Spare room subsidy debate at BBC Cambridgeshire

council_housing09:22 Friday 7th November 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: We’re asking this morning is it time to scrap the so-called bedroom tax. Figures from Cambridge City Council reveal that one in five people in the city have fallen behind with their rent. Only 5% of people have actually managed to downsize their accommodation. And it’s not just in Cambridge. Sally Chicken is from the Rainbow Saver Credit Union in Peterborough. They’ve seen similar problems in the north of the county too.
SALLY CHICKEN: Well what we’ve seen is members coming in trying to make ends meet because they’ve had their housing benefit cut. And then they’re either not able to move into a smaller property, or there just isn’t a smaller property available for them to move into.
PAUL STAINTON: Sally also agrees with Rob who we spoke to, Rob Nixon, a few moments ago. She says it’s been a huge problem, the spare room subsidy, for the disabled.
SALLY CHICKEN: Especially for disabled people. I don’t know if you know, but if a disabled couple are both disabled, they are still only entitled to a one bedroomed property. And we’ve had several members who have been just devastated because they can’t physical share a bedroom because of the disability, still being told they are not entitled to a two bedroomed property.
(LIVE) ..
PAUL STAINTON: So should one of the Coalition’s most controversial policies be scrapped? We’ve invited three councillors from across the county and the political spectrum. In the blue corner, representing the Conservatives, councillor Mark Howell, Cabinet member for Housing on South Cambridgeshire District Council. Morning.
MARK HOWELL: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: In the red corner from the Labour party, Peterborough Parliamentary Candidate and city councillor Lisa Forbes. Lisa, morning.
LISA FORBES: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: And in the yellow corner for the LibDems, Deputy Group Leader of the Cambridge LibDems Catherine Smart. Catherine, morning.
CATHERINE SMART: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Mark I’m going to start with you, because this is essentially a Conservative policy, isn’t it. Is it right, is it fair, is it just, or should it be scrapped?

MARK HOWELL: Well there’s lots of questions there. Let’s go back to why we introduced it. It was introduced for the main reasons is we wanted first of all to manage our housing stock better. We no longer thought it was possible to continue where we had one person in a three bedroomed house and a family of three or four in a one or two bedroomed. That was totally unmanageable. We had to move that. Secondly is that we were in a lot of debt. Whether or not it was the Labour Party’s fault or whatever, I’m not going into that. We were in debt, the whole country, we had to sort things out. And one of the things was the housing benefit. And the third reason was equality. The Labour Party had already brought this in, the previous government had brought this in with regards to people in private ownership, that we couldn’t have somebody in a five bedroomed house including it being a private house with regards to what they actually needed. So what we actually did then was to bring that in with regards to social housing. So those are the three principle reasons.
PAUL STAINTON: Was it a just law, Lisa Forbes for Labour? Was it the right thing to do? Or does it just force people into poverty, and should it be scrapped?
LISA FORBES: It has forced people into poverty. .. The problem is that the bedroom tax is actually costing more than it saves, because there aren’t any smaller properties for people to move to. So they’re being forced into the private sector, and it’s actually costing the taxpayer more. And the majority of people that are affected by the bedroom tax, we can’t forget this, 75% of them are disabled. Some of them need an extra room for equipment, or for people to stay over if they’re not feeling too well. And I think people can see that as well.
PAUL STAINTON: Catherine, are you proud of this Coalition policy?
CATHERINE SMART: No. I can understand why Mark says that it was done, and there are merits in what he says. However I think the line was drawn in the wrong place. When it was brought in, there were certain people, certain groups of people, who were exempted, and were in a sense allowed to have a spare bedroom. And I don’t think that .. that should have been looked at more carefully. And to start with, anybody who is disabled should have had their needs assessed, and it is acknowledged that they would need more space as Lisa said, particularly if two people are disabled. But even if only one person is disabled, it’s very often not easy to share a bedroom, and also if they’re on their own, they may need to have equipment, which would need space. I think including the disabled people was a big mistake, and that was one of the factors that the Liberal Democrats Private Member’s Bill Andrew George brought in, which would correct that.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you think with hindsight Mark, this was brought in without too much thought? The one size fits all policy, not having the housing stock, the Government were warned, weren’t they? There weren’t enough one and two bedroomed houses around. Why carry on willy-nilly and just bring it in when you know people can’t move?
MARK HOWELL: I think you’re right. I think it was brought in too quickly. I actually said that on this very station. We weren’t going to have enough time. One of the things then that what happens is that we’ve been building one bedroomed houses. South Cambs are now building one bedroomed and continue to build one and two bedroomed, because that’s where we’ve got a deficit. But at the same time this had to be brought in. As I said, for the three reasons.
PAUL STAINTON: But it could have been delayed until everything was in place. It’s like going on holiday without your swimming trunks, isn’t it? And that is trivialising it slightly. But it’s just a lack of planning and forethought, isn’t it?
MARK HOWELL: Well it was lack of planning and forethought maybe by the central government, but it certainly wasn’t by local government.
PAUL STAINTON: But it puts the pressure on local government, doesn’t it?
MARK HOWELL: It does. But if you look, some of the statistics you’ve been saying this morning, and I’ve no reason to doubt them, it’s that 25% of social housing tenants are in some sort of arrears. Well if you look at South Cambs, that’s 5%. So what that actually says is that is clearly much higher elsewhere. And why is it 5% in South Cambs? Because we’ve been working with those people who are affected by this. We’re working with them to help them move. We’re working with them with regards to how they can actually pay their rent. With regards to one of your earlier contributers, he actually said that people should only have to do this, pay the extra, if they’d been offered a house and they turned it down.
PAUL STAINTON: A suitable house. Yes.
MARK HOWELL: A suitable house. (UNCLEAR) Now that’s very subjective as to what the person thinks is suitable as well.
PAUL STAINTON: Have you had people turn houses down?
MARK HOWELL: We’ve had one person that turned it down six times. We’ve got a report of one person who has turned down eight separate houses. Now where do we go? We can only do so much, and then you actually start saying well hang on. This has come to an end now. We cannot do any more. And they still say it’s not right.
PAUL STAINTON: Lisa, is it fair when somebody has turned down six or eight houses that are suitable for their needs, that they should stay in a three or four bedroomed house they don’t need?
LISA FORBES: Well you’ve got to think about that person’s circumstances. This is people’s communities, their neighbours, their families. And in some cases they’ve lived there for thirty years. And I just want to give you one example of one woman that was disabled. She’s got a degenerative bone disease, had arthritis, and she was living in a three bedroomed house. Her children had all grown up in that house, and fair enough they’d moved out. But this lady’s husband had died three years previously. And she’d actually buried the body in the garden of that house. And she didn’t want to move.
PAUL STAINTON: So should she be doing that though? Mark Howell has got his ..
LISA FORBES: They’re not just houses are they Paul? People have put their ..
MARK HOWELL: OK. Well what I will say is you want us to allow people to bury bodies in the back garden of council houses. That is ridiculous. Come on.
LISA FORBES: No I don’t think it is actually.
MARK HOWELL: What! Do you expect other people then to come into that house in the future and have a body in their back garden.
LISA FORBES: Well it does happen. People bury the ashes.
MARK HOWELL: No I’m sorry. It’s wrong. It’s wrong.
PAUL STAINTON: I’ve never heard of it.
MARK HOWELL: That is totally wrong.
LISA FORBES: No it’s not actually. You’ve just got to accept that these are not just houses. These are people’s homes.
MARK HOWELL: No I will not accept that. No I’m sorry. I will not accept that you can bury bodies in the back garden of somebody’s house.
CATHERINE SMART: Are you sure it was a body and not just the ashes?
LISA FORBES: It was not a body. It was the ashes.
LISA FORBES: They buried it under a rose-bush in the garden.
MARK HOWELL: Well OK. Fair enough.
PAUL STAINTON: Slightly different to what you said.
LISA FORBES: OK. Yes. I do appreciate that I got the words wrong. But you can see what I’m trying to say. These are people’s homes. They’re not just houses. They’ve lived in these communities for many many years. They know their neighbours, they feel at home there and safe there. And this particular lady was two years from retirement age anyway.
MARK HOWELL: Sorry. But to a certain degree that person would have qualified then. If not then very soon then.
LISA FORBES: She didn’t. She didn’t. She was actually being charged for two extra rooms.
MARK HOWELL: Well she was in a house too big for her.
LISA FORBES: It was leaving her with less money than she actually needed to live on. And don’t forget as well ..
MARK HOWELL: She was in a house that was far too big for her.
LISA FORBES: .. a lot of people in Peterborough ..
MARK HOWELL: She was in a house that was stopping a family coming in.
LISA FORBES: Excuse me. Can I just finish what I was saying? A lot of people in Peterborough are also being charged on top of the bedroom tax 30% council tax, which is possibly going to go up in the next round of cuts. So it’s not just the bedroom tax that they’re having to pay out it’s also council tax that they’re having to pay, out of their benefits, for the first time. And people are really struggling to do that. If you can’t see that, if you can’t feel that, then … I really do worry for these people, because they’re struggling.
MARK HOWELL: Why should other people in other parts of the country, in Cambridgeshire, subsidise somebody for living in a three bedroomed house by themselves?
MARK HOWELL: Now you told me to be quiet.
PAUL STAINTON: Let him talk Lisa.
MARK HOWELL: You asked me to be quiet.
PAUL STAINTON: Let him put his point across.
MARK HOWELL: You asked me to be quiet, and I did it, and I apologised for overspeaking you.
MARK HOWELL: You are asking people throughout the country to subsidise other people to live in a three bedroomed house by themselves. I do not think that is fair. I agree that we should have looked at this, and I (UNCLEAR) in saying that. And in the long term, and we should have provided one and two bedroomed houses should be there for these people to move into, ideally in every single community. That’s not the world we live in. But I do not believe that people throughout the country, taxpayers, should be subsidising somebody to live in a three bedroomed house by themselves.
LISA FORBES: You’re not though. You’re not, because you’re actually putting people into the private sector, where houses can be twice the cost. So if you’re in a three bedroomed social house, and you move into a one bedroomed flat in the private sector, it can still cost more money. So you’re actually set to overspend by your own predictions by £30 billion, because of these things, and because of the ridiculous Personal Independence Payment scheme that’s cost £470 million, and It’s still not up and running.
PAUL STAINTON: Catherine you’re being very quiet this morning. Are you like one of the Apprentices that are trying to fly under the radar here, and you’re slightly embarrassed by this policy?
CATHERINE SMART: No, I just thought that it was politer to wait my turn. Because I think one of the things we really ought to remember is that there are a lot of people in very overcrowded places, and they need to be considered as well. And of course the root cause of this is because we haven’t got enough social housing any way. And that is because both Labour and Conservative governments over the years have not concentrated on that particular problem. We do need a lot more social housing of all sizes, and I do agree with councillor Hunter that the question of matching our needs register and the people that want social housing to the size of houses that they need is a big big problem.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it essentially though? Can I just .. Is it essentially the right law, if you like, the right idea? But if we had the houses in place for people to move into, is this essentially the right idea, this spare room subsidy?
LISA FORBES: I don’t think it is Paul. If we build the houses that we need, which is what we should be building. It’s all very well ..
PAUL STAINTON: So if we had enough one bedroomed, two bedroomed houses, you’re happy that people should be left in houses? If they’ve lived in a house for twenty years, they’ve got three or four bedrooms free.
LISA FORBES: In certain circumstances. We should be using our discretion. It depends on the person’s circumstances. And there was a policy in place before whereby if somebody was in a house that was too big for their needs, that we helped them to move if they could. But you’ve got to accept that some people just feel a certain attachment to their homes. These are .. the walls have memories if you like. Their kids have grown up there. You’ve got to allow for that I think. These are people’s homes and they’ve invested a lot of time and money into these homes.
MARK HOWELL: We are actually doing that. That is one of the Council policies. We actually help people, we give them financial benefits to help them move. We’ve employed somebody and that’s solely their job.
CATHERINE SMART: And we do that in Cambridge as well.
PAUL STAINTON: But it’s not working. It’s not working though.
MARK HOWELL: It is working, because we are .. it is working. We’ve moved over seventy to eighty people. We’ve got more on the list that want to move, and we’re helping those as well.
PAUL STAINTON: But in Cambridge one in five people Catherine are on the bread line. One in five people. Poverty. You can’t be proud of that.
CATHERINE SMART: In poverty because of the spare room subsidy?
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. In rent arrears.
CATHERINE SMART: There are a lot more people in poverty.
PAUL STAINTON: You can’t be proud of one in five people in rent arrears, can you?
CATHERINE SMART: It isn’t one in five.
CATHERINE SMART: No it is not in Cambridge.
CATHERINE SMART: I’m sorry. It is .. our rent arrears ..
PAUL STAINTON: One in five council tenants are in rent arrears.
PAUL STAINTON: One in five council tenants are in rent arrears in Cambridge.
CATHERINE SMART: Comparatively small amounts then, because ..
PAUL STAINTON: Whoah! It’s 20%.
CATHERINE SMART: we collect over 95, I think it’s 97 point something or other of rent. So don’t exaggerate.
PAUL STAINTON: I’m not exaggerating. That’s a fact.
CATHERINE SMART: There is a certain ..
PAUL STAINTON: It’s fact Catherine.
PAUL STAINTON: It’s fact. One in five people in Cambridge are in rent arrears in Council property.
CATHERINE SMART: I think you’re misreading it. I think it is one in ..
CATHERINE SMART: One in five of those affected by the bedroom tax are in arrears.
PAUL STAINTON: Mark, do you want a point?
MARK HOWELL: Well only to say that in South Cambs it’s 5%.
CATHERINE SMART: One of the other things that I think we do need to say is that there are .. the Government did give councils discretion .. increased amounts of discretionary housing money, to give .. to help people who .. to give the councils discretion to pay extra housing benefit for those cases where they thought it was appropriate. And that was particularly the disabled people. Now all councils have that money. Not all of them have used it in the way in which Cambridge has.
MARK HOWELL: Well I’m going to come in on there and I’m going to say I can only speak for South Cambs on this particular one.
PAUL STAINTON: Can I just hold you one second?  I’ll come back to you Mark. Can I just read you something from your council notes Catherine? “The bedroom tax ..” this is from your council notes, ” .. continues to have a severe impact on its tenants. With 20% now in arrears, and only 5% having been able to downsize”. That’s your notes.
CATHERINE SMART: Yes but if you read the line before, that is of those affected by the bedr .. by the spare room tax .. spare room subsidy/bedroom tax.
PAUL STAINTON: It’s still 20% though.
CATHERINE SMART: It’s not the whole lot.
PAUL STAINTON: So it’s alright, is it?
CATHERINE SMART: No of course it isn’t. Of course it isn’t alright.
MARK HOWELL: Catherine, I’m going to move on if you don’t mind, because I want to say my little bit as well.
MARK HOWELL: Well as I said earlier on, it’s 5% in South Cambs. We’ve been helping people to move. We understand that .. when we say 5%, I should just .. that’s 5% who are four weeks or more in arrears. That’s the figure that we’ve got. Four weeks or more in arrears. And we do help people. This is sometimes Lisa a very controversial area, and it’s something that we’ve got to work with, because we cannot continue to have people living in a large house by themselves when there are families who are overcrowded. We’ve got to come back to that.
PAUL STAINTON: It’s a fair point Lisa, isn’t it?
LISA FORBES: No I think what we need to come back to is the fact that one in five people as you just stated Paul are living in poverty, and having to choose between putting their heating on, eating and paying these ridiculous sums. And they can’t do it. It’s been proven they can’t do it. They’re reporting to loan sharks to help pay these arrears. And it’s obvious that they just can’t afford to live. They’ve got less money to live on than they actually can afford to live on. They’re turning to food banks for Christ sake, and I think a couple of the panel that are on today, LibDems and the Tories, are both in denial about what’s going on.
PAUL STAINTON: Mark’s hackles are up.
LISA FORBES: These are real people. Why are they so undeserving? Why is that?
MARK HOWELL: I’m going to explain. Let’s remember why we all started this. This all started because a Labour Government introduced this very policy into private rented houses, and therefore you have inequality. Now are you into inequality in the sense that it should be OK for private rented, but not for social housing tenants? Is that what you’re saying? I don’t think so. I believe in equality, so therefore it should be both.
PAUL STAINTON: Let’s leave it there ladies and gentleman. It’s been an interesting debate. I’m going to ask you one question each, and I want a one sentence answer. Lisa, should we scrap the spare room subsidy right now?
LISA FORBES: Labour have already said that when we get into power that we’ll scrap the bedroom subsidy, or the bedroom tax as I like to call it, and as people know it by.
PAUL STAINTON: Catherine Smart. Should we scrap it?
CATHERINE SMART: We should amend it very severely.
MARK HOWELL: No we should not scrap it. Let’s get on with it.