DWP accused of ‘peddling lies and deliberately misleading the public’

Bruce Forbes

Bruce Forbes

Angus Housing Association director, Bruce Forbes, has accused a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson of “peddling lies and deliberately misleading the public” to justify the Westminster government’s “brutal” cuts to welfare.

Last week, after speaking to the Evening Telegraph on the impact of the impending cuts in Housing Benefit for single people under 35, Mr Forbes was given a copy of the DWP’s response to the points he made.

In the response, a DWP spokeswoman said: “These changes are about restoring fairness to the system and ensuring that those on benefits face the same choices as everyone else. The reality is, nothing will change until April 2019, and existing tenancies signed before April 1 2016 will be unaffected.

“We will have provided £1bn in Discretionary Housing Payments across Great Britain by 2020 to support people transitioning to our reforms.”

The statement was also accompanied by a series of background facts, which read:

  • Nothing will change until April 2019.
  • Housing Benefit and Universal Credit claimants in the private rented sector are already subject to the Local Housing Allowance rates which have been in place since 2008. These changes ensure those in the social rented sector are treated equally.
  • People moved by the Department from Housing Benefit to Universal Credit after April 2019 whose overall benefit entitlement is lower will be protected, in cash terms, under transitional protection arrangements.
  • Over the last five years, average rent increases in the social housing sector have increased at more than double the rate of those in the private rented sector. Around 60 per cent of social tenants receive housing benefit. Local Housing Allowance rates help curb the spiralling housing benefit bill in the private rented sector, and it is only fair that those in the social sector are subject to the same rules.

Angered about this “bland” response, Mr Forbes said: “If the DWP are only willing to engage with serious concerns about the impact of their policy changes with bland press statements, I am not surprised as this seems to be the only level of public debate about policy that is engaged in these days.

“When, however, these statements are accompanied by so-called background ‘facts’ to justify their position, I believe they have seriously overstepped the mark and in a Scottish context, they are actually peddling lies and deliberately misleading the public. This is irresponsible and needs to be challenged, especially as some already very poor people reading these statements could be blindly believing their financial circumstances are not going to change when they are.

“In their statement, the DWP spokesperson says ‘existing tenants will be unaffected’. This is blatantly untrue. All tenants irrespective of their tenancy start date, if they are on Universal Credit, will have their housing costs capped at Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates. Tenants on Housing Benefit will also have their benefit capped at LHA rates if their tenancy started after April 2016. These facts were laid out in Damian Green MP and Lord Freud’s ministerial statements to their respective Houses of Parliament in November 2016. If I can find this information from the UK parliament website, should we not presume that an employee of the DWP can access these facts too?

“Worse still, however, is the DWP spokesperson’s attempt to deliberately mislead the public by implying that it is the increasing cost of social housing sector rents that has seen the Housing Benefit bill spiral out of control. In their statement, the DWP claim ‘Over the last 5 years, average rent increases in the social housing sector have increased at more than double the rate of those in the private rented sector’. Another check of the facts from official government figures shows this to be totally false. According to the Scottish Government’s official statistics, average private sector rents for a 2 bedroomed property have increased by 13.7 per cent in the last 5 years while the available data from the Scottish Housing Regulator shows social rented sector rents increasing by only 7 per cent over the 3 year period from 2014 to 2016.”

Mr Forbes concluded his remarks by calling on better regulation of those Private Rented Sector landlords whose tenants receive public funding to help pay their rent.

He added: “Of course, the big thing that is missed out by the DWP in this whole discussion is the disparity between rents in the Private and Social rented housing sectors. While the monthly private sector rent for a 2 bedroomed property in Scotland in 2015 was £610 per month, the comparative figure for the social rented sector was only £310 per month. Some private rented sector homes can be afforded by households without the subsidy of Housing Benefit. This is where the landlords and the standards are usually very good. Unfortunately, the historical under investment in social housing for many years has forced more and more poorer households to rely on private renting. It is in this part of the private rented sector where standards are much worse. In my experience, some could only be described as modern day slums but rents are still much higher than a council or housing association charges and are subsidised by public money through Housing Benefit.

“Instead, however, of tackling these abuses in the private rented sector at source by better regulation of slum landlords who are making a living out of the misery of poor people, the choice has been made to heap all of the pressure to cut the Housing Benefit bill on to the poorest in our society who can least cope with it. This is a return to the kind of welfare system we had in the 19th century and needs to be vigorously opposed.”