Unite Bedroom Tax deptuation to Council Strategy Committee

Deputation to Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee Meeting 6/8/13

My name is Des Loughney and I am secretary of the UNITE Edinburgh Not For Profit Branch. The branch has about 800 members of whom 150 work for Housing Associations. We are grateful to the Committee for giving us this opportunity for commenting on the Welfare Reform further update report which is in front of you. The main concerns of my branch members who work for housing associations regarding the impact of the bedroom tax are:

–  the financial consequences of growing and uncollectable rent arrears for their employers;

–  the pressure that will be put on housing officers to pressurise tenants and their families to pay rent, knowing that if they do not meet targets of rent arrears they may be subject to disciplinary action.

Other branch members share these concerns:

–  witnessing increased hardship of clients, clients who are often vulnerable and disabled;

– the consequences for clients of the multiple impact of welfare benefit changes.

My members were disappointed that the report does not provide any data regarding the impact of the bedroom tax on housing association tenants.There are 1861 affected housing association tenants as compared with 3566 Council tenants. There is no data on whether rent arrears of HA tenants have soared in the same way as Council tenants. There is no breakdown on the use by HA tenants of Discretionary Housing Payments.

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We would have thought that Housing Associations would have been obliged to provide relevant data to the City Council given that their tenants can apply for DHPs and also, if they get round to evicting tenants, it will be the Council’s responsibility to rehouse them.

Housing Associations may not have a legal responsibility to provide data but they certainly have a social policy obligation and a social responsibility obligation.

We are concerned that the data on page 10 of the Report under the heading of ‘Council Tenants and Housing Service’ while useful is not a measure of hardship or severe hardship, nor an indication of the effect of the tax on tenants, in particular disabled tenants. There is a reference to the fact that 1005 (28%) of tenants are managing to pay their rent in full. This is not necessarily a good news statement. It needs to be studied in more depth as it may still imply hardship to tenants and their families.

We think that the Council needs to develop some method of measuring hardship across the whole range of affected tenants. The Edinburgh public have a right to know and those workers who are providing a direct service should know so that we can campaign for policy changes by either the Scottish Government or the UK Government. We and tenants also need data for possible legal action against the UK Government.

In paragraph 6.6 the report talks about ‘The next step is to focus on preparing for the introduction of Universal Credit and the impact that direct payment of benefit will have for tenants and the Council’. We hope that the preparation includes means of measuring hardship and severe hardship, and the specific impact on people with disabilities. This could be a task for the Welfare Reform Working Group that will be set up.

We have noted the letter from Lord Freud that is attached to the Report. We hope that there is a robust reply to the letter pointing out, amongst other things, the false financial information given in paragraph three. It implies that the rise in housing benefit costs is due to additional payments to claimants! The Council should take Lord Freud to task for the ridiculous statement that “By removing the Spare Room Subsidy £500 million can be saved through greater efficiency and better use of social housing stock”.

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Discretionary Housing Payments

Before dealing with the section in the Report on DHPs we would like to comment on the DHP policy adopted in May this year. We would like to know how many payments have been made under the heading of ‘When DHP may be paid’.

We disagree with the category ‘where a claimant is experiencing exceptional hardship’.

Exceptional should be deleted as it seems far too restrictive and subjective. Why does hardship need to be exceptional? It might also be better to state ‘where a claimant is or will be experiencing hardship’.

The report describes how DHPs has been undersubscribed. As at 21/6/13 £331,750 has been committed to 31/3/14. £ 858,698 remains unallocated. The implication is that the current DHP fund is sufficient (bearing in mind the current rate of applications) and does not need to be topped up.

We find that hard to reconcile with soaring rent arrears as far as Council tenants are concerned and probably housing association tenants as well. If DHPs were being paid to all those that might qualify under the heading ‘When DHP may be paid’ we would have predicted that the fund would have been oversubscribed. There are 5427 affected tenants and only 1134 claims. This suggests that tenants who might qualify for a payment have not applied. Soaring rent arrears must be linked to low applications for DHPs.

We think that the lack of applications is down to tenants not knowing about the fund or thinking that they would not get a payment as the fund was either cash limited or thier application would not fit a criterion . We do not know how much local authority tenants knew about the DHP fund but we think that housing association tenants knew very little and were not well informed. We would invite Council officials to find out from the Housing Associations how they advertised the DHP fund. We do not think it was done very well given what we have seen of their leaflets and websites, and what we know of the instructions given to housing officers and welfare rights officers.

To finish we would urge the Committee in response to this report to consider calling for, in future reports:

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–  relevant data from Housing Associations,

–  useful measurements of hardship to be developed,

–  amend some of the DHP  ‘may be paid’ criteria.

 

We call on the Committee

–  to ensure that all affected tenants are properly informed.

 

As a very final point we would be grateful to find out from the Council the likely status of the DHP fund for 2014/ 2015.

 

Des Loughney

Secretary

UNITE Edinburgh Not For Profit Branch

Email: <uniteedinvol@btconnect.com>  mob: 07734012536