Council denies help to people who spend on luxuries

  • @emilydugan

A council has become the first in the country to reveal it denies emergency hardship payments to tenants affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ if they are seen to spend too much on “luxuries” such as cigarettes, alcohol and satellite television.

When choosing who is given a discretionary housing payment to cope with the benefit shortfall created by the bedroom tax, Edinburgh Council asks tenants to detail their expenditure for drinking and smoking, among other non-essentials. Staff then take this into consideration when deciding if the potential recipient is deserving of financial help.

It is the first time a council has confirmed that it decides who gets discretionary housing payments (DHPs) on the basis of what people say they are spending their money on.

Many councils have seen a huge rise in demand for the emergency funds because of the bedroom tax, which means thousands of families had their housing benefit cut for living in a property with a “spare” room. Figures out last month showed English councils received 13,000 extra DHP applications in April, compared with the same period last year.

Cammy Day, vice-convenor of the health, well-being and housing committee at Edinburgh Council, told Inside Housing magazine that the policy was necessary to prevent the Labour and Scottish National Party-led council’s dwindling DHP allocation from running out. He said: “As a result of a policy imposed by the Conservative Party we are having to do this, otherwise our entire DHP allocation would have been spent in the first three months [of the financial year],”

He added he was “not comfortable” with the policy. “It is a horrible position to be in, having to make a judgement on people’s lifestyle choices,” he said.

Edinburgh council received 2,216 applications for discretionary payments in the first two months of the bedroom tax, compared with just 724 during the same period in 2012. The council says it has already committed nearly £332,000 of its £1.43m allocation for 2013-14.

As part of the assessment for a DHP, tenants have to fill in a form declaring all their outgoings and income. Most councils include columns on this for satellite television fees, mobile phone contracts and a general “entertainment” column for other items considered non-essential. However, Edinburgh City Council also has a specific column for spending on “alcohol/cigarettes” and has admitted that outgoings on these and others  might count against a potential claimant.

A spokesman for the council said it was not a “blanket policy” that those who spent on booze and cigarettes would never get help, but that it “was a factor”.

Stuart Macdonald, editor of Inside Housing, said: “This shows the extremes councils are being forced into due to the increased demand for DHPs caused by the government’s welfare reforms.

“Although the amount available for DHPs has been increased by government, this is already proving insufficient and it is inevitable that other councils will have no choice but to follow Edinburgh’s lead.”

Betty Stevenson, convenor at Edinburgh Tenants Federation, said she was “uncomfortable with the intrusion of privacy” in the approach, adding “This intrusion is caused directly by the unfairness of the bedroom tax”.

She also said that television was not necessarily a luxury. “We’re worried that for some people that’s the only entertainment they’ve got.”

Child Poverty Action Group’s head of policy, Imran Hussain, said: “It's really important we do not lose sight of the fact there are children in many of the households affected by the 'bedroom tax' who could be badly affected if the family ends up being made homeless for rent arrears. Local authorities aren't going to be helping families or themselves in the long run if they withhold much-needed support.

“A more balanced approach would also recognise that people are more vulnerable to addiction when they are under greater stress. In those few relevant cases, a claimant would probably welcome positive help, such as help accessing an NHS smoking cessation clinic or, in exceptional cases, referrals to addiction services.”

A DWP spokesman said: “Each individual council runs its discretionary housing payments. This is a matter for councils, as long as they run them robustly and responsibly.”