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Bedroom tax help given to 45,000 Scottish households

The amount of money paid out by councils in emergency housing help rose to almost £15.4 million since housing benefit changes took effect, according to official figures.

The Scottish Government has published details of spending on discretionary housing payments (DHPs), which are being used to help tenants affected by the so-called bedroom tax.

Figures show that 45,772 households in Scotland claimed almost £15.4 million during the eight-month period from April to November last year, with an average award value of £336.

The amount paid out is almost four times higher than the DHPs paid in 2012/13, when just under £4 million was claimed.

DHPs are made by local authorities to housing benefit claimants who qualify for support.

They are a reserved responsibility and come under the remit of the UK Government's Department of Work and Pensions.

The Scottish Government topped up the funds for DHPs in Scotland by adding an extra £20 million to help mitigate for the impact of housing benefit changes and help people affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy, or so-called bedroom tax.

The extra £20 million brought DHP funding to a total of just over £35 million for 2013/14.

According to Scottish Government figures, expenditure is approximately at 94% of what was estimated for the end of November 2013.

Spending varied across the country - Perth and Kinross had spent only 29% of the projected spend level while Renfrewshire had spent 180%.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "There is no doubt that people in Scotland are paying a heavy price for Westminster decisions.

"But these figures show that by working closely with our local authority partners we have been able to provide support for over 45,500 households in Scotland.

"We will continue to do all we can to help. However, only an independent Scottish Parliament will give us the powers we need to scrap the bedroom tax."

Holyrood's Welfare Reform Committee convener Michael McMahon said: "The committee has been keen to see these statistics for a while now, so we welcome today's publication.

"We'll examine them and explore the trends they show when the minister for housing and welfare gives evidence in the near future."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: "We increased the discretionary housing payment budget for Scotland from just over £4 million in 2012/13 to over £13 million in 2013/14 precisely because we knew some vulnerable people would need extra help as our vital reforms fix the benefits system.

"It's simply not affordable to pay housing benefit for people to have spare rooms and our reforms in the social sector mean families receive help for the number of bedrooms they need, and these are exactly the same rules as in the private sector."

Labour's social justice spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said the figures showed "an alarming level of underspend in the DHP budget", with 46% of the cash limit for 2013/14 spent so far, leaving a further 54% to be allocated by the end of the financial year on March 31.

She said: "While we welcomed the extra £20 million allocated by the Scottish Government in October, this was too little, too late for vulnerable council and housing association tenants.

"The easiest way to mitigate the effects of bedroom tax would be for the SNP Government to back my Bedroom Tax Bill and provide the £50 million needed to cover the full cost of the bedroom tax.

"We already know that the Scottish Welfare Fund is being underspent despite the rapid increase in food banks.

"It is clear that the Scottish Government's policies to mitigate the impact of welfare reform are simply not working."

Ms Baillie wants to bring forward legislation at Holyrood to protect tenants from evictions caused by rent arrears as a result of the removal of the spare room subsidy.

A spokesman for councils' body Cosla said: "Councils have stepped up their work to ensure that such help reaches people in the light of increased funding made available and the level of expenditure has more than doubled in two months.

"However, while DHPs can help, there were never designed to be used in the way that is now necessary.

"There were only ever meant to provide short term help and are not the appropriate mechanism to allow for ongoing needs.

"Cosla remains firmly opposed to the bedroom tax, which is causing distress to many tenants, creating an enormous amount of extra work for councils."

Green MSP Patrick Harvie, said: "The demand for this support shows just how hard tenants are being hit right across Scotland by this harsh coalition policy.

"The Scottish Government should be praised for the financial help it has provided but there is also more that they can do right now to prevent the threat of evictions."

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