Hughes demands changes to avoid benefit battle
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes has pledged to vote against the government unless it alters three specific elements of its plans to reform housing benefit.
In an exclusive interview with Inside Housing, Mr Hughes said he was ‘confident’ of defeating the government on its plans to cut housing benefit for workless claimants.
He is lobbying ministers to drop plans for a 10 per cent cut in housing benefit for people who have been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for more than a year.
Mr Hughes predicted that the JSA cut, which will take effect from April 2013, will have the worst effect on housing benefit claimants. He said he would vote against the government on the JSA cut, plans to change the way local housing allowance is calculated from the median of rents in an area to those in the 30th percentile, and caps to the amount paid per bedroom of up to £400.
Inside Housing has been campaigning for fairer cuts since July as part of its What’s the Benefit? campaign. At the time of going to press, its petition had received 1,527 signatures.
‘When the cuts were announced, I took the view then and I still take the view now that an absolute cut could be terrible,’ Mr Hughes said. ‘I am working hard with colleagues and there is still time enough before 2013 to try to make sure that we can stop this going forward.
‘I am confident that we will find a way of dealing with that. I understand the argument that we have got to incentivise people into work but there are some people who, through no fault of their own, will not be able to do that.’ He said a large number of Lib Dem MPs would vote against the cuts if the government did proceed with it.
The influential MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark is holding ongoing discussions with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, including Steve Webb and secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith. The Treasury, which initiated the cuts in the emergency Budget in June, will also need to be persuaded, he said.
Striking a discordant note with ministers, Mr Hughes said it was unlikely that the cuts would drive down rents in areas such as London. He argued that demand for private sector homes from young professionals and families not claiming housing benefit would mean the caps would have little effect.
Mr Hughes also said he was unhappy about the prospect of tenants on low incomes being forced to leave areas of London where their families had settled for many years. He said: ‘It’s really about making the case that we have got to go on providing homes for the settled community who have been there for two, four, five generations and who do low-paid jobs as cleaners and dinner ladies.
‘That is different from saying that somebody who has moved into an area in the last six months should be supported to stay.’
Following a week of political rows and intense media attention over the benefit cuts, Mr Hughes warned of ‘dangerous stereotypes’ around the type of people who claim housing benefit. He said: ‘It is not helpful to pretend that everyone on housing benefit is a scrounger. Most people are just trying to make ends meet.
‘On the other side, it is no good pretending that government intends to do Kosovan-style cleansing or Scottish-type clearances. A lot of the claims are very unhelpful on both sides.’
He insisted that he was a firm supporter of the coalition government and also seems to have softened his position on security of tenure in the months following David Cameron’s shock announcement of his intentions to abolish the right for future tenants. When the prime minister first let his plans slip in August, Mr Hughes made every effort to suggest it was simply an off-the-cuff remark, not government policy.
He also submitted a motion at the party conference in September which called for the government to ‘rule out removing secure tenancies for current and future council tenants’.
Although he still rigorously opposes plans to move from tenancy for life to fixed-term tenancies, Mr Hughes said he was in favour of giving councils discretion over whether to offer a lifelong tenancy.
A government consultation due to be published within the next few weeks will propose that councils and housing associations can choose whether or not to scrap tenancy for life in their area. Mr Hughes conceded that this would make housing a political football in some areas, but said: ‘At least this will encourage people to take an interest in local government and increase turn out at the polls’.
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Timeline: Simon Hughes’ intervention on housing policy
Says the plan to scrap tenancy for life is ‘not a Liberal Democrat policy, it is not a coalition policy, it is not in the election manifesto of either party, it was not in the coalition agreement’.
Sets up cross-party talks with Labour MP Karen Buck and Tory MP Mark Field on alternative reforms to housing benefit for London.
Tables an emergency motion at the Lib Dem conference calling for the government to ‘rule out removing secure tenancies for current and future council tenants’.
Starts work on overhaul of Lib Dem housing policy.
Warns the government that parliament will not approve its plans to cut housing benefit.