Housing Concerns top the agenda as Committee meets Lord Freud
Date: Thursday, 29 November 2012
Reference: SD 01/12/13
The Assembly’s Committee for Social Development met yesterday with Lord Freud, the Department for Work and Pensions Minister for welfare reform.
The Committee, which was invited to meet Lord Freud by Minister McCausland, discussed a number of issues relating to the Welfare Reform Bill which is currently making its way through the Assembly. In particular, Members discussed how changes to housing entitlements contained within the Bill could impact adversely on local people.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, Alex Maskey MLA said: “As part of its scrutiny role the Committee has been engaging a wide range of stakeholders in relation the Welfare Reform Bill. One of the issues we have been particularly concerned about is the provision in the Bill to reduce housing benefit in accordance with the number of ‘extra’ bedrooms in a house commonly known as the ‘bedroom tax’.
“In evidence given to the Committee by the Housing Executive it is clear that the position here is stark. 26,000 Housing Executive tenants would be considered as under-occupying their homes if this Bill was passed unchanged by the Assembly. A further 6,500 tenants of housing associations would also be deemed as under-occupying.
“While, in theory, one option may be for tenants to move to other more suitable accommodation, we are aware that there is a distinct lack of alternative housing types available here to allow people to downsize.
Mr Maskey continued: “The Committee emphasised this to Lord Freud and made it very clear to him that the Bill will create a problem here that we simply do not have a solution to and could result in people facing eviction from their homes - not because they refuse to pay their rent but because they can’t pay their rent and a rehousing option is not available to them.
“All Committee members stressed that they shared these concerns. We have urged Lord Freud and Minister McCausland to address under-occupancy and a number of other concerns, which have been raised by a wide range of stakeholders, by agreeing to a more flexible approach in the Bill to reflect our local circumstances.
“The Committee also listened to Lord Freud’s concerns about the potential financial impact of the delay in completing the Committee Stage of the Bill as a result of the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee. The Committee assured the Minister that its comprehensive scrutiny would be completed with due regard to anticipated timescales.
Mr Maskey concluded: “Lord Freud listened to our concerns and acknowledged the constraints presented by our particular local circumstances. However, the Committee waits to see if our concerns are addressed by the necessary flexibilities required in the Bill.”
Notes to Editors:
The Welfare Reform Bill will introduce size criteria into the calculation of housing benefit for working age tenants in the social rented sector. The Department will prescribe the amount by which the claimant’s actual rent liability is to be reduced to reflect the additional bedrooms within a property; the claimants rent will be restricted if their dwelling is deemed larger than they need.
In the meeting with Lord Freud, Members raised the following issues:
- the flexibility required in respect of the payment of Universal Credit;
- the criteria for direct payments;
- the legacy of the conflict here, including the polarised nature of housing, and the need for appropriate mitigation measures to address this in the context of the Bill;
- the response of housing associations to their tenants where housing benefit is reduced;
- whether the issues which are particularly relevant to NI were unforeseen when the GB Bill was being drawn up;
- the prospect of the housing sector being afforded more time to plan for the proposed changes, particularly under-occupancy;
- greater focus on mental health issues in regards to the assessment for Personal Independence Payments;
- clarification on the progress of the IT project to deliver Universal Credit;
- establishing a requirement to provide advice on a statutory basis;
- the arrangements for support for mortgage interest under the Bill – particularly in relation to when a person begins a part-time job.
The Committee for Social Development membership is:
Alex Maskey MLA (Committee Chairperson)
Mickey Brady MLA (Deputy Chairperson)
Paula Bradley MLA
Pam Brown MLA
Gregory Campbell MLA, MP
Judith Cochrane MLA
Michael Copeland MLA
Sammy Douglas MLA
Mark H Durkan MLA
Fra McCann MLA
David McClarty MLA