Julian Huppert on Housing Benefit Reform


Monday, November 18th, 2013. 6:28pm

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert voted to allow housing benefit to be cut for those deemed to have spare bedrooms but opposes the way it’s being done.

On the 15th of June 2011 Cambridge MP Julian Huppert voted in favour of the Welfare Reform Bill becoming law. Section 69 of the resultant Welfare Reform Act enabled the The Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2012 to be made; Regulation 5 of which is the law which requires local councils to reduce the amount of rent which can be covered by housing benefit in cases where people are renting properties with more bedrooms than the regulation says they are entitled to.

On Tuesday the 12th of November 2013 Julian Huppert faced a difficult dilemma when deciding which way to vote in two House of Commons “divisions” on the recent changes to Housing Benefit for those deemed to have “spare” bedrooms.

Huppert has stated he was in the position of not supporting either an opposition (Labour) motion or an amendment to it tabled by the (Liberal Democrat / Conservative) Government (which deleted all the substantive text and replaced it with something else).

By opposing both motions Huppert is saying he doesn’t want to scrap the idea of reducing housing benefit for those deemed to have spare bedrooms (as Labour propose); but neither does he support the government’s current implementation of their policy.

Huppert has spoken in Parliament on the changes to Housing Benefit saying:

The Government’s under-occupancy policy relies on people being able to move into appropriately-sized housing, but in specific parts of the country that is very hard to achieve. Does the Secretary of State agree that no benefit reduction should take place until people have at least been offered somewhere appropriately sized and located? Will he make sure that there is enough discretionary housing budget for councils to ensure that that is the case?

Huppert has been quoted in the Cambridge News as saying:

“I think the Government has also not got it right – discretionary housing payments need to be easier to obtain, and more people need to be exempted from paying, such as disabled people where any move would be unreasonable, and people who are trying to move but haven’t yet found somewhere to move to.

Rather than vote no in both of the votes (which, under to a weird rule, if a majority of other MPs voted along with him could have resulted in the opposition motion being deemed agreed) Huppert decided to abstain on both votes:

Julian Huppert had other options open to him; he could have submitted his own amendment; or he could have spoken in the debate to clarify his view. He did neither.

There was a similar House of Commons debate on the Housing Benefit changes in February 2013, again there Huppert did not speak or vote.

My View

I agree entirely with Julian Huppert. Housing benefit should not pay for people to rent homes with more rooms than they need; that is the correct policy but it hasn’t been well implemented.

In my view MPs should have taken more care in considering the definition of need / entitlement and given its importance should have debated this as part of the bill rather than leaving it for minsters to define in secondary legislation.

Maybe we should have a system which gives us the benefits of the scrutiny that goes into primary legislation with the ease of tweaking secondary legislation. For example the first iteration of regulations in a case like this could be considered as part of the bill.

We need to be much better at highlighting things which are due to come before MPs so there can be more public debate, and public lobbying, of MPs before they are asked to make a decision.

Setting the size of the pot of money available for discretionary payments rather than clearly setting out the exemptions to the new law and the relevant definitions was wrong.

Perhaps spotting all the potential problems in advance was too great a challenge for our MPs; that shouldn’t put us of making such changes in the future though. The impact of the new law should have been closely monitored and we should be prepared to refine our laws after they’ve come into force.

On a related, but separate, point I think we need to be sure we’re getting good value for the money we’re spending on housing benefit. We shouldn’t be paying for poor quality housing, and we need to try and avoid the huge amounts of public money being put into housing driving prices up, or keeping them artificially high.

6 comments/updates on “Julian Huppert on Housing Benefit Reform

  1. anadapter

    If many more houses/homes were available this policy might be ok. But the trouble is, councils haven’t been allowed to build housing for some years, and since this is the case, disabled people have been unfairly penalised because of it. If this government were actually serious about reducing the welfare bill, they’d increase the minimum wage to a living wage (as it can be an in work benefit.) That they won’t is not in question.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I agree in so far as the state shouldn’t subsidise poor pay and make it possible for companies to get away with paying people poorly because poor pay is supplemented with benefits.

      How that can be best achieved isn’t I don’t think as simple as raising the minimum wage. The minimum wage is just one of the relevant leavers; another is how easy, and risky, regulation makes it to create jobs.

  2. anadapter

    Can we add regulation of the rental market too then to ensure that landlords are not able to charge exorbitant rents? (I don’t know if there are cupboard size spaces in London going for £1,000 a month, for example, but that kind of nonsense. )

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    The PublicWhip website now allows you to see how each MP voted on reducing benefits for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms.

    Cambridge MP Julian Huppert voted as follows:

    • 9 Mar 2011 at 18:50 Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge voted to introduce Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments and to restrict housing benefit for those in social housing deemed to have excess bedrooms.
    • 9 Mar 2011 at 18:59 Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge voted to introduce Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments and to restrict housing benefit for those in social housing deemed to have excess bedrooms.
    • 15 Jun 2011 at 19:00 Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge voted to introduce Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments and to restrict housing benefit for those in social housing deemed to have excess bedrooms.
    • 1 Feb 2012 at 19:00 Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge voted not to require the housing cost element of universal credit be sufficient to cover the actual cost of housing for social tenants so long as no offer of alternative accommodation had been made and the household has no more than one spare bedroom.
    • 21 Feb 2012 at 16:56 Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge did not vote when the majority of MPs voted against adding proposed exclusions from any reduction in housing benefits due to people being deemed to have excess bedrooms.
    • 27 Feb 2013 at 18:50 Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge did not vote when the majority of MPs voted in favour of a housing benefit under-occupancy penalty.
    • 12 Nov 2013 at 18:51 Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge did not vote when the majority of MPs voted in favour of reducing housing benefit for those deemed to have excess bedrooms
    • 12 Nov 2013 at 18:51 Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge did not vote when the majority of MPs voted to support the Government’s action against the inequality of allowing social tenants to receive Housing Benefit for excess bedrooms while private tenants do not receive payments in respect of extra rooms.

    In summary Cambridge MP Julian Huppert was absent from four of the eight votes on a benefits penalty for those deemed to have excess bedrooms and voted along with other members of the Liberal – Conservative Coalition to introduce the penalty in the other four votes.

    I should note that I’ve been writing those vote descriptions on PublicWhip on behalf of mySociety

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    On the 26th of February Julian Huppert voted to remove an exemption from housing benefit penalties due to being deemed to have excess bedrooms which applied to those who’ve continuously received the benefit in the same property since before 1 January 1996. This action has been described as correcting an unintended loophole which would have allowed some people to avoid the excess bedroom penalty. (Details via PublicWhip)

    Paragraphs 7.2 and 7.3 of the explanatory notes to the regulation removing the exemption note that when we had a previous major change to housing benefit in 1996 there were safeguards, such as those Huppert and others have proposed in relation to the excess bedroom penalty:

    …restrictions could not be imposed upon certain groups of vulnerable claimants unless it was reasonable for them to move and there was alternative suitable accommodation available

    The same explanatory notes show there have always been controls on unreasonably large homes being funded by housing benefit; with rent officers being able to determine reasonableness; the changes in 1996 gave more weight to the rent officers’ determinations. The housing benefit penalty introduced in 2012 defined in law the amount of the penalty and what counted as an excess bedroom.

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