ENDING the spare room subsidy will help those families trapped in overcrowded homes, writes Danny Alexander
In his column here two weeks ago, Brian Wilson attacked the UK government’s policy of ending the spare room subsidy and offered to give up his column to allow me to respond. Readers of The Scotsman will already know that the coalition inherited the largest peacetime deficit since the Second World War from the last Labour government.
However, they may not know that Labour also left a legacy whereby hundreds of thousands of families in Scotland are waiting for a house that is big enough for their family to live in. The government has a responsibility to make sure that we change housing benefit rules in a careful, sensitive and managed way. But we also have a responsibility to those families.
Housing benefit is there, rightly, to help people pay their rent, whether they are unemployed, on a low income, or sick. But the amount of help you receive should not depend on who owns your house; it should be based on need. If you live in private rented accommodation and receive housing benefit, these rules already apply – and have done for nearly 20 years.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland today face a housing benefit lottery, which means that two people earning the same amount of money can get different levels of support depending on whether they are a private or social tenant. That is a system that is neither fair nor affordable.
There are nearly 60,000 overcrowded homes in Scotland, over half of which house families with children. There are 190,000 households in Scotland waiting to get a decent home, with over 10,000 in the Highlands alone.
Yet, during the 13 years of Labour government, the number of local authority homes in the Highlands fell by about 6,000 households. Across the whole of Scotland it fell by 150,000. But under Labour’s watch, the UK housing benefit bill nearly doubled in cost to £20 billion. Many people will recognise the situation faced by a young woman who came to talk to me about her housing situation. She was working hard in a low-paid job and was stuck in an overcrowded home with a young family and desperately needed to move to a bigger home.
She couldn’t understand why she had to wait so long to get a home that was the right size for her and her family, when there were larger, underoccupied homes in the same area. So, for those tenants who are prepared to move, we have set up the National Home Swap Scheme in order that people can get access to a web-based service that gives them greater choice.
But this woman isn’t a one-off example. It simply isn’t fair that there are hundreds of children in the Highlands who are in overcrowded accommodation while other people are getting money for having an empty room. In fact there are over 3,000 one bedroom social homes in the Highlands, though there are particular issues in small communities that need to be monitored carefully.
Labour had the opportunity and the money during its 13 years in government to tackle this problem by building more houses. It is to Labour’s shame that it failed. Instead, it left us with an unaffordable welfare system that failed to incentivise work, which is the best route out of poverty. The great Liberal reformer William Beveridge declared that “benefit in return for contributions, rather than free allowances from the state, is what the people of Britain desire”. But under the last Labour government, his principles were forgotten. What underpins the Liberal Democrats’ vision of the welfare state is a balance between the role of the state and the role of the citizen.
It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that support is available for those whose need it, but every person who can must also take responsibility by working hard. The Universal Credit will ensure that, for the first time, everyone on benefits can be sure that they will be better off in work. The big income tax cuts for working people delivered by the Lib Dems in government are ensuring that people on low incomes are keeping more of the money they earn than they ever did under Labour.
For many vulnerable people a spare room is a necessity, not a luxury. Those who need a spare room for an overnight carer, a disabled child or foster child will not be affected by this change. Members of the armed forces living with their parents will also be protected, so their room won’t be considered “spare” when they are serving abroad.
Local authorities have had more than two years to prepare for this change to come into effect. In the Highlands, which Mr Wilson specifically mentioned in his column, council officers have used that time to contact people to make them aware of the changes, but also to let them know about extra support that may be available to them. Many people affected by this change are now receiving benefits and other tax credits to which they didn’t know they were entitled.
Highland Council will also receive more than £216,000 in discretionary housing payments, which will go to people such as the single unemployed man living in a rural community I met recently who needed extra help to allow him to meet the costs of having an extra spare room. Highland Council has given him a discretionary housing payment to help him continue his search for employment. That is why this isn’t the crude, one-size-fits-all measure depicted in Brian’s column.
The core problem in the Highlands, where my constituency is, and elsewhere is the need for more investment in affordable housing. During Labour’s time in office, the number of affordable homes available across the UK fell by 650,000. We have, for the first time, made available government guarantees for housing associations to help them build more homes more cheaply. This is also available to housing associations in Scotland. Our Help to Buy scheme will help more people on lower incomes to own their own home, and stimulate the construction of new homes across the UK.
The coalition is generating £19.5bn of investment in affordable housing that will deliver 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015. Unlike Labour, the Liberal Democrats will not dodge the tough decisions needed to reform welfare in an affordable, thoughtful way that will deliver a stronger economy in a fairer society so that everyone in Scotland can get on in life.
• Danny Alexander is the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and is Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury