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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What I would have said if I had been called in the "bedroom tax" debate

OK this post is quite self-indulgent but as I had written the speech anyway and as the Chair of the debate on 'Making housing benefit work for tenants in social housing' and her aide deemed that they did not want a Welsh voice, I did not see the point in wasting it:

Conference, we have heard many times over the last few days that when in government we need to make difficult decisions. I have been in government as a deputy minister in Wales and I know that compromises have to be made and that sometimes we have to embrace the unpalatable. However, I also know the importance of monitoring policies and changing them when they are not working.

Housing benefit is not a devolved issue and so as a Welsh Assembly Member I am left fulminating on the side lines like everybody else when I see a policy like the abolition of the spare room subsidy going so awry. It is my view that this change is badly thought through, poorly implemented and needs fundamental alterations before it can be said to be anywhere near acceptable.

Like all government policies the flaws are in the detail. I will give you an example: a constituent with a disabled child in a three bedroom home awaiting adaptations. Those adaptations were ready to go a year ago but because of the uncertainty associated with housing benefit changes they were put on hold.

My constituent needed her spare bedroom so that carers could sometimes stay overnight but she could not afford to pay for it. What is more she is not entitled to discretionary housing payments because her allowances took her over the income limit set by the local council.

The reliance on discretionary housing payments to assist with transition through these changes is deeply flawed. That is because there is no consistency as to how councils treat applications. Some councils treat child benefit and disabled living allowances as income. There are no proper appeal mechanisms.

Changes were made to exclude disabled children where they need their own bedroom but not where they need a carer. Disabled adults are allowed a bedroom for a non-family member carer but not when the carer is a member of their household. There is no provision for a married couple, where one or both are disabled into have their own room, putting many families in the impossible situation of needing separate bedrooms because of their disability but not being able to afford to stay in their present accommodation. Often their homes are adapted to suit their needs. If they move the taxpayer will need to fund adaptations in their new home. A complete waste of resources.

The housing benefit regime needs to be changed to properly assess and take account of the needs of disabled adults and children. The motion is quite right to identify that most under-occupation of social housing is by pensioners. We need to do more to provide incentives to downsize and invest in suitable properties for pensioners to move to.

Conference I am not opposed to change but I prefer reforms to be driven by compassion not money. If the abolition of the spare room subsidy is to remain in place then changes need to be made to soften its impact, to exclude disabled adults, put in place firmer guidelines for local councils on discretionary housing payments and to build new social housing.

This is one policy where we do need to go back to the drawing board.
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