Evan Price is a barrister and was a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament in 2009
I hope that you will agree with me when I write that social housing is a public good. It is something that we, as a community, require to ensure that individuals and families have somewhere to live that is of an acceptable standard and size for the requirements of those individuals and families who cannot afford to buy or rent such accommodation from the private sector.
The reduction of benefit in cases where a family’s needs are exceeded by the property that they occupy is probably a just reduction. People occupying and using social housing should not, in principle, occupy social housing that exceeds their requirements and needs. Sadly, assessing those requirements and needs and the timing of any changes in circumstances can result in exceedingly harsh decisions that would offend most right thinking people.
So it is that judicial review proceedings can be brought and succeed against a housing authority that says to a couple, one of whom is disabled, that their requirements do not extend to two rooms, but to only one. The tribunal concluded that the authority did not take the facts and extent of the wife’s disability sufficiently into account when they said that the couple required only one bedroom and so the subsidy reduction was itself assessed upwards. This couple had three bedrooms rather than two.
This is but one example of injustice created by a system that requires detailed consideration of facts. Take the example of a family who have two children of the same sex. If they are under 16, they are not permitted to have separate rooms; but that would mean a girl of almost sixteen could be required to share with a girl of five. Is that just?
For me the answers to these questions are not straightforward. But there is one overwhelming problem with the implementation of the changes to the manner in which housing benefit is assessed and paid that needs to be addressed urgently.
If I no longer require a room for my daughter, I can, under these reforms, be required to contribute more from my meagre earnings towards the social housing that I occupy or move to smaller accommodation. That, of itself, may well be fine; but what if the housing authority and private landlords in my area have no accommodation that fits my needs as assessed by the housing authority? Is it just that I am required to move away from family and friends simply because the housing authority assesses that I have an extra bedroom without taking into account that there is no accommodation with the one bedroom that I do need in the area that I live in? How far should I be required to move? Out of the borough? Out of the city or county?
As a party, we wish to be seen as compassionate. We need, politically, to be seen as compassionate. We need to overcome the impression that we have a tendency to bean count rather than take into account the wild differences that exist between individuals, families and communities. The policy may well be the right one – and it is interesting to note that Labour introduced a similar reform for housing benefit paid for private accommodation. But implementation is key, and allowing obvious injustice to occur is not just – and it will not assist our party either.