Ben Reeve Lewis sheds some light on the tangled rules that govern Housing Benefit and Discretionary Housing Payments
Housing Benefit (HB) has been very much in the news in the past few years with government focussing very much on the recipients in a scurrilous attack on their group character, ably assisted by TV programmes like ‘Benefits street’ and ‘How to get a council house’.
The current political thinking being that the sole reason this country has been in recession for years has nothing to do with corrupt bankers gambling with our money and everything to do with people claiming Housing Benefit.
The crack in the glass on this is that despite insisting the Housing Benefit bill has to come down, it’s actually risen. Not because there are more unemployed, but because the wages of the working poor have failed to keep up and have to be supplemented.
I shall attempt at this point to put down my megaphone and donkey jacket and talk with an ex-insiders insight into problems at the administrative end.
Housing Benefit – the statutory mess
The Housing Benefit Regulations are huge and like other bits of legislation are constantly being amended by statutory instruments to a point where even the most able of HB staff aren’t able to be on top of most of it.
Whacky interpretations are rife and often the quick response to something unusual coming up, is to stop payments and wait to see what happens.
The tenants responsibility for Housing Benefit
I have trained many tenants in my time and always point out that Housing Benefit is their responsibility. If it stops for any reason, they have to sort it out with the council, not the landlord.
Most people get it, but at the risk of upsetting some people, I have to say that the people who don’t are often those with a long history of local authority support on a number of fronts. A care background is often in evidence where a variety of officials have always stepped in and sorted problems out.
This is a small percentage of claimants – most people know full well what they have to do, but have their own long history with officials losing documents or miscalculating the HB claims.
It is a mistake to think of the HB team as being part of the housing team, they are more often than not part of a larger finance team so they have only a rudimentary understanding of housing legislation or issues
Fit and proper landlords?
The way that housing and finance regulations and legislation are stacked don’t help either, defying common sense.
A landlord might be a dreadful rogue being prosecuted by a number of other teams but are still entitled to receive Housing Benefit payments because what is called the ‘Fit and proper person test’, is narrowly defined, although government do have plans to widen it, which will allow HB payments to be stopped for more reasons than they are now.
Last November, in order to shut down a dangerous property and relocate 27 tenants my old team had to attend with a caravan of removal vans and a fleet of taxis to get everyone out at short notice.
The property had been massively and repeatedly overcrowded by the landlord and the front of the house was falling off. It was that much of an emergency.
After several return visits I was chatting to one cabbie in the street and explained why we were doing it and how we were prosecuting the landlord.
He listened patiently, thought for a moment and said “But why don’t you just stop paying him HB?”……ahhh the mouths of babes! He was absolutely right of course. The administration of Housing Benefit isn’t much use in housing enforcement.
Discretionary Housing Payments
Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) is another odd headache for claimants and support officers as well. Few HB officers seem to be able to agree on what it can be used for.
A claimant of HB or Universal Credit is entitled to apply for payments of Discretionary Housing Payment .
In August 2015 government produced new guidelines on DHP which state that it can be used to top up shortfalls in rent, payments for deposits and rent in advance, even removal costs.
Typically, although councils will keep quiet about this, they will sometimes use DHP to clear rent arrears, as a cheaper alternative to rehousing the family.
Obviously not something they want as an ad campaign on bus shelters.
The usual muddle
Trouble is there are a number of caveats. The new guidance runs to 51 pages and the staff who administer don’t always come up with clear or consistent decisions.
Paragraph 1.15 ably illustrates the scope for widely varying assessments where it says
“There is no definition of the phrase ‘further financial assistance’ in law. It is up to you how you interpret it.”
Adding handily in Paragraph 1.16:
“How you determine this is up to you, taking into consideration the claimant’s financial circumstances and any other relevant factors.”
I know some councils have assigned their entire DHP budget to the homelessness prevention team whilst others get nada and its all administered from within the HB team. Remember what I said, HB doesn’t mean they are housing people, they are finance bods.
The right time of year
The chances of being granted DHP also depends when in the year a person applies for it. The financial council year runs April to April and any unused amounts at the end of the year have to be handed back to the DWP. Plus the amount the council gets for the next year is calculated on how much they used.
So weird balancing acts are performed over how the discretion is exercised.
Usually, early on DHP harder to get because there is a long year ahead and you don’t know what demands are going to be made. Another benefit cap announcement for instance, leaving more people with a rent shortfall and a further rise in homelessness application.
Nobody wants to run out of DHP in December and go for three months with no emergency fund.
On the flip side what often happens is that the discretion has been on the paltry side leaving the council with hundreds of thousands of pounds in the kitty in February which they will have to give back and take a hit on the next years assessment.
Then there is a mad scramble to give it away. My advice is, if you want to claim DHP, do it in January.
The full picture
Assessments of both HB and DHP are closely tied to state benefits where the eligibility and amounts are calculated as a whole so its difficult for anyone to advise with any accuracy unless you have the full financial picture.
This is why it seems confusing that on the surface one person will be eligible for a benefit when another, with seemingly identical circumstances isn’t. They might have had some other payment or clawback 9 months ago.
I have a mate who works in money advice who is slowly going bald and grey from his never ending arguments with assessors, in search of a consistent answer or interpretation.