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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 288-iii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Scottish Affairs Committee
THE IMPACT OF THE BEDROOM TAX AND OTHER CHANGES TO HOUSING BENEFIT IN SCOTLAND
Tuesday 16 July 2013
Evidence heard in Public Questions 255 - 330
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Scottish Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 16 July 2013
Mr Ian Davidson (Chair)
Sir James Paice
Examination of Witness
Witness: Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary, Scottish Trades Union Congress, gave evidence.
Q255 Chair: Welcome to the Committee. As you know, we are investigating the impact of the bedroom tax in Scotland. We are particularly interested in efforts that the Scottish Government, local authorities, social housing groups or other organisations could make to mitigate the effects in any way.
Could you start by introducing yourself for the record and telling us what position you have? Could you also tell us what this has got to do with you, in the sense that the STUC is there as an organisation of unions, rather than representing tenants?
Dave Moxham: I am happy to do that. My name is Dave Moxham. I am deputy general secretary at the STUC, so I have a wide range of policy responsibilities, as you would expect. It has to be a matter of knowledge, at least to some members, that the STUC flatters itself that it takes an interest in issues that go beyond the workplace and, in particular, sees itself as one of Scotland’s important civic voices. When we come to an issue such as the bedroom tax, obviously we have a concern in relation to our own members-housing officers and the like-who in many cases will be implementing aspects of the bedroom tax, along with other welfare changes, but we also take a wider view on the impact of the bedroom tax on Scottish society as a whole. If one goes back to the community charge, aka the poll tax, you will recall that the STUC did the same at that time, too.
Q256 Chair: Could I start by asking you what the STUC’s stance on the bedroom tax is?
Dave Moxham: It probably will not come as any great surprise to you that the STUC opposes the bedroom tax. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first, I suppose, is moral. We believe that, as evidence shows, people’s home-their environment-is the most important thing to them; survey after survey has indicated that. Taking an essentially fiscal approach to trying to manage their housing is probably immoral, but it is certainly not practical. I am sure you will already have heard evidence from a range of housing providers that, on a practical basis, the policy is unlikely to work in Scotland; there is simply not the number of houses of suitable bedroom size available in order to effect the change that the Government wish to undertake. So, on both moral and practical grounds, we think it is a poor policy.
Q257 Lindsay Roy: It will not be a surprise to you to know that I also oppose the bedroom tax, but we have it and are here to discuss ways in which we can mitigate the worst effects. The STUC wrote to the First Minister in June about the bedroom tax. What did you ask the Scottish Government to do?
Dave Moxham: We asked them very specifically to take action with respect to the funding of local authorities in order to enable them to make full use of the flexibility that is provided for them within DWP legislation and guidance on discretionary housing payments. We were fairly specific in our letter that we believed the approximately £10 million that has been made available in Scotland this year had the potential to be enhanced to the tune of an extra £15 million-that is to say, £25 million in total-and that, while not completely mitigating the impact of the bedroom tax, this would be a serious chunk of money that could have an effect on many, many of the affected tenants and, of course, the housing providers themselves.
I might add that we also support a couple of other initiatives I am happy to speak to you about later with respect to the potential to change the law in Scotland-section 16 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001-to allow housing debt to be treated as ordinary debt and, therefore, mitigate evictions. We also support Shelter’s call for the Scottish Government to provide additional support for housing providers. However, as you suggest, the key part of the letter that we wrote to the Scottish Government two or three weeks back related to discretionary housing payments.
Q258 Lindsay Roy: Have you had a response yet?
Dave Moxham: We had the response that I attempted to get through to the clerks last night. I believe it was received on Friday, 11 July. Frankly, it was disappointing.
Q259 Lindsay Roy: What have they done so far to mitigate the worst effects? What more do you think they could do specifically?
Dave Moxham: A significant amount of money has been provided for advice in Scotland. The Scottish Government enhanced the amount of money available to advice agencies, principally citizens advice bureaux but also local authority advice functions. That was certainly welcome, but it was advice-not substantial support. You can advise people all you like, to be frank, but, if they have not got the money, they have not got the money. So they have undertaken some measures.
We were very clear in our letter that we recognised some of the financial constraints under which they have currently been put. However, we were very explicit that, for what we consider to be a relatively small amount of money, £15 million-although I know everything is relative-we believe that real mitigation could take place. The difference between that and almost any other form of proposed action is that it actually removes the debt. Most of the other proposed actions with respect to evictions and other things do not remove the debt from the individual but just change the way in which the debt will be pursued, whereas our proposal specifically suggests something that will help the individual.
Q260 Lindsay Roy: So this would avoid the debt burden and all the stress and anxiety that go with it.
Dave Moxham: It would. I do not know whether it would be helpful for me to explain briefly how the discussion re housing payment works, in my view, in the way it is currently being implemented in Scotland.
Lindsay Roy: That would be very helpful indeed.
Dave Moxham: Detailed guidance came out on 1 April from the DWP; that is a Government document. It bears the reading, as it is actually a very lucid and clear document. It makes very clear that the additional moneys that have been provided this year by the DWP, which increased funding from the relatively small amount of about £30 million, I think, to £155 million, can be used-I think I quote exactly-"with a wide degree of discretion" by local authorities. Within that guidance it states that there are a number of priority groups, if you like, that it directs local authorities towards helping. I will give you a couple of examples. One is families where one of the young children might have a significant birthday coming up. If a child is nine but will soon be 10, it suggests that local authorities should prioritise those families. It also suggests that local authorities should prioritise people with caring needs.
Q261 Chair: Could you clarify for the record what the significance of 10 is?
Dave Moxham: Of 10 million?
Chair: No, age 10.
Dave Moxham: Yes. There are various different formulations based upon the mixed sex of children, the number of children and their relevant ages, so you can have a number of different significant birthdays. Obviously a significant birthday would be when somebody was 15 and was going to become 16, because a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old would be expected to have separate rooms. If one of two children over 10 were a male and one were a female, they would be entitled to two separate rooms, whereas, if they were the same sex, they would not. There are a number of different triggers that are made available, but that is the relevance of that.
The DWP guidance is clear in two respects. It is clear that local authorities must use this money consistently, and it does provide guidelines, but it is also very clear in its use of the term "wide discretion." In a sense, that is obvious, if you think about a local authority such as Glasgow, which could spend zero. In previous years, prior to the current benefit changes, some local authorities have actually returned some of their discretionary housing payment money to the DWP; they have not used it. Theoretically, Glasgow could spend zero; it will not, but it could. It could also spend £7 million. I will come on to the discretionary aspect of that in a minute.
Any piece of guidance that says that a local authority the size of Glasgow could spend zero or £7 million clearly has a fairly wide view of the discretion that is available to the local authority. So the discretion is there-the guidance makes that clear. It must be applied consistently, but many of the rules are up to the local authority. So, as a mechanism for use for dealing with the problem that we are facing, it exists. I can go into some detail on what individual local authorities are doing. The problem for many of them is that, frankly, they do not have the resource to use.
Q262 Lindsay Roy: Are you saying that the Scottish Government could top up that funding?
Dave Moxham: Absolutely, they could. You will note from the letter that was sent to us in the name of the Minister, Margaret Burgess, that they refer to DHP as a reserved issue. It is, but, as everyone here will be aware, local authority funding is a devolved issue. The amount of money that the Scottish Government choose to give to a local authority is entirely up to them.
Q263 Lindsay Roy: Why do you think the Scottish Government are not topping up this funding? What is the reasoning behind it?
Dave Moxham: One can take two views; I will exercise both of them for you. The first would be that, in the context of the very tight budget round and of having to take other action-I have already spoken about the advice support that they have been providing, but there is additional support that they have given in lieu of the 10% cut in council tax benefit-they simply do not think they can afford it. I am afraid to say that the other suspicion is that this is tied in in some way with the referendum debate.
Q264 Lindsay Roy: It could be politically motivated.
Dave Moxham: I have heard it aired and suggested, at least, that "Wait until 2016 and all will be better" might be one of the motivating factors. I have no way of knowing which of those is the stronger of the two.
Q265 Lindsay Roy: Would you like to say a bit more about how local authorities have dealt with this, because there seems to have been a differential approach?
Dave Moxham: We have a real postcode lottery developing. I am not one of those-and nor is my organisation-who suggest that, in all cases of policy, local authorities should act in exactly the same way; there is clearly differentiation. Maybe I could give a couple of examples. I know the figures for the four councils that are represented here, which may show the difference.
As you may know, Mr Roy, your local authority, Fife, is making full use of discretionary housing payments-it is topping them up by 150%. The figure eludes me, but something like £600,000 comes to mind. In the case of Glasgow and Edinburgh, as far as I am aware, there is currently no top-up taking place. In the case of Dundee, the top-up figure is 50% of the possible 150%, which is to say that about a third of the additional top-up is being used. You have three major cities and the kingdom represented here, and you have a complete disparity between the ways in which local authorities are currently using their DHP.
Q266 Lindsay Roy: But even with a complete top-up in Fife, it is not adequate to meet all the needs.
Dave Moxham: No. It is very difficult. If you look at some of the local authority assessments, they differ in terms of how much the full use would mitigate. It is probably fair to say that, if you think of a figure that previously existed in Scotland of £2 million or £3 million for DHP, which could potentially now be £25 million, you have a sum of £22 million. The overall, top-line cost of the bedroom tax-all in, if nobody moves, if no rooms are redesignated and if nobody pays-would be £52 million. The question, in a sense, is, to what extent will some people move, some people pay and, as I said, some rooms be redesignated? Therein lies a gap of probably, I would imagine, about £10 million or £15 million across Scotland, even if DHP is used, but the difference would be fairly significant, particularly for the worst-affected families, if it were properly implemented.
Q267 Lindsay Roy: But even in Fife there is not the capacity to downsize for those who want to do so.
Dave Moxham: No. Local authorities and, to an extent, the Scottish Government are still stuck between that rock and a hard place, but we bring the rock quite significantly closer to the hard place if we make full use of DHP.
Q268 Chair: If you are stuck between a rock and hard place, you do not want them moved together tightly, do you?
Dave Moxham: I am sorry. I got my-
Chair: You got your direction of travel wrong.
Dave Moxham: It probably will not be the last metaphor that I get wrong today. Thanks for the correction, Chair.
Q269 Jim McGovern: Thanks very much for coming along. I am intrigued and, indeed, puzzled by the figures that you applied to Dundee there. Could you clarify that?
Dave Moxham: I think I have a note of the exact figure for Dundee. Theoretically, Dundee could input an extra £450,000, which would match the £320,000-odd or £330,000 that it gets from the DWP directly. It is choosing to put in £150,000.
Q270 Jim McGovern: From where would it access this? From the Scottish Government?
Dave Moxham: No, from its general funds. You have this real disparity between the fact that the largest local authority, Glasgow, could spend a total of £7 million, of which nearly £5 million would be its own money, and the fact that it is spending only £2 million-so it is putting in nothing in addition. Dundee is going into other areas of expenditure, if you like, to find this £150,000, but it is doing only a third as much as Fife is. There will be loads and loads of reasons for that relating to budgetary and other pressures. I am not necessarily criticising local authorities for the choice they make, but it is an enormous postcode lottery. If you live in Glasgow, Dundee or Fife as a tenant facing the bedroom tax, your situation is completely different in terms of the support you can expect through DHP.
Q271 Jim McGovern: At the risk of sounding very parochial, it is worse in Dundee than it is in Fife, for example.
Dave Moxham: Yes. A couple of weeks ago, COSLA did a bit of work in which it spoke to 30 of the local authorities. They are very basic figures; it may have more behind them that it is to publish. I think it spoke to 30 of the local authorities. It found that 10 were doing something and that six were using their total capacity. The others, frankly, are not doing anything at all. Dundee is in the middle, if you like, in that respect.
Q272 Chair: Obviously those figures for Dundee are quite worrying for a member from Dundee, because it looks like Dundee city council is not doing as much as, say, Fife council is. Surely the figures that you have are not necessarily the final figures. Presumably, if Jim and others called on Dundee council to put in more money and were able to demonstrate that there were deserving cases, the council could still top it up.
Dave Moxham: I have not seen which councils are affected by this. COSLA says that a number of councils have made what you might call potential provision, which is to say that they might not-they might spend more. However, to my knowledge the majority of those that have committed-I have not been through every single one; I do not think anybody has yet-have done it through formal council process, which is to say that it has been part of a budget-setting process that they will spend 50%, for example.
Chair: I see.
Dave Moxham: There are formal council papers that I have accessed in respect of all of these things. They are decisions; they do not say, "We have spent this so far, but we might have to spend some more down the line." I am not saying that these things cannot change, but there is no indication that that is the case.
Chair: Mike wanted to come in on this.
Q273 Mike Crockart: It strikes me that it is staggering to have such a wide disparity between the 30 you have spoken to. How do councils calculate their potential liability to arrears? How do they plan forward for the next year on what they think they really need to put aside to deal with this? I come from Edinburgh. You mentioned that some councils have hung back on DHP in the past. Last year Edinburgh handed back £162,000. Now we find that it is not topping up at all, despite the potential to top up about £2 million.
Dave Moxham: That would seem right.
Mike Crockart: Yes, just over the £2 million potential-and it is not putting any of that in. How does it calculate?
Dave Moxham: There is a bit of guesswork here, but I think there are probably a number of factors. The first thing to say is that I imagine the DHP granted and the DHP limits are fairly rigorously identified and are based on DWP figures for overall housing benefit spent. So the kind of baseline figure for how much the DWP thinks is a minimum that is appropriate and the 150% addition thereafter is probably a fairly rigorous starting point.
There will be differences, which will be hard to divine, but I would imagine that the criteria would be based on the number of disabled households, who are more likely to qualify. We know that in Scotland 80% of the houses affected have a disabled person in them, as opposed to the UK average of 66%. There will a factor relating to how many of the over-occupancies are two-bedroom over-occupancies compared with one-bedroom over-occupancies.
Frankly-this is probably a fairly difficult but truthful thing-it will also reflect the amount of resource that the council is putting into advertising and promoting the availability of DHP. Historically, it has not been a widely understood mechanism for people to use. If you go on to council websites, which increasingly are people’s first port of call, you will see a wide disparity between how they are advertised and different sets of criteria. There will be only a couple of inaccuracies, and none of them will be inaccurately described, but there will certainly be very different levels of obvious accessibility for somebody who, frankly, may be a punter who is just coming on to see whether they are accessible. There may be something about how clunky it is and how much friction there is in the system, because they will base it partly on how much demand they had in the past. If they were inaccessible in the past, they will probably still be inaccessible now. So there are three or four different factors.
Q274 Mike Crockart: But statistics for the factors that you talked about-the number of disabled households and the level of under-occupancy-should be available to councils or even the Scottish Government to divine down and figure out what the potential is.
Dave Moxham: You are absolutely right, but there will be a difference again depending on whether councils are dealing predominantly with direct housing provision or with one or more housing associations. The money is accessed from the council-it is not devolved to housing associations. The information that councils have may differ depending on their tenure or the nature of their housing provider. You will also find that some housing associations will be very good at promoting this and supporting tenants to draw down DHP; others will not.
Chair: Obviously we are concerned about the allocations of DHP, so we are checking. We have just seen that Enfield has two and half times the allocation of Edinburgh; I think that Derby and Doncaster have more than Dundee. So we will look at the criteria that are being used there and try to sort that out as quickly as we can.
Q275 Sir James Paice: I was just going to ask that question. From what you are saying, you and the STUC do not have any concerns or issues about the distribution of the allocations. You have not uncovered any issues.
Dave Moxham: I recognise that the Scottish Government have had a complaint about the overall allocation, which is worth noting. I think the figure they quote is 6.5% of the overall additional allocation, which does seem low. It does seem particularly with respect to the fact that it seems reasonably certain that 80% of Scottish tenants of affected households will have a disabled person in them.
The reason I am hesitant to say that the Scottish Government are right on that is that part of it, of course, is related to house price, because 14% of somebody’s rent is different from 14% of somebody else’s. Not having access to the exact criteria that are used, I am hesitant to say that I think the allocation is wrong. I am fairly certain that, however the formula has been applied, the base information that the DWP has-how much housing benefit it spends-will be as accurate as any figure that you could expect.
Q276 Sir James Paice: Can we go back to the issue of what different local authorities are doing? You referred earlier to a study that COSLA had done of 30 of them. Is there more that should be done to get all the information on what every local authority is doing, how much of the maximum DHP-in other words, the allocation plus one and half times that-they are using and how they are funding it? Who should be trying to pull all of this together so that we get a better picture of what is happening?
Dave Moxham: There is an agreement between the Scottish Government and COSLA to monitor this. The initial set of figures came out as part of that. I said there was a study; actually it was a fairly brief bit of work, but it was part of the study that was released two or three weeks ago. I am happy to provide the clerks with the reference to that. It showed that 22% of the allocation-that is to say, the base allocation-had been used in the first two months, which is somewhat more than you would expect if it was spread evenly over the whole year, but there may be a number of factors influencing that.
That was a long way round of saying yes, I agree that that monitoring should take place. To be fair to the Scottish Government and COSLA, it is worth noting that their commitment to monitoring on, I think, a two-monthly basis from now on is better than that of the Westminster Government, who, as I understand it, have said that they do not have any plans just now to monitor until the end of the year.
Q277 Sir James Paice: I want to double-check that I and, hopefully, the rest of the Committee have understood it right. You have the DHP base allocation, which is money from central Government. Then there is a possibility of spending up to one and half times as much again. Your contention is that the Scottish Government, if they chose to do so, could agree to fund some or all of that top-up.
Dave Moxham: Yes. If I thought I was wrong, which I did not, the letter that I have received from the Scottish Government confirms that. You can be absolutely certain that they would have told me if they thought that they could not do it.
Q278 Sir James Paice: I tend to agree with you. Turning to individual authorities and, perhaps even more, to the issue of the tenants themselves, who do you feel is responsible-and is there more that should be done-in terms of publicising and promoting the DHP options for individual tenants and, indeed, for ensuring that every council is fully aware of its scope?
Dave Moxham: I think that councils should and could do better. Were the Scottish Government to do what I suggested they should do, that would probably be as big a single hit in raising awareness as you could expect. It is strongly in the interests of housing associations to do it, and I presume they are. There is a kind of misconception that must be infecting some local authorities. On their sites, in how they publicise it, they are very clear that there is a form that must be filled out. Very often when you go on, the first thing you see is the form; there is no explanation or anything. It is very much a case of, "If you can find it, come and get it."
If you read the DWP guidance, it clearly states that that need not be the case. The DWP clearly states that a proactive approach can be taken. We understand from a range of housing providers, including councils, that they have been proactively contacting tenants to say, "Have you thought about moving? Have you thought about managing your money, blah, blah, blah?" Put simply, in my view they could be far more proactive.
How do I know that they are not being proactive? There are no stats for that, but, if you spend as much time as I have in the last two or three months campaigning on this issue, you get contacted by a lot of people. I can tell you that there are a large number of individuals out there who are not aware that they might be eligible for DHP. Without going into the details of their cases, I can be absolutely certain that in a number of those cases they would get it almost without a second thought.
Q279 Sir James Paice: Have you been able to draw any conclusions from the work you have been doing as to whether there is any distinction between those local authorities where most, if not all, the social housing is their own, and those where it is predominantly in housing associations?
Dave Moxham: I have not; the answer to that is no, I think. As you may be aware, essentially Glasgow does not directly provide any of its housing any more, and it does not provide additional DHP. Edinburgh is still a major provider of its own housing, and it does not either. I have not elicited an obvious link, which you may be implying, based on its being in the interests, you would imagine, of a local authority that directly provides its housing essentially to rob Peter to pay Paul. You spend the money on DHP to stop yourself getting stuck in court dealing with debts. It might be that a pattern could be elicited with a full amount of information available, but I could not say that for certain just now. [Interruption.]
Chair: Somebody is about to get lines.
Sir James Paice: I am sorry about that-that was mine.
Chair: "I must always switch my phone off in Committee meetings," 500 times.
Q280 Sir James Paice: I know, I didn’t. I’m sorry about that. I want to go back to the Glasgow figures. You said just now that it is not doing any top-up, but earlier you referred to £7 million. It is £7 million if Glasgow did the top-up, isn’t it?
Dave Moxham: I am sorry-I should have said that £7 million is its maximum capacity. From memory, it has £2.8 million or £2.9 million, and then whatever 2.5 times that is.
Q281 Sir James Paice: That is what it is planning to spend.
Dave Moxham: Yes. I should not say that it is not spending anything-it is just not topping up.
Q282 Sir James Paice: The STUC recently took part in a conference entitled "Scotland United Against the Bedroom Tax". Apart from the political issues and the views of the STUC, which you enunciated at the beginning of your contribution, did that conference discuss any practical issues around the challenges, some of the things we have talked about today or, perhaps, other issues relating to how you can mitigate the impact of the tax?
Dave Moxham: Yes. As you would expect with a conference full of many angry people, there was a great deal of heat to go with some sparkles of light, but I have to say that the overall concentration at that event-I do not say this just because it is the STUC’s issue of the day-really was on what the Scottish Government could do.
It is fair to say that there are some people who, because the STUC’s position does not potentially cover every single penny of bedroom tax arrears, are strongly in favour of the position that has been put forward by Shelter, which sees the potential for up to £52 million of underwriting of housing providers’ debt. That was also strongly put forward. I suppose they were the two main policy issues, along with the issue of the Scottish Government adopting a no evictions policy; I would not mind talking about that at some point, although I will answer your question first. Those were the main policy issues that came out of it.
What is absolutely clear is that, in a large number of communities across Scotland now, we are seeing community activity that perhaps we have not seen for a while, which is partly campaigning but is partly about self-reliance, at least in terms of advice. More and more community activists want to know about things such as discretionary housing payments. They want to know about how people can appeal their decision. So there is quite a strong upswell of community activity around those kinds of things, too.
Q283 Sir James Paice: As you might expect, coming from where I do, I want to take you up on something in relation to your attack on the policy itself. You used the word "morality," which is quite strong. I am not saying that you should not use it, but I would therefore like to challenge you on the distinction we have or the contrast we have established, which is that people who are in private rented accommodation do not get housing benefit for extra rooms that they do not need. Are you arguing that they should or that it was acceptable before the bedroom tax came in that you should have a different benefit regime for publicly owned housing as opposed to private accommodation?
Dave Moxham: No. To a fair degree, I agree with you that the only consistent approach is to say that those in private accommodation should also not automatically be subject to the type of sanction that we see. There is a slight difference, which is that people who have ended up in social housing have essentially been placed there by an authority, whether that is a local authority or a housing authority. They have been told that that accommodation is suitable for them. In many cases, they will have spent many weeks, months or years on waiting lists in order to get there.
Don’t get me wrong-I am not suggesting that none of these sacrifices are made by people in the private sector, but they will have found themselves in that situation. To be frank, having in many cases waited for years and years, they will have expected that that place would be their home. That does exist in the private sector, but not to such a widespread degree as in the public sector. I half-agree with you that there needs to be some consistency, and more consistency than there is, but I think there are some differences in terms of how people relate to the differences in housing tenure.
Q284 Sir James Paice: Finally from my perspective, can I turn to what else could be done in the medium to longer term, on the presumption that policy does not change and that the bedroom tax remains in place? I fully understand that there are concerns about lack of one-bedroom places, in particular, but maybe others as well, for people to downsize to. Is there something more that could be done within Scotland, presumably by the Scottish Government, to increase the availability of such social housing so that the problems can be addressed?
Dave Moxham: They have done one thing that I think will have something of an effect and that the STUC has long supported, which was to end the right to buy. Of course, the right to buy has always had the effect of enshrining and capturing in concrete some of the misallocation or over-allocation of rooms in perpetuity, because, once you take a three-bedroom house with one person in it out of the market, it is out for ever. In a sense, they have done one of those things.
We will always argue for more house building, which could be of assistance, but these are fairly long-term answers, to be honest. My fear is that what we will see is a combination of a large number of evictions next year-I think there will be only a small number of evictions this year-and a large number of people moving into fairly temporary and not particularly suitable private sector accommodation, which to some extent, at least, will then affect the private sector market as well. I really think that we are talking about what can be done in the next couple of years. To be honest with you, I believe that in a couple of years’ time, whoever is in government, the nature of this policy and, frankly, its failure to achieve even its own targets will become apparent.
Q285 Chair: Could I come back to the question of local authorities for the moment? You are suggesting that the Scottish Government should provide money to local authorities to top up the DHP, yet the top-ups that have taken place already have been done by the local authorities, which obviously have managed to find the money from within their own resources. What evidence is there that those that have not topped up the money have not done so as a result of a lack of resources rather than a belief that there will be a lack of demand?
Dave Moxham: I could quote specifically from a number of local authority papers that say, "The demand will be there, but we can’t afford it." As I said, I have not read all of them. I did take the opportunity to look specifically at some of the councils in areas that members represent. Argyll and Bute, for instance, which is a relatively small authority, is very explicit. It says, "This is going to cost us x. This is what we would need to spend. We can’t afford it." Some of them are very explicit in respect of that. I do not think that any of the local authorities that COSLA has surveyed on this has come back with the view that it will not incur significant extra costs.
Q286 Chair: I should probably give an apology for Mr Reid, who is on the HS2 Bill Committee. You researched his local authority, but unfortunately he was not able to be here. Graeme Morrice is on the same Bill Committee; if you researched his local authority, I am afraid he is not here either, because he was pulled off to something else. Presumably the Scottish Government say that they have no money either. Why do you think that the Scottish Government, in particular, rather than the local authority, ought to provide the money for the additional DHP?
Dave Moxham: The best thing you can say about the local authority settlements over the last couple of years for Scotland, particularly for 2012-13, is that they were adequate given the other pressures the budget was under. COSLA has been relatively polite about it, but I really think that the settlements were tight for local government and that most of the figures bear that out. I am talking about in comparison with other Departments, rather than across the board. So I think it is particularly tight for them.
I think that they are dealing with the large majority of the other social problems, if you like, that come forth as a consequence of austerity. Essentially, they are also freezing their council tax by diktat from the Scottish Government-there is no real choice for them in that-so they do not have an opportunity there. I know that for six or seven years now the STUC has adopted the unpopular policy that serial council tax freezes are not a good idea, but we have at least been consistent on it.
I think the year-on-year decision that people who do pay the council tax should have it frozen contrasts fairly strongly with the current Scottish Government inaction on the bedroom tax. Remember that many of the people who are affected by the bedroom tax are precisely the people who are not assisted by the council tax freeze, because in many cases they will not be paying it. They will be paying just the water charge, and the water charge is the only bit that is not protected by the council tax freeze. That is a rather long way round of saying that I believe that, in the tight financial situation, the Scottish Government have more flexibility than local authorities have to find the money.
Q287 Chair: That is the point I wanted to clarify-that the STUC is of the view that the Scottish Government have a greater degree of flexibility available to them than the local authorities have.
Dave Moxham: Yes.
Q288 Chair: I was at the STUC conference you referred to earlier. I appreciate that there were a lot of people there with quotas of newspapers to sell to one another, and then to gymnasts whom they were pursuing after the meeting, but can I clarify whether normal people, as it were-campaigners-understood this distinction between the local authority paying the top-up and the Scottish Government paying the top-up? In your view, were they clear about whom they saw as being responsible for it?
Dave Moxham: I think they were. We had local authority representatives there; at least, we had the housing convenor of the city of Edinburgh council, as well as politicians from various parties there. There can be no doubt in my mind that the majority of the people at the conference identified the Scottish Government as the people who should be taking more action, and they are not at all impressed. These people will take different views on the constitution; many of them will be pro-independence, but they were not at all impressed by the idea that waiting for 2016 is the best that we can do on this matter.
Q289 Jim McGovern: Dave, I was interested in what you were saying about the comparison between private sector housing and public sector housing. I do not know whether you would agree with me, but it seems almost like a race to the bottom-if private sector tenants do not get this sort of benefit, let’s make sure that public sector tenants do not get it. Would it not be better to equalise it up the way, rather than down the way?
Dave Moxham: I could not agree more. The thing to remember is that we are not talking about enormous sums of money. If we talk about this compared with some of the other major welfare reforms that are going on, it is hard to justify the policy with respect to private or public sector tenants on the basis of its freeing up billions of pounds. For relatively small amounts of money-everything is relative-compared with some of the other changes we have seen, we could do what you say. I do not know whether it is a race up; I am careful of mixing my metaphors with Mr Davidson in front of me. I agree that we could race to the top, rather than race to the bottom, if that is allowed.
Chair: Racing to the top rather than the bottom, between a rock and a hard place-we have got that clear.
Mike Crockart: I am really not sure of the sense of the argument that, because we have subsidised some people to have a spare room, we should subsidise everybody to have a spare room. To be frank, that seems to be quite a daft argument, given that what we are trying to do is spend less money across the piece in Government.
Jim McGovern: He is showing us what the evidence is.
Mike Crockart: That is not an argument for saying everybody should get extra money for a spare room.
Jim McGovern: If that is what you are talking about-a spare room.
Q290 Mike Crockart: That is not what I am saying. Moving on, before I talk a little more about the response from local authorities more generally, previously you said that in the ring-round that you did, you found that there were six local authorities that were using the full top-up.
Dave Moxham: That was COSLA’s information, but yes.
Q291 Mike Crockart: I want to try to figure out why some local authorities feel able to respond and others do not, and whether the responsibility lies with local authorities or more with the Scottish Government. In general, are those smaller local authorities with less exposure?
Dave Moxham: I can tell you. COSLA says there are six. To be fair, I have also found six, but I have not looked at all of them. Six could be eight, because COSLA has missed a few and I have not been through them. The ones that I have that are making full use of their DHP are Fife, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and North Ayrshire. So there is quite a disparity in size. North Lanarkshire is one of the medium-sized areas. West Dunbartonshire, Fife and Aberdeen are fairly big, but the others are smaller.
Q292 Mike Crockart: That is interesting. I did not want us to form an opinion based on the fact that it was six, and potentially those six could be Shetland, Orkney, Western Isles and other ones in between.
We have talked about the monitoring of DHP-the calculations and whether councils are doing that for themselves to figure out whether they have got the right sums. Are they or anybody else also doing any work to monitor the impact overall of the bedroom tax or spare room subsidy upon local authorities more generally, in terms of the level of arrears and things like that?
Dave Moxham: There is definitely a report of increased arrears. I noted it down just before I came; I will see whether I can find it among my scribbled notes. I understand that arrears have increased fourfold on what they would have been expected to be at this time. I know that is a fact, because COSLA has said that. I am not clear about whether I have an actual figure for what that means in terms of money. I certainly know that COSLA believes that that kind of increase, if extrapolated over the year, would amount to an increase in housing debt of £25 million. From those early figures, which showed a fourfold increase in debt, it extrapolates a £25 million increase over the year. As I said, that is COSLA’s work, not mine, but I think I am quoting it accurately.
Q293 Chair: That is presumably on the basis that, of the £50 million that will be taken out by the introduction of the bedroom tax, £25 million will be met by a combination of DHP, people moving and people paying up. The deficit will then be £25 million. Is that only for local authorities or is it for local authorities as well as housing associations?
Dave Moxham: I imagine it is just for local authorities. I say "I imagine," because I am kind of basing it on my reading of something that COSLA wrote that I do not have with me.
Chair: We are going to invite COSLA in as well, so we will clarify that point with it in due course.
Q294 Mike Crockart: We will leave that for another day. I turn to the stance that many local authorities and local housing associations have taken, which is a no evictions stance. What is your opinion on that stance, in particular?
Dave Moxham: We generally support that position-we support that position. We don’t generally support it-we support it. Here comes the but-the but is that, of course, they are not blanket no evictions policies, in any case. Even in the case of Dundee city council, which was the first to come up with a no evictions policy, it is still caveated by saying "assuming that reasonable efforts have been made to pay." Of course, it is described as a 12-month transition arrangement. You could take the cynical view that it is actually quite hard to rack up in one year alone, from a position of zero, enough debt to make you liable for an eviction anyway. I do not think it is rigorous, but normally people think of eight or 10 weeks’ rent arrears as being the trigger for final action.
So caveat number 1 is that the policies themselves are qualified. Caveat number 2 is that they may not prevent that many evictions taking place, because not many were likely to take place in the first calendar year anyway. The evictions that are more likely to take place will be in cases that have been sisted and are being held in court for other reasons, and the bedroom tax is the thing that tips them over the edge. I am not quite sure how even no evictions local authorities will deal with those situations.
The other enormous caveat, of course, is that it does not get rid of the debt. It is interesting that the Scottish Government have cited very clearly that they will not take action under section 16 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001, because that does not get rid of the debt, at the same time as encouraging SNP local authorities to take precisely that action. We are in favour of such policies because they cannot do any harm and we do not want to see people evicted. How meaningful they are in terms of the number of people helped-and certainly in terms of the number of people they actually take out of debt-is a more nuanced position.
Q295 Mike Crockart: So is it your view that, although it is a good headline, it does not actually differ greatly from eviction policies that most local authorities would have been operating as a rule anyway?
Dave Moxham: There are people far more expert than me-the solicitors and others who actually deal with these cases-to whom I would obviously defer. With many of these things, the proof of the pudding is in the eating-it is how it is done. A council without a no evictions policy might evict very few people also. I would be nervous about saying that I think they are meaningless-I do not think they are-but I am fairly clear on my ground that the number of people in the first year who will be protected by these no evictions policies will be fairly limited.
Q296 Mike Crockart: Earlier you talked about the worries that you have about the likelihood of there being more evictions in the second year. Is that because of the 12-month transition and the cumulative build-up of arrears?
Dave Moxham: A very likely scenario would be that a council has a no evictions policy and a number of tenants do not pay for that first year. At some time in the second year, they reach the type of levels where an eviction would be highly likely, in the eight-week-plus arrears category. If the council does not have a no evictions policy for the second year, you might want to ask yourself the question, "What assistance, particularly, have they given to that tenant?"
I am not one who believes that a no evictions policy willy-nilly will encourage people not to pay their rent. I think most people want to pay their rent, if they can; they are decent. However, you are certainly not helping if you have a one-year no evictions policy and, at the end of that, you come back and whack people because all the debt they built up in the first year is added to second-year debt and they find themselves subject to eviction.
Q297 Chair: Presumably a policy of no evictions as a result of debt arising from the bedroom tax is unfair on those whose arrears arise as a result of financial difficulties because of changes in their other benefits. You end up with two classes, as it were, of people who are affected by welfare reform-those who are due to be evicted and those who are not. That is also an issue that we want to explore in due course.
Dave Moxham: Yes. There is obviously a specific issue arising potentially as a consequence of the change to direct payments and universal credit. I understand that Lord Freud has at least stated that there will be periods of time-one month and two months-over which the move away from direct payments will be judged if people are incurring significant debt, but that still puts forward the potential for somebody not to pay their rent for four, six or even eight weeks and have a bedroom tax arrear. That sort of combination could move people more quickly along the line towards eviction.
Q298 Chair: Before we move off the local authorities, could I clarify the point that you made at the very beginning about the second of your requests to the Scottish Government being to change the Housing Act to make this ordinary debt? How would that impact upon the question of local authorities evicting somebody if they were not paying their rent? Presumably, if they did that, that would run up against all the sorts of difficulties that you have been identifying.
Dave Moxham: Yes. Many of the limitations of a local authority no evictions policy are also reflected in the change to the Housing Act. The difference is that that part of the debt, at least, cannot be pursued through eviction. In my view, it is probably as watertight as or more watertight than a local authority policy as a way of approaching no evictions. Its two major impacts are similar. The impact on housing provider revenue stream is not improved, nor is the impact for the individual in terms of their holding of ordinary debt, but it does make evictions less likely.
Q299 Chair: That is right. It would clear them of eviction for their debt, but they would still be pursued through all the other usual measures-wage arrestment and all those sorts of things.
Dave Moxham: Yes. It would just be treated as ordinary debt.
Q300 Chair: Was the suggestion that it should be no evictions only for debts incurred as a result of the bedroom tax or for debts incurred as a result of all non-payment? Is this a standard no evictions policy?
Dave Moxham: It is the Government that have made this proposal. They can speak with more authority than I could, but my understanding is that it relates very specifically to bedroom tax arrears. That portion of the debt that could be clearly shown to be bedroom tax arrear would be treated as ordinary debt rather than housing debt.
Q301 Chair: So somebody who is not affected by the bedroom tax but loses their DLA payments, ends up in financial difficulties and then ends up in arrears would not be protected from eviction under this proposal.
Dave Moxham: They would not be automatically protected. They might be protected if the scenario in which they would be likely to be evicted was the bringing together of two debts, if you like. If somebody representing the particular tenant were able to say, "£600-worth of this debt is bedroom tax debt"-
Q302 Chair: But if it were somebody who was not affected at all by the bedroom tax-
Dave Moxham: Then they would not be protected.
Q303 Chair: They would not be protected. That would seem to be a slight deficiency in this. The figure that you have related for the bedroom tax debts-or money coming out of the system-being potentially £50 million does not include the potential debts that would arise from people losing, say, DLA or other benefits and then having to build up rent arrears. So there would be other potential rent arrears as well as the bedroom tax.
Dave Moxham: Yes. As I said, the one circumstance in which it would help would be if someone’s housing debt was a combination of the two, because there would be a section of their debt that could not be pursued as housing debt. Where that is particularly relevant is that at this moment there are probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of cases in Scotland that have been sisted because people have a level of debt and theoretically bedroom tax debt will push them over the top. Of course, those cases will be moved very quickly because they are already in the system. Treating the bedroom tax component of that as ordinary debt would prevent those cases being pursued.
Q304 Chair: If somebody had failed to pay only that section that was due to the bedroom tax, it would spare them. If, on the other hand, they did not pay a larger proportion of their rent, they might not be evicted for the bedroom tax portion, but they could be evicted for the other portion, which had arisen from the loss of DLA.
Dave Moxham: If that reached the type of levels that-
Q305 Chair: That legislative change would not be a "get out of jail free"-or "get out of eviction"-card for everybody; it would be only for people affected by the bedroom tax.
Dave Moxham: Yes. It would be absolutely precise in that sense.
Q306 Chair: And it has not been proposed that the amendment to the Housing Act should be reworded to cover changes in benefits more widely; it applies only to the bedroom tax.
Dave Moxham: It is entirely specific.
Q307 Jim McGovern: Probably every week I have constituents come to my surgery with housing problems and seeking to be rehoused in a smaller or larger house. The largest social housing provider is obviously Dundee city council, but there are others-Abertay, Bield, Servite and Hillcrest. Do you have any idea how housing associations are dealing with this new problem?
Dave Moxham: To be honest, the majority of the information I have is from reading the evidence that was submitted to you with respect to the proportion of housing associations that are dealing with problems, so I have no hard statistics. One hears stories of housing associations dealing with these situations quite differently, including from housing association staff, some of whom feel that, quite frankly, they are being asked to act in too draconian a fashion. However, I do not really have any figures that I can put on that in terms of the way housing associations are dealing with it.
They are very worried-particularly the smaller housing associations. At least you can say that Scotland’s smallest local authority, Clackmannanshire, has a discretionary housing payment quota that reflects the amount of housing benefit that is paid to Clackmannanshire. You might well be a small housing association with a disproportionate number of people who are affected by the bedroom tax. The smaller you are, the more likely that is to be a potential game changer for you. Thirty or 40-unit housing associations out there could easily find themselves with 20 or 30 of their tenants affected by the bedroom tax. This could put the smaller housing associations out of business.
Q308 Jim McGovern: I had a meeting with Dundee city council, which has made clear that the DHP that is available to it will come nowhere near covering the number of people who need that help. Do you know whether any of the associations I mentioned-Hillcrest, Abertay, Bield and so on-have a no evictions policy?
Dave Moxham: I am not aware of any housing association in Scotland that has a stated no evictions policy. What they are doing in reality, on the ground, may differ, but I am not aware of any advertised no evictions policy. Bear in mind, of course, that, when Dundee gets to look at the amount of money it gets through DHP, that is not just for its directly housed tenants. The DHP figure will relate to all social housing in its area. It is not just for spending on its own tenants-it is for spending on all social housing tenants in Dundee.
Q309 Jim McGovern: We have information that at least one housing association, East Lothian, is actually paying this tax on behalf of its tenants. Are you aware of any others?
Dave Moxham: I was not aware that it was, to be honest with you. I was aware of-
Jim McGovern: That is if they are turned down for a DHP.
Q310 Chair: Yes, if they are turned down. The information that we have in the briefing that we have been given is that, if people apply for DHP and are turned down, the housing association will meet their-
Dave Moxham: I am sorry-you are talking about a housing association; I thought you were referring to the local authority. I was not aware of that, but I presume that for some that is possible. I would imagine that for most it is not-or certainly not on a long-term basis.
Q311 Jim McGovern: You do not think it is realistic.
Dave Moxham: It will eventually affect their revenue stream. When it affects their revenue stream, they have very few options. Their options are repairs and employment. Frankly, most of them are down to the bone already. Every situation is different. It is good if housing associations are able to do that, but I would be very sceptical that that is something that could be adopted wholesale by most housing associations without major revenue stream implications.
Q312 Jim McGovern: I remember that probably in the late ’80s, at the time of the poll tax, there was a campaign not to pay it. I did not pay it, but I was a council employee at the time. The first people who had their wages arrested were council employees, so I had my wages arrested. Do you think that associations saying that they could pay this tax on behalf of tenants is sending out the message, "Don’t pay; don’t worry about it"?
Dave Moxham: I imagine that, as soon as it became clear that somebody else would pay for you, you would be fairly unlikely to pay it. As I said, I am honestly sceptical that it will become a widespread policy, because I just do not see it working for that long.
The non-payment analogy does not work for me. I have heard it suggested, for instance, that non-payment of the bedroom tax might be used as some sort of protest. For various reasons I could go into and bore you with, I do not think that the two situations are analogous-largely because by its nature everybody was liable for the poll tax, and, if 30% of people did not pay, you had a crisis on your hands somewhere between local authorities and, at the time, the Scottish Office. We are not talking about a major revenue stream and the possibility of withdrawing funds that will see Government grind to a halt; it is relatively small beer. So I do not think that non-payment would work as a political strategy, even if some were advocating it.
Q313 Jim McGovern: Because a comparative minority of people-and the poorest people-are being hit by this, Government can just ignore it.
Dave Moxham: It certainly would not have the two big things that non-payment of the poll tax had-a big political hit and genuine crisis in terms of local authority revenue streams. At the time that was transmitted directly to the next tier of Government, albeit a Conservative Government, which still had hopes in Scotland and were successful in winning 10 MPs there in 1992. I think the politics and the amounts of money involved are widely different, to be honest.
Q314 Mike Crockart: Turning to the exemptions that have been set out, do you think that the current exemptions are sufficient? If not, what areas would you like to see them extended to?
Dave Moxham: It is slightly difficult to come up with particular categories when you do not believe that anybody should be sanctioned at 14% or 20% of very basic benefit. What is clear is that the categories that are outlined as having the potential for assistance from DHP, such as families with children with significant birthdays coming up, just make no sense. I met a family in Clackmannanshire, as it happens, who were two years away from a significant birthday. Essentially, some time in the next year they will have to move house, and some time the year after that they will be able to move back again. Forget the humanity and the morality-it just makes absolutely no sense where there are children involved, who will, by definition, change their age. I think that has to be looked at.
As you probably picked up, there are also a lot of worries in relation to families where somebody has a disability that makes it unlikely that they will be able on a regular basis to sleep in the same bedroom as their partner-classic conditions being epilepsy and situations like that. There is a very good reason why partners with an epileptic in the family do not always share the same bed.
Another example I would give you is a family I met in Stirling. For whatever reason, the family were hoping to regain custody of their children. Obviously the judgment as to whether or not they regain custody should be properly undertaken, but, assuming that that decision was made, the idea that in the meantime that family would have moved to a smaller house that was incapable of housing their children, which would potentially impact on the decision that the social worker and other agencies would make as to whether their children should be returned to them, seemed to be daft. It seems to me that, where a family are actively within a process of seeking the custody of their children, to take away their bedroom and, therefore, one of the factors that might see them come back is a bit daft. I could go on, but there are definitely some very practical mistakes that are being made in respect of exemptions from this.
Q315 Chair: We have had discussions before about issues of principle, issues of implementation and so on. I think it would be helpful if you could draw to our attention anomalies like these that ought to be looked at, either by central Government or by somebody else, with a view to making a degree of fine-tuning of the system-factors that ought to be taken into consideration before the tax is applied. In the way that pensioners are ruled out, you could indicate whether there are other categories that ought to be ruled out as well. That would be very helpful for us.
Dave Moxham: Again, I would defer to people with more specific knowledge. Those and a couple of others are very often the sorts of cases.
Q316 Chair: To be fair, we will be asking them as well, so there will be a degree of overlap.
Dave Moxham: Okay.
Q317 Mike Crockart: I wanted to see whether there were particular groups. You have already talked about those with disability, who are a fairly large group in terms of those affected. Are there are other particular groups that you feel are badly affected? Are there areas we should be spending most time looking at?
Dave Moxham: There probably are. Maybe it is just because it is a warm afternoon, but I cannot think of another specific group. I think there is an issue around housing supply as well.
Q318 Mike Crockart: Can I help here? Do you think that this is a worse problem in rural areas, for example?
Dave Moxham: I do not have the stats for that, but it is absolutely clear that it is likely to be significantly more difficult to find suitable alternative accommodation in the highlands and in other rural areas than it is in Glasgow; the comparison between Glasgow and the highlands is the most obvious. Some people might say-I am sure Ian might agree-that there is a big distance between the east end and the south side of Glasgow as well, but it is clear that the more rural the area, the less likely there is to be suitable alternative accommodation.
Again, I give the example of the housing estate I visited in Clackmannanshire, where all of the houses were three or four-bedroom houses; it was a council house estate full of such houses. I do not know where the family I was talking to were going to move in order to downsize. So there is definitely a rural element. There is also a general housing supply element. It seems to me fairly obvious that, if you are making it virtually impossible for somebody to move to other social accommodation because of the level of housing supply, there must be some sort of test of reasonableness in terms of whether or not the deduction should apply to them.
Q319 Chair: One of the suggestions that have been made to us is that the tax should apply only after a suitable offer has been made and rejected. There are issues around what is suitable and so on, but, leaving those aside, that would accept the principle of the bedroom tax but would allow a get-out where people cannot possibly move because the circumstances are that there are no houses. Is that an acceptable halfway house that the STUC might be prepared to consider supporting?
Dave Moxham: I am a trade unionist. I will take anything that I can get in a negotiation, without affecting my general view that the tax is wrong and that the legislation should be repealed. So, yes, it is reasonable. I sense that part of the Government’s strategy in relation to this is specifically that people should move into the private sector. I wish you well in convincing them otherwise.
Chair: Before we make any recommendation along those lines, I think we would have to be clear about what capacity there was in the private sector. If the issue of suitable offers is raised, those will probably have to include the private sector as well. Being able to demonstrate that there is simply nothing available that would not result in your incurring the bedroom tax is different from local authority or private sector alternatives or both being available. We would therefore want to consider what those options are.
In due course, we will have to clarify what information is available to various people about the capacity in the private sector, for example. I am not clear about whether there is anybody at all who has an overview of that position at the moment; we have not come across anybody yet. It is clear what is available in the public sector, through various agencies, but not what is available in the private sector and, therefore, how you would measure or check whether someone is turning down a reasonable offer or opportunity. We will have to have a look at that. That, of course, is what the staff are for. We will rely on them to be able to assess all of that for us. Lindsay wants to ask about the situation going forward.
Q320 Lindsay Roy: How do you propose to improve the provision of social housing in Scotland? How do you see that moving forward?
Dave Moxham: The financial climate is tight. In the last two budgets-it is not so bad in this budget-we saw fairly significant hits for the capital investment available to the Scottish Government, so it will not be done easily. We have always prioritised as one of our budget demands the building of more social housing, including the building of direct council housing as well as local authority housing. It is a matter for the Scottish Government. More money should be spent. I do not pretend that finding the kind of capital space that is required to do that is easy in the current climate, but it would be a double-plus good if we could find some way of doing it.
Q321 Lindsay Roy: Could the capital budget be augmented?
Dave Moxham: For the last couple of years, the Scottish Government have shifted some resource from revenue to capital. Housing did not really see the major benefit of that, to be honest. We certainly felt that they could have gone a bit further with respect to that. It is unlikely that we will change our view that the Scottish Government should invest more in capital expenditure on housing.
Q322 Lindsay Roy: So, in effect, that has exacerbated some of the problems around the bedroom tax.
Dave Moxham: I think it has. It would be unfair to characterise that as a one or two-year problem. The pattern of house building over the last 20 or 25 years has taken us in a certain direction that we all accept has a relatively low number of one-bedroom houses attached to it. That has provided a problem in a whole range of areas. I was a councillor in the west end of Glasgow; I know that the complete lack of one-bedroom accommodation there caused major blockages in the housing system as far back as the early 1990s. It is part of a problem, but I think it is a long-term problem rather than the fault of the Scottish Government.
Q323 Lindsay Roy: Can the private sector help here?
Dave Moxham: Decent private sector accommodation is always to be welcomed. It does not necessarily save the DWP any money, of course, because-if we are talking about similar quality-it normally comes in at a premium. One of the ironies of this policy is that, if it were totally successful and people jumped out into all of this wonderful private sector accommodation that was freely available, the DWP would probably end up spending more money on housing benefit than it currently does.
Lindsay Roy: A supreme irony.
Dave Moxham: Indeed.
Q324 Jim McGovern: I wonder whether the STUC has a policy on the construction of social housing. As I said to my Committee colleague earlier, there are simply not enough one-bedroom houses for people to move to. We also have thousands of construction workers on the dole who cannot find work. There seems to be an equation there-build the houses and get the construction workers off the dole.
Dave Moxham: Absolutely. Much of our policy reflects the policies I am sure you of heard of in the green new deal. That is not just about building new houses-it is also about dealing with existing houses, retrofit and various other things. Of course, it is fairly clear that the more that happens, the better the housing is, the less fuel poverty there is, the more jobs there are, the more apprentices there are and the more an economy can get going. There has been quite a lot of talk about capital investment, certainly around this year’s budget. That was welcome. It is even welcome that the Westminster Government have decided that there will be some house building in the next period. We need more of that-it is the alternative to austerity. I do not imagine that you and I disagree one iota on the double-plus good that such a strategy would be.
Q325 Jim McGovern: Chair, can I digress slightly? The Scottish Government recently announced that they will stop the right-to-buy policy for social housing. In Dundee, every week people who cannot get a decent council house because all the decent council houses have been bought come to my surgery. Does the STUC have a view on stopping the right to buy?
Dave Moxham: We always opposed the right to buy. We welcome the fact that it has now been got rid of in Scotland.
Q326 Chair: I would like to pick up one or two final points. There is an assumption that this is a fairly low-level issue, apparently because it is not getting much press coverage-partly, I suspect, because not many journalists are affected by the bedroom tax. How wide a range of people do you feel are actually affected by this? In particular, is it only the unemployed-only those who are entirely on benefits-or is it a number of people who are on low wages as well?
Dave Moxham: Obviously there are a number of people on low wages who are affected by this and by other benefit changes. It is having an effect in communities generally. There is an extent to which, in my view at least, it is not just the bedroom tax-it is the bedroom tax in the context of the wider welfare changes. In the first case, it is frightening people and making them angry. In some cases, it is making them better organised. As you can imagine, I spend quite a lot of my time speaking at public meetings and other events. Those events are more likely to be about the bedroom tax and the wider benefit issue, to be well attended and to have fairly determined and angry people associated with them.
It is being seen as part of a broader attack. You would expect me to put in a word for some of the low-paid workers and, in particular, some of the people who are on very temporary contracts just now-atypical hours, even zero-hour contracts. That is all adding to a high level of insecurity. If you are implying that it is part of a picture that is being reflected in alarm in our communities, I totally concur with that.
I will be slightly overtly political here. There has been some suggestion that public sector workers would agree with the benefit cap because their own wages have been capped for the last two or three years. If the intention was in some way to say, "You are better off than those who are unemployed," or "You should disdain the right of local authority workers to a decent wage rise," and in that way to divide people, I have not discerned any of that in Scottish communities.
Q327 Chair: The second point I wanted to raise was the question of where your campaign goes from here. You had your event in Edinburgh. Is it your intention to have similar events elsewhere in Scotland? What are the next steps that you intend to pursue?
Dave Moxham: We are part of a campaign, and there are a number of different facets to it. Our priority in the next period is likely to be to try to reflect some of the discussion that we have had today. Today we have discussed a situation in which what local authorities are doing is very different. How, therefore, does Scottish Government policy relate to that being very different?
Frankly, I would like to see MSPs, local councillors and MPs, where we can get them, meeting with local communities. I would like to see a set of local community meetings going on now, so that people can really begin to shine a light on some of these differences in policy in respect of DHP, non-eviction policies and the rest of it. There is an extent to which you can hold lots of national conferences and national demonstrations-the STUC has always done that, and I am sure we will continue to do it-but I think that this is a battle that will be fought in communities and that, to some extent, will require new community leaders. It is not a question of electing or choosing heroic leaders to take us forward somehow.
Q328 Chair: You talk about local people having local meetings with the people you mentioned-MPs, MSPs, councillors and so on-but at the moment there is no guide to best practice, as it were-or is there? You were shaking your head there. That would enable Jim in Dundee, me in Glasgow and Mike in Edinburgh to say, "Look, this has been identified as being the best practice available. We think you should be doing x, y and z."
Dave Moxham: I am nodding my head in agreement with you, because there is not. One of the outputs of our conference was to look at how we can do that, hopefully in not too challenging a way-what are the 20 questions, or even the 10 questions, that you need to ask your local representative? Some of the questions will be fairly obvious.
Chair: If the STUC and some of the campaigning groups are developing that, we would find it very useful to see it. It will be our intention, both over the summer and subsequently, to meet with some of the groups in various locations. East Lothian has been mentioned; clearly, at some stage we will want to meet it either informally or formally to clarify what its policy is, what the impact is and so on. If we had a note-an idiot’s guide, almost-to best practice, that would be very helpful to us.
Jim McGovern: Speak for yourself.
Q329 Chair: Okay-an idiot’s guide to best practice for me and a superior sort of person’s guide to best practice for my colleagues, if that is how they would prefer to have it.
Finally, I think we have established from the evidence that we have had that the response of the Scottish Government really seems to be quite weak on a lot of this, particularly when we look back at how, say, Strathclyde, Lothian and other regional councils reacted at the time of the miners’ strike and other events. Is that a fair assessment, or are we being unduly harsh?
Dave Moxham: No, you are not being unduly harsh. It is a fair assessment. As you know, the STUC does not choose to fall out with people for the sake of it, but we are strongly of the view that the Scottish Government are failing to do all that they can. There is not really a politer way to put it than that.
Q330 Chair: At the end we always ask whether our witnesses have any answers prepared to questions that we have not asked. Are there any other points that you want to add that you think we should have raised with you and that have not been covered so far?
Dave Moxham: No, there are not. I have probably spoken for at least as long as you expected, so thank you very much.
Chair: Sometimes we go on for far longer, so don’t worry about that. If you have no other points, thank you very much for coming along. That was very helpful.