people are claiming HB, including those in low-paid work. That is a fact.
……. the Government do not control, as they believe they do, the rents of the private rented sector. It is a fallacy. Indeed, preliminary findings from current research suggest that, whether housing benefit claimants account for 20 per cent or 70 per cent of the private rental market, it makes no difference at all to local rent levels. HB levels, and therefore the Government, do not shape the market, full stop.
Why is that? It is because it is a landlords’ market and not a tenants’ market; it is, therefore, not a Government’s market and not a HB market. Surveyors, letting agents and estate agents are reporting gazumping, six to eight tenants after every property and sealed-bid rent offers. The British Property Federation tells us that 150,000 extra tenants will enter the private rental sector next year, pushing up rents even further. Even where landlords in the past might have accepted some limitation of their rents if they were gaining capital growth, this, too, is no longer the case. Those on current HB levels struggle to find a home. What will happen?
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (Liberal Democrat): The private rented sector is not a place for long-term, low-income households’ housing needs to be met. It is a device that should be for another segment of our society altogether. We have let it get out of control in a way that is difficult to justify.
Lord Freud (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Welfare Reform), Work and Pensions; Conservative): I make a firm commitment to the House that we intend to commission independent, external research to help us evaluate the impact of the reforms ……. (It will cover) homelessness and moves; the shared room rate and houses in multiple occupation; what is happening in Greater London; what is happening in rural communities; what is happening in black and minority ethnic households; large families; older people; people with disabilities and working claimants.
Many housing benefit recipients will not be affected by the changes until well into 2012. We will therefore make the findings available in early 2013, with initial findings available in the spring of 2012 and an interim report in the summer of 2012.