SNP and Conservative MSPs rejected a plea for a national policy against evictions over arrears caused by the bedroom tax, after hearing that tenant bids for financial help have soared to “astronomical” levels.
Welfare Reform Committee vice convener Jamie Hepburn sided with SNP colleagues Kevin Stewart and Annabel Ewing, and Tory MSP Alex Johnstone, to vote out a petition for statutory protection from eviction for those deemed to have extra bedrooms.
They also voted against writing to the Scottish Government to explain its opposition to a statutory ban but the committee will write to UK Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to ask what financial support will be available for cases next year.
Aid applications up nine-fold
Discretionary housing payment (DHP) applications have soared by up to 900% in the last year and councils may have to ask more tenants to cut down on “luxuries” if funding for DHPs is reduced next year, the committee heard.
The petition, by Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre, has been criticised by housing bodies, who fear it could boost arrears and foster a widespread culture of rent avoidance.
The substance of the petition has been adopted by Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie for a possible Member’s Bill, so the committee clerk proposed closing the petition down.
Labour MSP Ken Macintosh said: “Member’s Bills are bit of a lottery, to put it mildly, and there are many reasons why they do or do not get taken forward, and are certainly no substitute for executive or committee action.
“I am confused as to what is the difference between the petitioner’s call for a piece of legislation that guarantees no eviction from the bedroom tax and the Scottish Government’s support for councils with a no evictions policy. I am entirely baffled as to the difference between the two.”
Convener Michael McMahon, also a Labour MSP, proposed writing to the housing minister to explain the difference but was outvoted by the SNP and Mr Johnstone.
Ms Ewing said: “I’m not baffled. I thought the evidence was very clear on that point of proceeding in the way that the petitioner has suggested.”
Mr Hepburn said: “We are not relying on the Member’s Bill. We can incorporate the useful and helpful evidence that we took as part of the petition into the work we are doing on an ongoing basis.”
The SNP and Mr Johnstone subsequently voted to end the committee’s consideration of the petition and refer it back to Holyrood’s Petitions Committee for a final decision on its fate.
Ms Fabiani said: “Can I just clarify that we are not closing the petition - we are closing our consideration.”
Councils give evidence
Earlier, the committee heard from South Lanarkshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Aberdeenshire and Edinburgh council officials on their management of DHPs.
Annette Finnan, head of housing services at South Lanarkshire Council, said: “We have experienced a significant rise in DHP applications so far this year from 396 to over 2,000, an increase of over 400%.”
Lorna Campbell, benefits manager at Dumfries and Galloway Council, said: “We have seen something like a 900% increase in applications. We were averaging 30 to 40 applications this time last year, whereas this month alone we have received over 500 applications.”
Cliff Dryburgh, benefits manager at Edinburgh Council, said applications have risen by “just over 500%”.
Councils have called on the UK Department of Work and Pensions to reveal its DHP budget for next year to help them plan ahead, following months of financial upheaval as UK and Scottish government assistance programmes have come on stream.
Mr Dryburgh said: “We had put in six-month reviews because we were trying to educate, if you like, or guide people, perhaps, to change what they spent some of their money on, particularly around luxuries.
“We still have in our policy today that we reserve the right to advise the claimant to reduce expenditure if we think it is unreasonably high. That can be a difficult subject to broach.”
These expenditure reviews will become more frequent if DHP funding is cut in future, he said.
Ms Campbell added: “We will look at expenditure where it is deemed to be a luxury item or an expenditure where it is perceived something could be done about.
“It’s not an easy conversation to have with anyone. It’s quite invasive and not particularly palatable for our staff or the client.”
Mr McMahon said: “The demand on DHPs is becoming astronomical and I just wonder how widespread that is known.
“We have to make sure we’re asking questions around that and write to Iain Duncan Smith to make him aware of what we have heard this morning and ask him to respond.”
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