Cuts to housing benefit designed to drive tenants out of large homes have led to streets with scores of empty properties across the North East, MPs have claimed.
Labour MPs urged the Government to scrap the policy widely known as the bedroom tax, saying that it had made some council and housing association properties unnafordable.
South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck said tenants were refusing to move in to larger homes because they feared they would have to pay extra costs if their circumstances changed.
She said: “We are already seeing streets with scores of empty properties. The number of such properties is likely to rise and rise, while the former residents are becoming homeless or moving to the expensive private sector - moves that will increase the housing benefit bill further, and further stretch public finances.”
The bedroom tax, formally known as the under-occupation penalty, means that housing benefit is cut for tenants in social housing who are considered to have a spare bedroom.
According to the Government, the aim is to ensure that people who no longer need larger homes, such as parents of grown-up children who have moved out, free up their property for families who need them more.
Those with one spare room face a cut of 14% in their housing benefit while those with two spare bedrooms face a 25% cut.
However, they can stay in their property if they can pay the extra cost - and ministers have suggested they take in a lodger or work longer hours.
Mrs Lewell-Buck said most people affected couldn’t move out because there were no smaller homes on offer.
Speaking in the House of Commons, she said: “In my constituency of South Shields, 1,440 households are affected, with only 387 properties becoming available for them to move into between April and September this year.”
And many so-called spare rooms were nothing of the kind, she said.
“What makes matters worse is that the constituents I have spoken to do not actually have a spare room. What they have is a room for their carers, their elderly or disabled relatives, their children, foster children or potential adopted children.
As a result, some residents simply couldn’t afford to pay their rent, she said. Referring to a national survey, the MP said: “In a survey of the 51 largest of its associations, the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations, found that more than half of those who were affected by the tax could not pay their rent in April or June.”
Durham MP Pat Glass also raised concerns, saying: “A number of pensioners have told me in my surgery that they are living in three or four-bedroom houses and are subject to the bedroom tax, but cannot downsize.”
And Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery said: “It is not about saving money; it is about a vicious attack on vulnerable people - 400,000 out of 600,000 of them are disabled - who cannot speak up for themselves.”
But ministers insisted the cuts were essential to reduce spending and begin the process of cutting the nation’s debts.
Housing Minister Kris Hopkins said: “This is about reducing the burden on the Government and the amount of debt that we have in place. It is important that we do that.
“We cannot continue to subsidise a million spare rooms. It is important that people out there - the taxpayers out there - understand that everybody is absolutely making a contribution to this process.”