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The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) have shown a degree of consistency with their party’s position. When the single room rent was introduced in 1996, it was opposed fully by the then Labour Opposition. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions all went through the Division Lobby to vote against the introduction of the single room rent. They were right to do so and we would be right either to ameliorate the impact of the single room rent on young people or to get rid of it altogether. The statistics that some of the lobbying groups have presented show that 87 per cent. of all claimants who are currently in receipt of the shared room rate face a shortfall between
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what they receive in housing benefits and what they pay in rent. That shortfall averages out at £35.14 a week.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, there is a shortage of accommodation that satisfactorily meets the SRR available to under-25s. The point was made about YMCAs. Charities working with young homeless people report that they are often unable to move those young people on to appropriate accommodation after they have, for example, spent time in a hostel. That is because of the impact on affordability of the shared room rate for young people who seek to move on from those circumstances and to take responsibility. Taking responsibility is part of the principle that the Government seek to develop behind the local housing allowance. However, the current system of a shared room rate militates against young people taking responsibility for themselves, finding their own accommodation and getting the support that they need to do so. The shared room rate can be a real disincentive for young people when it comes to leaving supported accommodation, because they know that they will face a shortfall. Indeed, the YMCA reports that 35 per cent. of young people in YMCA accommodation are ready to move on, but are unable to find anything that they can possibly afford to rent.

Affordability is not the only barrier. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, there is substantial evidence that landlords are more unwilling to let to under-25s who are on benefits. With his amendment, that unwillingness would at least be reduced, but it would still apply to under-21s. According to Shelter, although 46 per cent. of one-bedroom properties were affordable to those entitled to the one-bedroom rate—in other words, over-25s entitled to the one-bedroom rate—only 26 per cent. of the properties matching the shared room rate definition were available at or below the shared room rate. I can give a local example that may help to illustrate that. In Sutherland and Easter Ross in the Highlands, the shared room rate is set at £35 a week. I know that to Members who represent urban constituencies that might seem very low. In that part of the world, only one landlord provides accommodation matching the shared room rate definition—£95 a week. Any young person under 25 in that part of the world, on benefits and looking to rent accommodation, faces a shortfall of £60 a week.

Since we debated the matter in Committee—I know that the Minister made her response then—there has been further evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions that helps to support the case that is being made in the amendments. Recent evidence indicates that landlords are becoming increasingly reluctant to let properties as houses in multiple occupancy and that they are reluctant to let at all to housing benefit—or local housing allowance, as it will be—claimants. There is often—this comes through from, for example, research that Shelter has been doing—increased competition for rooms in shared accommodation. That competition comes not only from students and professionals, as was mentioned in an intervention, but from migrant workers. That is a relevant point for consideration in terms of the effect on rents and supply. That phenomenon has been reported by Shelter.

The pressure and the competition faced by young people who are entitled to only the shared room rate is
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getting worse, not better. That competitive pressure will mean that the shortfalls that those young people face will become more dramatic and the consequences of those shortfalls for those young people, in terms of debt, hardship, eviction and having to go into supported accommodation, will all become more severe.

In a sense, I will close on the same point as the hon. Gentleman closed on. He quite rightly referred to incentives to work. Incentives to work are really the whole thrust of a large part of the Bill. However, this is one area where, for some reason, the Government seem unwilling to embrace a suggestion that, as he said, could be delivered relatively cheaply. I did not necessarily like the way in which the figure got inflated in a matter of seconds. None the less, in the context of the overall Bill, the proposal is relatively cheap. Even complete abolition of the single room rent has been costed at £20 million, in ministerial answers. Even taking into account behavioural consequences, the cost would still be relatively low. However, the impact on work incentives for young people can often be dramatic.

Those of us who attended a briefing session held on the issue by Shelter, the YMCA and other organisations involved in the coalition campaigning against the situation, heard directly from some young people who had been living in supported accommodation about the impact that the situation can have on their ability to find a job. Earlier, we discussed the importance of the fact that many of the people we are talking about want to work and just need assistance to do so. For no group is that more true than the young people addressed by amendment No. 48. However, the problems of having no fixed address, building up debt problems and being unable to afford rent all represent substantial disincentives to work. If for no other reason than to address that situation, which would be consistent with the Government’s thinking on welfare reform, I urge the Minister to reconsider the position that she took in Committee and to endorse amendment No. 48.

Mr. Rooney: I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 70 and 67, which I tabled.

Amendment No. 70 relates to rent officers. Many people might be totally unfamiliar with them. They are peculiar figures in our society who have enormous power and can influence an incredible number of people’s lives, yet, sadly, they are subject to little accountability or scrutiny and there is little transparency in their work. At the moment, under the housing benefit system, a rent officer decides what localities will be used to measure rents for different types and sizes of property. He then sets the local reference rent, which is effectively the maximum amount of housing benefit that one can get in an area. Under the local housing allowance scheme, he will set the broad rental market area, which is the area in which different types of property are situated, and set its local housing allowance rate, which, again, will be the maximum amount that claimants can get.

A rent officer does that without reference to anyone and without consulting anyone. The decisions appear
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to be unchallengeable and are not subject to any scrutiny or serious investigation. A rent officer is not even required to consult the relevant local authority, which is strange when one considers that even those local authorities that are no longer landlords still have a strategic housing duty and a duty to homeless people. Guidance on homelessness from the Department for Communities and Local Government instructs local authorities that they should have regard to the private rented sector, yet local authorities have no input into a rent officer’s assessment of those rental rates.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Is it not also the case that a rent officer does not have to explain, justify or provide evidence to support a calculation that he or she has to undertake? A couple in my constituency assembled a dossier of all the rental accommodation in a certain category that had been advertised over quite a long period, and none had been available at the rent that the officer had suggested.

Mr. Rooney: Sadly, my hon. Friend’s experience is all too common in all too many parts of the country. I understand that there are some good rent officers. I have yet to find one, but I am told that they do exist.

The simple fact of the matter is that this system affects millions of people’s lives. It affects the amount of housing benefit or local housing allowance that people can get. Rent officers operate under a regime of secrecy, unaccountability and serious inconsistency, as my hon. Friend said, and there can be no challenge to the decisions at which they arrive. Amendment No. 70 would bring transparency to the system. It would require a rent officer to publish the data and evidence on which his calculations were based. It would also allow the Secretary of State to make directions about how that evidence should be collected, assessed and used. In this day and age, to have a public official with such incredible powers, yet subject to no public scrutiny at all, is just plain wrong. I accept that the amendment might not be perfectly worded, although I think that it is pretty good, and I look forward to hearing the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister.

Amendment No. 67 addresses the antisocial behaviour aspects of the Bill that relate to sanctions on housing benefit. I have to say first—I have made this point several times in the past and although no one has listened, I hope to carry the day—that it is plain wrong and a massive injustice that there is a sanctions regime that applies to only one type of tenure in the housing market. As everybody knows, on virtually every housing estate in the country, two thirds of the old local authority stock has been sold. If two neighbours are found guilty of the same antisocial behaviour, but one is an owner-occupier, and the other is a tenant, the tenant could lose his home and 100 per cent. of his housing benefit for up to five years, but there would be no sanction whatever against the owner-occupier, and that is not right.

8.30 pm

I accept that the proposals in the Bill are to be piloted—God help the 10 pilot areas—but a serious rethink of the principles underlying the measure is needed. I utterly opposed the proposals in 2003, and the Government saw sense and withdrew them. I accept
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that the proposals have been revised and refined, but they are still simply wrong. I remind hon. Members that if a person’s behaviour does not change in the first four weeks after the original possession order, there is a 10 per cent. reduction in housing benefit. Between five and eight weeks after the order, there is a 20 per cent. reduction, and after that, for up to five years, there is a 100 per cent. reduction. The person gets nothing. Of course, if the housing benefit officer thinks that that will cause hardship, the 100 per cent. rate can be reduced, but it is evident that it will cause hardship. If someone is on income support and is entitled to 100 per cent. housing benefit, but instead they get nothing, they will obviously be in hardship.

That is not to undermine in any way the serious implications of antisocial behaviour. We have all seen, experienced, and had to deal with it, and most of us welcome the legislative action that the Government have taken. However, let us be fair: there is a personal responsibility on the individual who causes the antisocial behaviour, whether they be a householder, a parent, or an older teenager, but there is a responsibility on the state, too. If we reach the stage at which a family has been evicted for antisocial behaviour, the mechanisms that we have put in place, and the state, have failed in dealing with the family and its problems; we need to recognise that. The 100 per cent. reduction in housing benefit for five years is an abuse of human rights. The amendment, which possibly does not go far enough, would limit the 100 per cent. reduction to 12 months. I hope that we will hear co-operative words from the Minister on that amendment.

I now turn to the amendment on the single room rate, which was so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love). I understand, but I do not agree with, the philosophy behind the single room rate, which is that it is not right that someone can leave school at 18 and go straight on to benefits and enjoy a lifestyle that is not available to people who are in a similar situation, but are in work. However, the reality is that most people to whom the single room rate or the shared room rate applies are not in that category. Most of them have, at some time, been in care. I know that people under 21 are excluded if they have been in care, but when they are 21 and one day, the regime applies. All the evidence about people who have been in care shows that they remain vulnerable long after they turn 21.

A large number of the people affected have disabilities. Severely disabled people are exempt from the single room rate, but disabled people are not, but where do we draw the line between disabled and severely disabled? People make those decisions every day, and they affect people’s lives. People who have been in drug, alcohol or substance abuse programmes and ex-offenders are affected, too. Those two groups—people who come out of prison, and people who have been through detoxification programmes—were, under one part of the social security system, given the community care grant, because we recognise that they are in a difficult situation. They need resettling in society and they need help to get over their problems. Under another part of the system, however, we tell them that they will have restricted housing benefit, which means that they can only live in accommodation
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that is at the allowance rate that has been set, but in most places, that is not available.

In addition, people who have been in care until the age of 21 are exempt, but most local authorities do not make that information available when someone makes a claim. It is almost by accident that they discover that they are exempt. Similarly, local authorities do not state in the information that they issue that severely disabled people are exempt. If someone forgets to state on their claim form that they receive higher-rate disability living allowance, they are overlooked and they receive the single room rate. Too many of those things are subject to individual judgment. Some authorities attempt to deal with the problem by making discretionary hardship payments, but many authorities do not spend anything on such payments. Some of them publicise the payment, but others do not do so. Once again, there are different attitudes in different parts of the country.

Mrs. Moon: Is it not the case that discretionary hardship payments should not be used to make up permanent housing benefit shortfalls? How can such payments help vulnerable people, who need that extra money to secure accommodation?

Mr. Rooney: What I am about to say will probably result in someone being sacked tomorrow, but if a vulnerable person who receives single room rate has mounting arrears in one local authority area, the authority makes a discretionary payment. My hon. Friend is right that such payments should not be ongoing, but the authority makes the payment to clear the arrears. I do not think that that is what discretionary payments were intended for, but some housing benefit officers believe that the rules that they are asked to implement are not right, so they use their imagination, although I accept that that may not be a good thing.

Time is pressing so, finally, the Government must look at the circumstances that lead people to claim single room rent. As I said, many of them have taken part in drug and alcohol abuse programmes, and many of them have mental illnesses and other problems. We must be honest about the impact of non-dependant deductions. In many parts of the country, the maximum non-dependant deduction is greater than the weekly rent that people pay, which leads to one of two results. Either it encourages fraud—the householder declares that someone has left when, in fact, they are still living at the house—or parents are forced to kick out their children because they cannot afford the impact on their benefit. Non-dependant deductions have grown out of proportion to the problem that they were originally designed to tackle. The issues extend beyond the arguments ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, and I hope that we receive positive signs of a rethink from my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Hunt: This important set of amendments deals with the serious problem of access to housing for young people under 25. The facts have been comprehensively set before the House by the hon. Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), for Edmonton (Mr. Love), and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander).

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At the heart of the problem is the fact that the number of claimants of single room rent fell from 31,600 in 1997 to 11,900 in 2005. Evidence from Shelter, the YMCA and many other organisations suggests that is not because young people have experienced a sudden surge in employment opportunities and earnings. On the contrary, as the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said, 35 per cent. of the young people using YMCA accommodation would like to move into their own accommodation but cannot afford to do so. The British Property Federation says that

As a result, there is a significant reduction in the supply of affordable accommodation for young people, particularly houses in multiple occupation.

This is not simply about the level of housing benefit. The increased burden of regulation which, for example, requires landlords to place basins in every single bedroom, has had an impact, too.

The amendment follows the terms of similar amendments that we debated in Committee. There is an important distinction between principle and practice. Is the problem one of principle, whereby people under the age of 25 should not be required to accept a lower level of housing benefit than other people, or is it one of practice, whereby the level of the single room rate under current regulations, or the shared room rate under the Bill, has not been set at a level that adequately reflects local housing market conditions?

It is worth looking at what happened in the pilot areas for the local housing allowance. The Department for Work and Pensions report refers to the rent officers, to whom the hon. Member for Bradford, North drew attention. It states that

of the pilot

There were clear problems in the pilot in setting the right level of the shared room rate, which may be due partly to the highly complicated nature of what the shared room rate has become. The Minister told the Committee that it should be assessed as the rate payable for a room with shared use of either a living room, bathroom, toilet or kitchen.

Danny Alexander: In Committee the hon. Gentleman abstained when we voted on the abolition of the single room rent. Has he changed his position, and is he willing to support the abolition of the single room rent?

Mr. Hunt: My argument is that the problem with the shared room rate, as it will become, arises from the way it is implemented in practice. The amendment is not the solution. The measure is complicated and rent officers find it difficult to set the rent at an appropriate level. The problem, as the hon. Member for Bradford, North said, is the lack of transparency in the way the rent officer makes his or her calculations as to what the
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shared room rate should be. Because of that lack of transparency, it is impossible to challenge what may be an arbitrary rate that inadvertently makes it unlikely that young people will be able to afford even shared accommodation.

Given that the Government are unlikely to accept the amendment, will the Minister give assurances that she is prepared to consider ways to improve the process whereby the shared room rate is calculated? I draw her attention to a particular concern with respect to disabled people. She knows that one of the critical issues for disabled teenagers is the transition into adulthood, which is often poorly managed by local authorities and was correctly identified as an area of focus in the “Life Chances” report.

The Minister said in Committee that the shared room rate does not apply to people in supported accommodation, but not all young disabled people are in supported accommodation. For many, accommodation in the private sector is a vital first step towards independence and finding a job. Can she give further assurances that the shared room rate will be structured in a way and set at a level that enables young disabled people to make that transition into adulthood and independence?

Mrs. McGuire: As I said in Committee, I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to discuss issues relating to the single room rate, because I know that it causes great anxiety for many colleagues, particularly many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I hope that over the next few minutes, I will be able to give some comfort to my colleagues and assure them that they can have confidence in what we are attempting to do with the local housing allowance under the new system.

For the record, Government amendment No. 12 is a technical amendment which modifies clause 35 to meet the information sharing principles of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, once the transfer of the rent officers has taken place in 2009.

The debate has been wide ranging, and some of the issues raised are of general concern and not specific to the single room rate. The debate has had added value because of that. I emphasise that we are moving to a local housing allowance partly to get rid of the problem highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones)—the anathema of “No DHSS customers” in the private rented sector. What we are doing generally in relation to the local housing allowance, and specifically in relation to young people under the age of 25, is giving people the authority to pay their own rent by having the money given to them as individuals instead of through an intermediary through a housing benefit office, which initially stigmatises them as housing benefit recipients. I hope that that general principle will be accepted.

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