SAR – is the social housing sector appeasing the DWP?

The government has made many HB reforms and two of them are as follows:

(a) The extension of the shared accommodation rate (SAR) that applies to private rented sector tenants only from under 25s to the under 35s;  age criteria

(b) The under-occupation issue, known as the bedroom tax which is based on size criteria

These are apparently two separate reforms and been seen as such yet they could be linked and interwoven as the age and size criteria meet.  When I mentioned this last week in a post asking whether (b) above could lead to (a) being applied to social tenants, the blog received over 1000 views and I received over 300 correspondences about it from right across the sector.

Firstly, I agree that currently (a) SAR only applies to private tenants and also agree that, currently at least, it is the DWP intention of SAR to remain applicable only to private sector tenants.  Yet this was never the issue I raised.

The issue I raised was a simple one.  The bedroom tax (b) will see social housing tenants being paid HB according to size criteria, so for example a couple in a 3-bed house will only receive HB at the 1 bed rate.  This replicates the current position that applies to tenants in the private rented sector and as such the bedroom tax could see a single person under 35 in a social property being deemed to over-occupy a 1 bed property, just as it works that way to a single person in private rented housing.  This is due to the wording of the bedroom tax as I explained in the post last week.

If you read the impact assessment for the under-occupation changes produced by DWP then you will see:

From 1 April 2013 it is intended to introduce size criteria for new and existing working-age Housing Benefit claimants living in the social rented sector. The size criteria will replicate the size criteria that apply to Housing Benefit claimants in the private rented sector and whose claims are assessed using the local housing allowance rules

In short, such an interpretation sees replicating in social housing the position that applies to private rented housing.  Further the quote is definitive as it says the size criteria WILL replicate rather than ‘may’ or ‘should’ or some other less definitive term.  Moreover the wording is not a size criterion but is size criteria, that plural and so not just size but also other criteria that will be introduced to “…claimants living in the social rented sector.”

This is why I raised the charge and called this sneaking in SAR by the back door and I am still of the view that this could happen.

The size criteria (i.e. plural) currently in the private rented sector are based on both size and age and also tenure, 3 lots of criterion.  If the size criteria of the PRS are replicated, which is the definitive stated intention of the bedroom tax then in terms of equity then SAR will apply in the social rented sector. While it may not be the DWPs intention or expectation of applying the SAR to social housing tenants currently, the guidance on the ‘bedroom tax’ could see this applied at any later date.  It needs to be noted that applying the SAR to social housing tenants has not been discussed as part of the Bill’s passage.

The SAR and the bedroom tax have been stated to be reforms with the primary intention of saving money and its extension from under-25s to under-35s captures a further 88,000 people in the 25-34 age group in the PRS.  Yet there are 265,000 25-34 year old single people claiming benefit so if it was applied to social tenants then the savings to the HB bill would triple and this is a significant issue.

The House of Commons Library documents on SAR reveal that “DWP commissioned research published in 2005 found that 87% of all SAR claimants faced a shortfall, averaging £35.14 per week”   That 2005 rate of £35.14 is about 25% more than the planned 2013 reduction for a single person aged 35 or 65 occupying a 3 bed socially rented property – the feckless scrounging ‘privileged’ person in ‘heavily subsidised’ social housing in government speak.  Apart from showing how draconian the SAR is in context, is holding onto an expectation that DWP don’t intend to apply this to social tenants is appeasement.  Under this doctrine young people in the PRS are more feckless yet less privileged but more worthy of a cut!

From a political perspective, why would this government firstly bring social housing into line with the PRS LHA criteria – the level playing field rationale – but then exempt social tenants from the most punitive aspect of that, the SAR?  It doesn’t make economic or political sense.  If the secondary reason for increasing the age criterion is it reflects the expectations or natural state of those under 35 (ie sharing) then why is this limited by another criterion such as tenure?  That doesn’t make any sense either, yet it appears to be both the sector’s view and the view of the DWP…well at least currently it does.

When the ‘affordable rent’ model could see far higher housing benefit being paid to social tenants, as AR is a social housing model, than is paid to private tenants by way of LHA, then the non-applicability of SAR to social tenants just doesn’t stack up at all.

There is a huge difference and anomaly between saying SAR will not apply to social housing tenants and whether the bedroom tax will do precisely that yet by the backdoor.  Now that the DWP is about to consult on size criteria (ie plural) within the bedroom tax which is a singular criterion the sector can’t afford to rely upon its own instincts or emails or other correspondence it may have from DWP or indeed rely upon the SAR guidance as published.  If the bedroom tax will replicate the PRS scheme then the housing sector needs to have it in writing that the bedroom tax won’t permit the SAR conditionality applied to social housing tenants.

Finally the DWP blindsided the housing sector and the housing minister with its LHA rent freeze announcement and created a massive impact on all rented housing.  It is the DWP that controls HB and LHA not the CLG and the LHA freeze while having a significant impact pales into insignificance to the SAR applying to all tenants.  The under-35 will have no viable rented housing options is what it means in general needs or support housing such as homeless hostels.

The DWP and the CLG need to deliver absolute clarity on this issue and produce a definitive document that says that SAR will not apply to social tenants in 2013 or after that.  Anything less is appeasement by the housing sector.

Update/; 3.30pm Monday 19 March

Above I referenced the DWP impact assessment on the under-occupation reform, known as the ‘bedroom tax.’   I quoted section 5 in the original post – that it will replicate in the social sector the size criteria currently in the private rented sector.

The reader should also look at section 13 and 16 of this impact assessment.

At 13

It is unfair to allow tenants in the social rented sector to enjoy more spacious accommodation than they could justify if they were on Housing Benefit in the private rented sector. In these circumstances it would be reasonable for under occupying claimants in the social rented sector to make some contribution towards more generously sized accommodation or to move.

The government and DWP view is that it is unfair to “…allow tenants in the social rented sector to enjoy more spacious accommodation than they could justify if they were on Housing Benefit in the private rented sector.”  Overlay that with LHA policy which sees those under 35 in the private rented sector receive the SAR when they reside in a 1 bed flat.  This reads that the SAR will apply to social housing tenants.

Then: At 16

Housing Benefit claimants in the social rented sector will face similar choices to their counterparts in the private rented sector: Tenants will need to choose whether to occupy appropriately sized accommodation, or pay towards accommodation which is larger than the needs of their household

The size criteria is being set for social housing tenants in this bedroom tax policy.  Social housing tenants will face ‘similar choices’ …and …”need to choose whether to occupy appropriately sized accommodation…”  Appropriately sized accommodation is similar to that found in LHA regulations for the under 35s, or the SAR.

Over the past few days I have read and re-read the policy documents, impact assessments, Hansard discussions, the House of Commons Library documents, articles from CIH, National Housing Federation, Crisis, Shelter around the SAR and around the underoccupation issue known as the bedroom tax.  Every paper discusses the merits of (a) SAR and (b) the bedroom tax in isolation from the other.  Everyone ‘expects’ the SAR not to apply to social housing tenants yet if the bedroom tax changes sees social tenants to be treated on a level playing field with PRS tenants – which the impact assessment and all other documents say – then how can this omit or exempt SAR?

All I have done is recognise that the SAR reform and the bedroom tax can be one and the same thing or if you like SAR is another form or variant of the bedroom tax.

SAR as it stands is a bedroom tax.  It says that a single person 34 and under occupying a 1 bed flat is underoccupying.  That fact and reality is being missed.  It’s not referred to as an ‘underoccupation’ as it is nonsensical – How can a single person be underoccupying a 1 bed flat?  That perversity is not discussed in that way as it exposes that perversity and highlights the distasteful nature of the SAR and its predecessor the SRR.  Read section 16 again – HB claimants in social housing will face similar choices and either downsize or pay towards appropriately sized accommodation.  Appropriately sized accommodation in the PRS for those under 35 is shared accommodation and not a 1 bed fully self-contained flat. – The SAR and its predecessor the SRR are bedroom taxes.

Finally, many have commented it would be good if th DWP cleared up this apparent anomaly once and for all.  My view is stronger and I maintain it is essential they do this.  If this is just an apparent anomaly caused by poor drafting of the DWP impact assessment and it is not the intention of the government or the DWP to apply SAR to social housing tenants then it is very easy to do that and clarify the issue once and for all.  Yet until they do the prospect remains that SAR can be applied to social tenants after April 2013 and that’s a frightening thought!

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