There was a debate in the House of Commons yesterday on a Labour motion attacking the cut in spare room subsidy. It went on for hours and much of it was repetitive. However I thought there was a strong performance from Steve Webb, the Lib Dem MP and Work and Pensions Minister. Given that official Lib Dem policy favours reinstating the spare room subsidy it was interesting that only a couple of Lib Dem MPs voted with Labour.
Anyway Mr Webb noted the incoherence of Labour’s policy – for instance regarding private tenants on Housing Benefit:
It states that social tenants should not have to pay towards an extra bedroom, but that private tenants should. We have heard cases of people who need extra bedrooms, for example for dialysis machines. Social tenants need an extra room for that machine, but private tenants should have to pay for it.
But it was the following exchange which got to the crux of the argument. Labour argue that cutting the spare room subsidy is unjust as those affected are unable to downsize:
Robert Flello: The Minister talks about cash-strapped authorities. Stoke-on-Trent has been the third hardest hit by cuts every year and simply cannot mop that up. He made a point about swaps. In Stoke-on-Trent, approximately 11,000 people are on the waiting list. Where are the one-bedroom flats? Where are the two-bedroom places? They do not exist in Stoke-on-Trent. Will he tell me where they are?
Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. He mistakes the issue of empty properties for properties that are currently accommodated. The social housing swap website indicates tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in smaller properties who want to trade up, while people in larger properties want to trade down.
If Mr Flello looks up on House Exchange website he will find, for example, this property. It is Fenton in his constituency. Stoke on Trent Council is the landlord. It has one bedroom and the occupant is looking to swap for a two bedroom property. Or this one – where Bentilee Community Housing is the landlord – again it is a one bedroom property where the occupant wants to swap with someone who has a larger property.
Or why not try Home Swapper? That site offers 188 one bedroom social housing properties within five miles of Trentham in Mr Flello’s constituency – usually looking to move as they want somewhere bigger.
In a way it is unfair to pick on Mr Flello, as his contribution was typical of so many other Labour MPs yesterday. But if their constituents, in overcrowded social housing, are bright and well informed enough to register for these housing swap websites why are their elected representatives so clueless? Is Mr Flello dishonest or just hopelessly out of touch?