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Tuesday 21st February 2012 | 10:37
Today, in the House of Commons, the Government will try to overturn Lords proposals to protect disabled people, war widows and foster carers. The threat to them is instant benefit cuts and potentially becoming homeless. That might sound astonishing but it’s exactly what Tory and Lib Dem ministers will ask their MPs to vote for over their confused plans to change the law on under-occupancy.
The Labour Party wants to see social housing that is less overcrowded and less under-occupied. A workable solution that allows people to downsize to more suitable accommodation without penalising them unfairly could help achieve that. But the Government’s proposal is set up to fail – their own impact assessment assumes it won’t result in hardly any people moving from an under-occupied property. What this policy will do is make some of the poorest people in society even poorer.
Take for example someone with terminal cancer, receiving Employment and Support Allowance in the Support Group, which is for people who aren’t expected to work again. That’s one of the groups this amendment would protect.
They have a spare bedroom in their two bed council house, because their child moved out recently. They’d be happy to move into a smaller home, but the council doesn’t have enough available. According to the National Housing Federation, while 180,000 social tenants in England are under-occupying two-bed homes, only 68,000 one-bed social homes became available for letting in 2009/10.
Usually, there simply won’t be a one-bed home for the cancer patient to move into. And more one-bed homes won’t become available as a result of this policy, as after all, you can’t under-occupy a one-bed.
So they would lose, on average, £14 a week. They would need to make up that amount to their landlord from their benefit income. That adds up to £60 per month – straight out of the pocket of a person with terminal cancer.
The Government has suggested they work to make up the difference. For people with terminal cancer or genuinely disabled people, that’s not an option. It certainly should not be forced on them. Taking in a lodger simply isn’t an option for many households who are vulnerable either.
So they will be pushed into poverty, or into rent arrears. Or they might move out into the private sector, in which case their housing benefit will be much higher.
We agree that under-occupancy of social housing needs to be tackled. We have put forward a real, workable alternative that would help to achieve that. But as it stands the policy will push disabled people, cancer patients, war widows, and foster carers into poverty or onto the streets with no way of avoiding the cut. It wouldn’t free up any more space than the Lords amendment that Labour supports but it would hit some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Last time we debated this, 12 Lib Dems and even 2 Conservative MPs felt obliged to vote against these shoddy plans. Today, I’m calling on everyone on the Government benches to ask themselves: can they really live with what this policy will do to thousands of disabled people, foster carers and war widows? They should do the right thing, and vote against these spiteful plans.
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