When you’re in your little room…

I’ve received a letter from Lord Freud, minister at the DWP. I’ve been writing to him about the extension of the Shared Room Rate (now called the Shared Accommodation Rate) for Housing Benefit claimaints. This is the rule introduced by Labour which said that under-25s should expect to live in shared accommodation, rather than have their own flats, and that housing benefit would only be paid accordingly, i.e. a lower rate than for those over 25. This was based on the premise that most under-25s not on housing benefit live at home with their parents, or in shared accommodation with their mates, so housing benefit claimants shouldn’t be entitled to anything grander.

 The coalition Government, in its wisdom, has decided that this rule should be extended, so it now applies to everyone under the age of 35. This has in part been justified by the fact that far fewer people in their twenties and thirties can now afford their own places, and many are  living with their parents, or sharing with mates. “The important principle behind this change is that the tax-payer should not be expected to pay rents that those on benefits could not afford” says Lord Freud. That’s fair enough.

There are however problems with the new regime, which comes into force next year. A parliamentary question I tabled has revealed that 770 people in Bristol will be affected by the change. That is, people who are currently living in their own flats, but will not be able to afford them when the HB cut comes into force. This includes people who have recently been made redundant, and are of course looking for work… under these rules they won’t be able to get sufficient HB to tide them over until they do, so they will have to move.

I have also asked questions about non-resident parents. This is a perennial issue for housing providers. Family-sized social housing would be awarded to the parent who has the children living with them most of the time. Fathers (it’s usually the father) who have the kids at weekends often complain that the place they’re living in, having left the family home, isn’t suitable for having the kids to stay and is another factor preventing them seeing as much of their children as they would like. Under this rule, their situation will be even worse. They will have to share with other people, which isn’t an ideal situation for kids. In fact in some circumstances it might be completely inappropriate.

I asked about pregnant women too – they will be on the Shared Accommodation Rate until the child is born – and people with mental health issues. It seems at the moment that the only people exempt are: the severely disabled; young people leaving care (up to the age of 22); and those where a non-resident carer provides overnight care and therefore needs a spare bedroom. Lord Freud has just told me that two more categories have been added: those who have spent at least three months in a hostel specialising in rehabilitation and resettlement within the community, and ex-offenders being managed under Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (i.e. “those claimants who present a risk of causing serious harm to the public”).

The Minister says “I understand that the case has been made that there are many more groups of individuals who should not be expected to share accommodation”… but he believes these would be better supported by Discretionary Housing Payments. They’ve given more funding to local authorities to enable them to consider support for people who may be vulnerable on a case by case basis. So it will be up to Bristol City Council to decide whether it gives additional support to the mentally-ill or non-resident parents… You could argue this is a good thing, as it allows for flexibility and compassionate consideration to be given to individual circumstances. However, it could also mean that people face a hell of a battle trying to claim the discretionary payments, and also, I assume, could have them reviewed/ removed at relatively short notice.

Here’s the question I asked about non-resident parents, and the answer I received from Steve Webb.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East, Labour)

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what estimate he has made of the number of non-resident parents (a) in Bristol and (b) nationally who will be restricted to the local housing allowance shared accommodation rate as a result of increasing the age threshold to 35 in January 2012.

Steve Webb (Minister of State (Pensions), Work and Pensions; Thornbury and Yate, Liberal Democrat)

It is estimated that around 10,000 of the people affected by the extension of the shared accommodation rate are non-resident parents who have some contact with children who live elsewhere. Estimates have not been produced at local authority level.

Source: DWP analysis of 2008/09 Family Resources Survey and 2008 Families and Children Survey.

The letter from Lord Freud also includes a nice little touch… The limits on housing benefit for those under 35 were due to be introduced in April 2012, i.e. the start of the new financial year. The changes to Local Housing Allowance are being introduced in January 2012 (i.e. reduction in amount of rent that can be claimed, based on local market rents, and the overall cap on claims, which affects those mostly mythical families of immigrants living in £1m mansions at taxpayers’ expense, which George Osborne cited in his first Budget, and, when the Treasury was challenged to provide stats, their press office suggested people look at the Sun website). Lord Freud has decided that introducing the changes on two different dates would be a huge inconvenience to claimants, and so has decided to bring the Shared Rate changes forward to January too, so that claimants will have their HB cut not once, but twice, in the New Year “to avoid them being affected twice”.

 So in January, 770 people in Bristol, give or take a few who have found/ lost work in the meantime, may find themselves having to look for new accommodation – which, housing charities tell me – simply doesn’t exist. Developers and landlords have been busy converting houses into flats all across Bristol, because they get more money that way. I’ve been warned by sensible organisations, not prone to scaremongering, that they fear this could have a real impact on homelessness in the city.

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  • Ruth  On September 28, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I hadn’t even realised this was coming in so soon, pretty worrying. This is definitely going to affect me, I am recovering from health problems and need to live alone, and my friends who have various health issues and also need to live alone. Please keep campaigning on this, I don’t know what I’ll do in January, where am I going to live?

  • Charlotte  On October 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Government doesnt give a shit, it doesnt affect them or thier families.

  • Gert  On January 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    A non-residential parent in a house share won’t even be able to do a CRB on the strangers who’ll have substantial access to their children

  • Richard McCarthy  On January 3, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Of course Chris Skidmore MP, aged under 35, will continue to receive his £750 per month Housing Benefit for his unshared London accomodation. We can’t be having the rules applied equally across the board now, can we?

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