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Labour MP Says "Catastrophic" Housing Benefit Freeze Must Be Dropped In Autumn Statement

(Alamy)

4 min read

Labour MP and chair of the work and pensions committee Stephen Timms has joined calls for increases in benefits, including ending a freeze on Local Housing Allowance in the Autumn Statement this week.

Unfreezing the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and uprating benefits in line with inflation are seen as key ways to support those on the lowest incomes struggling with the rising cost of living. 

"I think it's very important, local housing allowance should be uprated," Timms told PoliticsHome. 

"[The freeze] has been catastrophic... it hasn't been touched during a period when rents have gone up very substantially, so that desperately needs doing."

The LHA, which is the maximum amount a person can claim towards the cost of their housing, has been frozen since 2020 – despite rents increasing by a fifth on average in that time. 

Rachelle Earwaker, senior economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, also told PoliticsHome it was important for the government to unfreeze LHA as an "absolute minimum". 

"The government needs to unfreeze local housing, housing allowance and reinstate it to cover the bottom 30 per cent of local rents," said Earwalker.

"Rents have been frozen since April 2020 – but at rent levels from September 2019, so rent levels from four years ago.

"That's had an absolutely massive impact on the incomes of those on the lowest incomes, because they just haven't been able to afford their rent – and they've been going without essentials in order to try."

Earwaker also said uprating benefits in line with inflation was key, stating it was "indefensible for the government to even be considering not operating benefits in line with inflation" while reportedly considering tax cuts elsewhere. 

"To be considering things like inheritance tax cuts, income tax cuts, which favour those on higher incomes the most but then basically, cutting the real incomes of those on benefits is just completely the wrong thing to do at the moment," Earwaker said. 

"In addition to that, considering measures which make it much harder for people to access those benefits, and put so much more onus on proving that they are in need of them is just the wrong thing to do."

While the government is yet to confirm or announce any plans to increase benefits, it has confirmed plans to toughen up sanctions and conditionality of benefits – coupled with additional funding for support to get people into work.

New tougher measures include mandatory work placement trials, and stricter sanctions for people who don't look for work including ending access to free prescriptions and legal aid.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said the changes "mean there’s help and support for everyone" while ensuring sanctions for people "who refuse it" and "coast on the hard work of taxpayers". 

The charity Save The Children last week referred to the government's plans as "unspeakably cruel" and said benefits must be uprated in line with inflation. 

"It is right to provide additional support to help people back into work but this cannot be tied to the threat of totally losing any form of safety net," Becca Lyon, head of UK child poverty at Save the Children UK, said. 

She added: "Taking away Universal Credit will not make people with complex support needs enter work, it will only plunge families into even worse poverty and children will suffer the consequences.

"The UK Government must focus on reducing hardship by uprating benefits in line with inflation at the Autumn Statement and reverse any threat to take away all support from families."

Uprating benefits in line with inflation is also supported by Timms – who also said cost of living support like the Household Support Fund, which was announced to support people struggling with the rising cost of living last year, was also important. 

"There is the question of what's going to be done with the Household Support Fund - which has been a kind of safety net of last resort for local councils to help people out who really got into trouble," he continued. 

"I think it's very reasonable to give local authorities that opportunity. But the problem is: is it going to be announced for the coming year?

"I think it's needed, because the cost of living crisis is certainly not yet over."

Timms was supportive of some of the government's planned reforms to benefits, which he described as a "mixed bag", stressing that increasing sanctions would affect only a "small number of people".

"I welcome the increased investment in individual placement and support, which is something my committee calls for, in our report on the government's plan for jobs in July," he added. 

"I'm glad to see that coming forward – because that can be a very effective method of helping people around the world on mental health grounds, to get back into employment, and then all the things in there by improving mental health in the NHS."

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