Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, and Kris Hopkins, the housing minister, were giving evidence to the Commons work and pensions select committee about what the government calls its spare room subsidy removal (SRSR) policy.
Their evidence came on the same day that National Housing Federation (NHF) research found two-thirds of housing association tenants hit by the bedroom tax were now in rent arrears.
The NHF survey of 183 housing associations also found that, by October 2013, after just six months of the new policy, more than one in seven households affected by the bedroom tax had been warned they risked eviction.
Under the SRSR policy, tenants in social housing are punished financially if they are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes.
The government now believes that 523,000 households have been affected by the policy, with almost two-thirds of them disabled people.
On the same day as the committee hearing, research by Papworth Trust found that a third of those being refused discretionary housing payments (DHPs) – money paid by a council when it decides a housing benefit claimant needs extra help to meet their housing costs – are disabled people.
Almost nine in 10 of those refused DHPs said they then had to cut back on essentials like food or paying household bills.
The research also showed that while 67 per cent of non-disabled people applying for a DHP were successful, this dropped to 59 per cent for disabled people.
Giving evidence to the committee, Lord Freud repeatedly insisted that disabled adults could not be exempted from the SRSR policy.
He said the government preferred to address the problems faced by disabled people by handing funds to local authorities for DHPs – councils will receive £165 million in 2014-15, compared with £180 million in 2013-14 – and providing guidance on how that money should be used.
But there was anger from Labour’s Debbie Abrahams when Hopkins suggested that many disabled tenants could solve their problems by “behavioural” and “cultural” change, and suggested they were “set in their ways about the way that they spend and they use their money”.
Abrahams told Hopkins that “to suggest that behaviour change will alter a disability is quite shocking”.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, told the two ministers that the group the government had targeted with the policy “were not people who were needing to change their behaviour to move out but were vulnerable disabled people who actually needed that size of house because they can’t share their bed with their wife anymore because she’s incontinent. That’s who has been caught by this policy.”
She added: “I accept that wasn’t your intention, but it is a real problem that shows the real chaos at the heart of the policy that you didn’t realise that behind those figures were real people in situations [where] they couldn’t change their behaviour in order to make it better.
“They can’t move. You have no idea how incredibly difficult it is to get an accessible house.”
Lord Freud said the government had decided to exempt disabled children from the SRSR policy, but not disabled adults, “on the basis that they are adults and in control”.
He said it was very difficult to define the group of disabled people who could be exempted from the SRSR, but that government guidance suggested that those in heavily adapted homes, or cases where it was “clearly impossible” for someone to share a bedroom with a disabled partner, should receive “long-term” DHPs.
12 February 2014