Landlords claim housing benefit sums are 'fiddled'

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Landlords have accused the Coalition Government of "fiddling the figures" on the rising £21bn-a-year cost of housing benefit to justify its controversial cuts in payments to claimants.

Two groups representing property owners have demanded that ministers halt a "blame game" suggesting that landlords are responsible for the spiralling bill for taxpayers by pushing up rents for people on housing benefit.

The landlords’ campaign puts a question mark over the Coalition’s decision to rein in housing benefit, which threatens to provoke a rebellion by Liberal Democrat MPs amid rising concern that thousands of families could be forced to move to cheaper homes. From next April, payments will be capped at £400-a-week as part of a drive to £2bn a year by 2014-15.

Boris Johnson, the Tory Mayor of London, has vowed to prevent a “Kosovo-style social cleansing” in the capital. Yesterday the Rt Rev Tim Stevens,the Bishop of Leicester, warned that the cuts will create “townships” for the poor. While rich bankers continued to take home "enormous bonuses", he said, families on housing benefit will be left “rootless” as they are forced to move.

Landlords' groups have written to Lord Freud, the Welfare Reform Minister, asking him to retract his claim last month that “some unscrupulous landlords are charging benefit claimants over the odds to make a quick buck at the expense of the taxpayer."

Their analysis of Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) research shows almost 70 per cent of the rise in the housing benefit bill was caused by additional claimants – mainly people who lost their jobs in the recession. They estimate that a further 17 per cent is due to an increase in payments in the social rented sector – due to the transfer of council house stock to housing associations, which have higher rents, while only 13 per cent is due to an increase in average payments in the private rented sector.

Ian Fletcher, director of policy at the British Property Federation, told The Independent: “Landlords and their representatives support benefit reform, but are not prepared to take the rap for the Government’s unpopular policies. Constant spinning and fiddling with the statistics just embarrasses the DWP and has no place in the Coalition’s politics. Rather than distorting the findings of the [DWP] report, the department should be focusing its energies on how it can work with the sector to keep people in their homes.”

Richard Jones, policy director for the Residential Landlords Association, added: “Unfortunately, DWP seems to have embarked on a campaign to slur the vast majority of landlords who rent their properties to benefit recipients.”

The two organisations accused ministers of quoting selectively from the DWP research, by saying that children under 16 in low income families in work lived in smaller homes than those receiving housing benefit. The groups pointed out that the full DWP report said: “While the housing benefit arrangements do not seem to unduly favour local housing allowance [paid to private tenants] compared to most low income working households, the exception is the small group of households with children aged under 16 who appear to be worse off than other household groups in terms of property size that they occupy and the rates they would be entitled to if they were eligible for housing benefit.”

The Government is sticking to its guns. Lord Freud said last night: "The housing benefit bill is out of control and we need to fix it. It's outrageous that some benefit claimants are benefiting from the Government and the taxpayer to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds a year so that they can live in expensive houses.

"You only have to look at the property websites to see that rents in the private sector have been falling. But for housing benefit tenants the rents continue to rise. We must end this practice of landlords inflating their prices when the Government is paying the bill – in future landlords will need to reduce their rents or risk their homes becoming empty."