The decision by a local authority to make drastic cuts to the housing benefit of 19 people with learning difficulties looks to be the first knock-on effect of a social security judgment made earlier in the summer.
East Riding of Yorkshire Council has decided to restrict payment of the benefit to market rent levels, while it considers the implications of the judgment made by social security commissioner Charles Turnbull in June.
The restriction means that some of the residents are now receiving benefit equivalent to just a quarter of their actual rent, putting them in breach of their tenancies and making them liable for eviction.
The residents are living in housing association properties with support provided by a separate agency, in a similar arrangement to the case considered by Turnbull.
The Turnbull judgment centred on a clause in the Housing Benefit (General) Amendment Regulations 1995, which said people living in accommodation where the provider also offered support were exempt from the general rule limiting housing benefit payment to market rent levels.
Three men with learning difficulties were being charged £238 a week rent by landlord Rivendell Lake Housing Association for a room in a shared house in Sheffield, when the local market level for a room was just £45.
The figure did not include support costs, which were funded separately by Sheffield City Council.
Turnbull decided the market rent exemption should not apply in this case because the support was not provided by Rivendell but by a third party, Citizenship First.
Rivendell argued that the support was provided on its behalf but Turnbull disagreed saying it was Sheffield Council, not Rivendell, that had the meaningful contract with Citizenship First as it was the council which funded the support and could cancel the arrangements.
Rivendell has properties in other areas and director Tony Leatherbarrow says other authorities are also reacting to the Turnbull judgment, with more social security cases pending.
Leatherbarrow says he was approached by the council to set up the scheme in Sheffield, with the social services department now making up the deficit left by the housing benefit reduction.
Leatherbarrow maintains Rivendell did have a contract with Citizenship First but the commissioner did not consider that as important as the financial relationship the support provider had with the council.
Since the introduction of Supporting People, provision and payment of support has been the responsibility of the local authority, but housing benefit regulations have not kept pace, Leatherbarrow believes.
Mencap’s contract manager for housing and support, Lynda Rowbotham, agrees, saying the housing and support model used in the Rivendell case is common to many providers.
She argues housing benefit has given people with learning disabilities an opportunity to find new ways of living independently in the community.
“It’s been a way that’s been supported by commissioners and also by the voluntary sector,” she says. “What this judgment does is to put a shadow over that. It has the effect of stopping people exploring some of these new options and stopping expansion of some of the opportunities we thought we had created.”
National Housing Federation Supporting People advisor Andrew Kyle says many providers are concerned about the implications of the judgment and calls on the government to clarify the position.
Many providers who do not charge rents as high as in the Turnbull case would also be affected, he explains.
“It could have a major impact on the ability of providers to make sure people with learning difficulties have this type of service in future,” he says.
For its part the Department of Work and Pensions says it “appreciates there is confusion” about the issue and will issue guidance following the conclusion of two outstanding cases with the social security commissioner.
View the judgment at http://www.osscsc.gov.uk/aspx/view.aspx?id=1988