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Under-Occupancy Penalty

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2013

[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I am pleased to have secured the debate, and I look forward to contributions from my hon. Friends, as well as some answers from the Minister, whom I congratulate on his new position.

The bedroom tax was introduced on 1 April this year. The policy was designed to make more efficient use of our country’s social housing stock by identifying people who were under-occupying their homes. Social sector tenants with one spare room face a deduction of 14% in their housing benefit. Those who are under-occupying by two rooms face a 25% deduction.

The Government told us that this measure would tackle overcrowding, encourage efficient use of social housing and save the taxpayer, by 2015, £930 million, but the reality is that this tax penalises some of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in our society, while failing to achieve any of its aims. Instead, we are seeing rising poverty, soaring rent arrears, streets filled with vacant properties, rising homelessness and worrying trends in our housing supply.

Local authorities face ever-increasing numbers of tenants who are unable to keep up with their rent payments, with that number set to rise even further in the future. That is the money that local authorities rely on to be able to build new homes and maintain their housing stock. The irony, of course, is that new homes are exactly what is needed to tackle overcrowding and create a working housing market; but under this Government, we have seen the lowest number of housing completions since the 1920s. That situation will not change as long as the bedroom tax is in place, rent arrears continue to pile up and local authorities are constrained in building new homes.

The scale of the injustice resulting from the bedroom tax is appalling. The tax affects an estimated 600,000 people, 96% of whom have no smaller home to go to, and as a result the average family is losing £720 a year. 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. Some of those properties are only for people qualifying for sheltered accommodation, so the reality is that many households have fewer homes to bid for. The average amount that will be charged is just under £9 a week for a household deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom and just under £15 a week for those under-occupying by two, yet South Tyneside Homes estimates that the true value of a spare room is just under £5, as reflected in the differences in the rents that tenants would pay. The bedroom tax, then, grossly overvalues the price of a spare room and is overcharging tenants. This is at the same time as we have a cost-of-living crisis, with food, energy and water prices surging.

The chief executive of Citizens Advice said:

“As long as this dire lack of housing options exists then the Government can’t reasonably tell people they have a choice about downsizing to a smaller home.”

But they do keep saying that, and she is correct: the numbers simply do not add up. Some 180,000 households were deemed to be under-occupying two-bedroom homes, yet only 85,000 one-bedroom homes became available during the whole of 2012.

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. Others find it difficult to downsize their home when their circumstances change—for example, following a bereavement or when their children leave home.

I appreciate that housing per se is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland and the Executive have yet to agree the Welfare Reform Bill, but there is an issue, which the hon. Lady has mentioned, as regards downsizing. I am sure that the situation is the same across all regions. There is a massive shortage of one-bedroom houses. In Northern Ireland, it would take at least a 10-year building programme to achieve the one-bedroom housing that is required. That puts the Executive in Northern Ireland in a great dilemma, and I am sure that the situation is much the same in all regions.

The hon. Gentleman is correct. I will come on to the point that he raises.

I have never met anyone who is selfishly holding on to an extra bedroom just because they want to. It is no wonder that the local authority covering my constituency has seen a rise of more than 50% in homelessness under this Government and, between April and July of this year, has seen more than 500 tenants hand back their keys. The total financial impact of that handback is £600,000. That money could have been spent on bringing 60 of the homes in our area up to a decent standard or on building eight new homes. My local authority is not alone. Many other local authorities are having to use their housing revenue account moneys to pay for the tax. Those are moneys that they would have otherwise used to build and improve their homes.

Not only local authorities are struggling because of the tax; 26 leading housing associations have seen their credit ratings downgraded as investors become anxious about the impact of the bedroom tax. That leaves housing associations unable to plan for the future or for current housing demand and to build homes to meet that demand. That compounds what is already a dire situation for house building under this Government, who slashed the affordable homes budget in their first year in office and are planning a further round of cuts for 2015-16. Meanwhile, property developers sit on land that could be used for new builds.

The bedroom tax not only stifles construction; it also wastes many of the homes that we already have. Larger properties are now lying empty across the country, ignored by tenants who fear that they will not be able to afford them if their circumstances change. 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.

In the light of that comment—I have to say that that is not a problem that we experience in Edinburgh—was my hon. Friend surprised that the response from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), to the question of three-bedroom houses perhaps being hard to let was that they should be subdivided in some way? That betrays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of those houses, because the cost of turning them into, say, two houses would far exceed the savings.

I was not aware of that response. I thank my hon. Friend for letting me know that information. I am very surprised by that.

The National Housing Federation estimates that a family under-occupying a two-bedroom home who move into a one-bedroom flat in the private rented sector will claim an average of £1,500 in housing benefit, despite living in a smaller property. Just last month, the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that the bedroom tax is leaving some families facing

“dilemmas which need to be addressed”.

This is not a dilemma—it is a crisis happening on his Government’s watch.

I visited Ms Ashley Pollard, one of my constituents, at home. She faces one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s so-called dilemmas. She lives alone in a two-bedroom flat. She has mobility difficulties and, as a result, needs to be in a wheelchair almost every moment of the day. Her mother is her carer and stays in her extra bedroom most week nights. Her mother is also in employment, so she is not entitled to carer’s allowance.

Ashley is unable to avoid paying the bedroom tax and has requested a move to a one-bedroom ground-floor property, but there is none for her to go to. She wants to move but cannot; wants to pay her bills but is struggling to do so; and needs to have the continued care from her mother. Sadly, Ashley is not alone. It is estimated that more than 400,000 disabled people are expected to suffer what the Deputy Prime Minister calls a dilemma. Can the Minister, in his response, suggest what Ms Pollard should do?

At a time when the disabled are already being hit hard by cuts to public services and reduced benefits, they now have to worry about losing their homes as well—homes that, once they have been forced out, will lie empty. Those homes have been adapted to fit tenants’ needs in line with their disability. If they move, their new home will need to be adapted, while their own home will remain empty.

Another disabled constituent of mine lives in an adapted property that cost the local authority in excess of £10,000 to adapt. The property has two bedrooms, so she is subject to the bedroom tax. Unsurprisingly, there are no alternative, one-bedroom properties in our area to meet her needs. She is therefore stuck paying the tax, unable to obtain discretionary housing payment, and she is struggling.

What do the Government suggest is an efficient use of housing in that situation? Should my local authority adapt a new property for my constituent at the cost of a further £10,000 and leave her current home empty? Far from encouraging the better use of social housing, in that case, the bedroom tax leads to a nonsensical outcome.

My hon. Friend will be interested to hear about a constituent of mine, whose home also has had adaptations to account for the equipment needed for their disability. That accommodation can be offered only to older people over the age of 40. If my constituent is to vacate the accommodation, there is no way that a family with young children can move into it. It is a further waste of public money.

My hon. Friend is of course correct. It will be far easier to leave people in the homes that have been adapted to meet their needs.

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. For many of those people, that was the first time that they had ever fallen behind with their rent.

My hon. Friend is making an extremely strong speech. There are also concerns in Wales. Community Housing Cymru, which represents social housing providers, has made a similar point: 87% of their members have seen an increase in arrears, which has not been seen elsewhere. That is matched by the experience of my council, which has seen a £200,000 increase in arrears on the same period last year. The issue is affecting councils and housing providers across the country.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is decent, law-abiding people who have always paid their rent who are being targeted by the tax.

I want to add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). Nottingham City Homes, our arm’s-length management organisation, has seen an increase in arrears directly as a result of the bedroom tax of £260,000 since April. We expect the amount to be about £500,000 this year—money that could and should have been spent on refurbishing homes or building new homes.

I will address that issue in my next point. My local citizens advice bureau is receiving more than 33 inquiries every week related to the bedroom tax.

One case study identified a young lady who had never been in rent arrears. As a result of the bedroom tax, she has only 84p per day to live on—to buy food, clothes and toiletries. That is an absolute scandal. Her story resonates with what food banks and homelessness charities in my constituency have told me. They feel that the increase in demand for their services is directly linked to the bedroom tax.

At the same time as the crisis was looming, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was quoted in our local newspaper, the Shields Gazette, saying:

“When 13,101 households are stuck on a waiting list for social housing in south Tyneside, there’s a big problem that needs addressing… it can’t be right that many households across the north-east are living in an overcrowded home. There’s nothing fair about making families wait and wait for a house that is big enough, while other households on benefits are allowed to live in homes that are too big for their needs, at no extra cost.”

The Secretary of State helpfully advised that my constituents may

“decide to take up work, or work a few more hours to cover the difference”

or

“move to more appropriately-sized accommodation or take in a lodger.”

I would like to take this opportunity to invite him to South Shields to deliver that advice personally to my constituents.

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. The shift that we want to see is three and four-bedroom houses becoming available, but in my constituency they are now hard to let.

My hon. Friend is correct. Elderly people in my constituency have come to my surgery to say, in their words, that they are rattling around in three-bedroom homes. They would like to move, but they cannot.

Just out of curiosity, has the hon. Lady received any reply from the Secretary of State to her invitation to visit South Shields? In my own constituency in north-west Wales, we have seen no sign at all of Ministers or of anyone conducting research before the change came into force. I will certainly refer to that in my speech, if I am lucky enough to be called.

This is the first time I have invited the Secretary of State to South Shields, so we will see—watch this space.

Many of my constituents who are desperate for employment or are stuck on zero-hour contracts sincerely want to move to a smaller property, but they simply have no homes to go to. The Government’s policy is hindering the ability of councils and housing associations to build homes for them to move to, so they will not be able to act on the Secretary of State’s advice.

As with so many things this Government do, the disdain with which they treat people in social housing shows how far removed they are from the reality of what is happening in towns such as mine. Opposition Members have put a raft of questions to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretaries of State and the previous Housing Minister regarding the unfairness of this cruel tax and the implications for our housing supply. It is becoming depressingly clear that, from this Government’s point of view, my right hon. and hon. Friends do not need an answer and that the effects of the tax on struggling households and housing supply are not their concern. Their only interest is in appearing tough on those they call scroungers.

Thankfully, the Labour party has an answer. We are committed to repealing this awful tax. We are committed to building 1 million new homes over the next Parliament—200,000 homes a year and a raft of employment opportunities in construction. We are committed to stopping landowners holding on to undeveloped land, so that the housing market will suit the needs of the many, not the few.

The bedroom tax has been a complete failure. It has not reduced overcrowding.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising this important issue. If the situation is as bad as she paints it on the mainland, it is even worse in Northern Ireland, because we have the highest proportion of individuals under-occupying compared with other regions of the United Kingdom. We are the worst hit.

Does the hon. Lady not agree that, until the measure is repealed—I hope it will be repealed soon—it would at least be preferable to build in greater flexibility to the current exemptions, so that people would not be forced to pay the tax if there was no suitable alternative accommodation? Something should be done in the meantime, until we get rid of this wretched measure.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct. More safeguards need to be built into the tax, but a Labour Government would overturn the tax completely.

The hon. Lady referred to building 200,000 houses every year. Housing is a devolved issue. Has she signed up her colleagues in Cardiff to a total for Wales, which I think would be about 11,000 houses a year? Scotland’s Scottish National party Government will probably build 17,000 new houses a year. Will she be able to deliver?

I will leave that question for the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), to answer.

The bedroom tax has not encouraged efficient use of social housing. It has certainly not saved the taxpayer the projected £470 million this year. It has increased homelessness and poverty, led to streets being filled with vacant social housing and cost more than it saved. Taking that and the human cost of the policy into account, the tax is one of the cruellest and most ineffective policies ever to come from any Government.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech highlighting the appalling human consequences of the policy. She has just put her finger on the truth at the centre of it. It is not about encouraging people to downsize; it is purely about saving money. That £470 million saving will not arise if people act as the Government say they want them to act. It is because people do not have the opportunity to downsize that the Government are making savings. This is a cruel policy based on a fraudulent premise.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on making a fantastic speech on this important issue. The Government admitted last week that they had wildly exaggerated the cost savings involved in the bedroom tax. Does that not show us what is really behind the policy? 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.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has stolen some of my closing comments.

I was interested to hear that the Department for Work and Pensions has commissioned an independent review of the bedroom tax to analyse the impact on vulnerable individuals, foster carers and those caring for disabled children. However, why was the impact assessment not completed before the introduction of the tax? That is yet another example of ideology affecting policy and of this Government’s “let’s do away with facts and research” approach.

I also question why the policy’s impact on the housing market was not foreseen. The National Audit Office reported that the Government’s headline savings figure did not take into account the full range of impacts that the bedroom tax would have. Now that we have had time to assess the policy’s impact on rent arrears, we know that the NAO was correct. I hope that the Minister will say what discussions his Department has had with the Department for Work and Pensions about the effect of the policy on housing supply and why he believes the impact assessment falls so far short of reality.

Whatever the Government’s excuses, for my constituents in South Shields and thousands of others across the country, they will be scant consolation. Although an average of £12 a week may not seem like much to this Government, it is a lot of money to the rest of us who are paying the price. My constituents need a Government who listen to their concerns and who commit to overturning this cruel tax and addressing our housing shortage. What they need is a Labour Government.

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), who secured this important debate. The bedroom tax was primarily a savings measure. It was then dressed up, in some debates, as a way of tackling affordable housing shortages by making better use of property. However, as my hon. Friend clearly demonstrated in her opening speech, we warned from the outset—those of us who served on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee back in 2011 pointed this out at the time—that the savings would be less than estimated.

If the policy were genuinely about supply, it would have been sensible to start by understanding local housing markets and developing policies appropriate to local areas. As colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, have described, in some cases, the bedroom tax is making larger houses unlettable. I must say that that is not a problem in my city, where more than 900 households have been given the second-highest priority banding because they need two extra bedrooms, and about 350 households have the same priority level because they are homeless and need three-bedroom housing. More than 1,200 families in the area need large homes, and there simply are not many. They do not exist. It is not that single people or couples in my constituency are rattling around in big homes that they do not need; the properties just do not exist.

As for those who might want to downsize, this week, 22 one-bedroom properties are available to let across all the housing associations and councils in the whole city of Edinburgh. That is not just in my constituency; it is across the whole city, which comprises five constituencies. Of those properties, three are sheltered—they are for older people, who are by definition not affected by the bedroom tax—so they would not be available to those affected by the bedroom tax. This is not an unusually dry week for housing supply; it is typical of all weeks. I check the availability regularly.

Has my hon. Friend analysed what types of houses the available one-bedroom properties are? If Edinburgh is anything like my constituency, I suspect that they will not be in areas to which people looking to downsize would move in any case. Very often they are for the young homeless, or those prepared to live at the top of a tower block.

Indeed, because of the nature of building at the time, a lot of smaller properties in the city, when we have them, are to be found in high-rises.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing the intervention. Does she agree that many current housing allocation policies came out of the recommendations in the Scarman report, and that a move back to pre-Scarman policies not only makes no financial sense, but is potentially dangerous?

That is helpful. It reminds us of the many ways in which we are going backwards.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, I mentioned a DWP Minister’s suggestion that if councils were struggling with three-bedroom houses that they could not let, they should have anticipated the problem and taken steps to divide those houses. I was fantasising slightly about how that would work. Let us take a typical three up, two down property in England; in Scotland, we are more likely to be talking about a tenement flat. What exactly would be involved in dividing it? First, either the tenants would somehow have to use the same door and stairs, or the council would have to create a separate entrance, which would cost money. One of the upstairs rooms would have to be converted into some form of kitchen, which would cost money. That leaves the downstairs, which would have a kitchen, but not a bathroom. Where would the bathroom go, or at least a toilet? A bathroom extension? Remember there are only two rooms and a kitchen downstairs, so building a bathroom would not be easy, unless it were built outside, and an extension costs money. Then I thought, “I know what the Minister must have had in mind: a portaloo in the back garden.” That would take us right back to the days when people had outside toilets, but it might help get the house divided up. It would involve not only huge additional cost but a style of living that I hope most of us would think inappropriate. That shows how little thought was given in practical reality.

It is the same with the idea that everybody could take in lodgers. That does not take into consideration the nature of many of the properties in which people live, and the difficulties involved.

Does my hon. Friend not also accept that that would be a particularly unwelcome suggestion to women fleeing domestic abuse and violence, for example? The idea that they might have to take in a stranger as a lodger after experiences that may have absolutely traumatised them is particularly inimical. That is exactly the situation faced by one of my constituents.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Many people would find the concept of taking in a lodger extremely difficult, particularly given the nature of many properties. I visited a constituent whose kitchen was off the living room, and whose bedrooms were not particularly big. When someone has a lodger, they are sharing a house. They are not taking in a lodger who has a self-contained annexe of the house; they are taking someone into the bosom of their household. The 60-year-old woman in question felt that that was not somewhere she needed to be in her life.

I am totally perplexed by the Government’s advice to take in a lodger, which was given from day one of the bedroom tax. Some 400,000 of the 600,000 people affected by the bedroom tax are disabled. Would disabled people want to bring in a stranger, just so they could afford to pay the rent?

The reality is that people are not taking on lodgers. The rhetoric on lodgers has quietened down, presumably because the impracticality of that idea has revealed itself. If the measure was about making better use of property, it was not the best way of going about that. It would be far better to encourage people to move in some circumstances, but that is neither a quick nor an easy process. It has to be planned for, and that comes back to looking at the nature of the local housing market and how those moves can be dealt with.

Older tenants in larger homes might want to downsize—if they are over retirement age, they will not be affected by the bedroom tax—but the bedroom tax will not whip them into wanting to move. Over the years, I have had many constituents say to me, “Yes, I would move. The stairs are getting too much for me. The garden is getting too much for me”, but they want control over where they go, and want to keep some of the things they like about their present home. Often that means the area, and that does not necessarily only go for those who live in what is perceived as a “good area”. Their area is where they have their social circle, and their family might not be too far away. There will be many reciprocal family arrangements, whether that is daughters helping mothers, or mothers helping their grown-up children with child care and picking kids up from school. All those sorts of things cannot be done if they are moved to the other end of town. Okay, they are fussy, but they are fussy because they want the move to be one that will last them the rest of their lives. They do not want to rush into something that is unsuitable.

All authorities might want to build new build housing that is geared to older people. If authorities do their homework properly, they will know in advance that that will release larger houses. The homework, however, has to be done, and investment is needed. If the investment is not there, it becomes very difficult. New build numbers are dropping, not only in England and Wales, which the Minister is concerned with, but in Scotland, too. In the whole of Scotland, new starts have dropped from the high point in 2007-08 of 6,214 to just 2,781 in 2012-13. That is a substantial drop. We want to have new build available to help people move around, but it is just not there.

There are many things that we should be looking at. We should be considering building new homes. Councils might want to consider—I have suggested this to my local council—buying some properties at comparable prices. They should not pay more for a property than it would cost to build, but that would help deal with some of the biggest chronic housing shortages. When homeless families, even those with children, are waiting in temporary accommodation for up to a year to get anything, we have a crisis, not just a slight shortage.

There is a further win-win in all this, which perhaps brings us back to the stated purpose of the bedroom tax. If more affordable housing is built, we can reduce the total housing benefit spend. It is true that the spend has gone up in recent years—the Government are not wrong to point that out—but their predictions and forecasts for the next few years are that the spend will continue to rise until at least 2016-17, when it will reach £23.38 billion.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the major increase in housing benefit has come from the increase in benefit paid to people in private accommodation, not to those in social housing?

Indeed. I have some figures, although they take us only to 2010-11. In 2000-01, the spend on private rented sector housing benefit was £3.6 billion. By 2010-11, that had risen to £8.9 billion, and it has risen again since then. The number of recipients of housing benefit rose under this Government by 326,597 people or households between May 2010 and February 2013. More than twice as many of those—some 218,209—were in the private rented sector than were in council and housing association housing. All the time that the Government have been in power, wringing their hands about the rising housing benefit bill and saying that measures such as the bedroom tax are the way to tackle it, the number of recipients has gone up, and the amount of money we are spending has gone up.

We are not tackling the issue from the right end. If we had a proper housing investment programme for affordable housing, that would bring down the housing benefit bill. That is what we should be aiming to do. It would give many individuals a real incentive and help in getting back to work, because having people in expensive private sector rented accommodation, whether it is temporary, permanent or semi-permanent, is a disincentive to employment.

I have a constituent who has been living in a private sector property that was provided to him when he was homeless, because we do not have enough council and housing association homes. His rent payments are £815 a month, which probably does not sound much in London terms, although it is high in Edinburgh terms. When he was working, he still had to pay half of that rent from his earnings. In the end, he gave up his job, partly because of the financial pressures that he was then under. If he had a council or housing association rented property, he could have afforded much more easily to get back into work. There are all sorts of reasons why housing investment is a win-win-win. It is a win because we would get the houses; because we would begin to reduce the total housing benefit bill; and because we would be doing something serious—not just haranguing people about getting back to work, but putting in place practical measures—to help people get back to work.

We need to look at the fact that the bedroom tax has done the opposite of that. It has created a situation where both councils and housing associations are anxious about the loss of income. It matters to all tenants, because all tenants are being impacted on, not just those affected by the bedroom tax. I made that point to a Government Minister recently, and pointed out that even pensioners and tenants who are not on housing benefit are being affected by the bedroom tax. The response I got—they had half-heard the question—was, “But pensioners are not affected.” That was not my point. My point was that if the landlord, be it the council or the housing association, has less income coming in, that will affect all the other tenants, because that organisation will have only a few choices. It could cut back on its modernisation programme, and that would affect pensioners who have been waiting for many years, as many of my constituents have, for their kitchens and bathrooms to be modernised. They would have to wait even more years.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our social landlords are not only facing extra arrears, but having to put in extra resources to deal with having to chase people for arrears? Nottingham City Homes told me that it has already had to spend an extra £300,000 on staff and resources to deal with the extra demands on the rent arrears team. Is it not a concern that the extra spending on such things is not going on other tenants and their homes?

Yes, indeed. Landlords will have quite limited choices. If they are not going to do anything about their modernisation programme, they will certainly be looking at their new build programme or at raising rents, which, again, affects all tenants. It is not true to say therefore that these issues affect only those who are directly affected by the bedroom tax.

If the bedroom tax means that less income is coming in and that there is less ability to start and fund new build programmes, it will not increase supply; it will do precisely the opposite of what Ministers have tried to claim that they want it to do. We really need to move away from this approach and to realise that it is not working. We have not only the arrears, but a whole administrative apparatus to help people who have run into arrears and to process discretionary housing payments and appeals for discretionary housing payments, which may have to be reprocessed every year or six months. That involves a cost that people did not have to meet before.

The glib answer is that discretionary housing payments are the solution, but they reduce savings, which is yet another reason for thinking this whole thing has been a bit pointless. Furthermore, people who have, by definition, been means-tested are now being given a further means test—that is what this comes down to—on their already low income to see whether they qualify for discretionary housing payments. The forms ask them about their expenditure and about whether they have Sky television or whether they smoke.

Things such as disability living allowance, which is specifically given to meet the costs of disability and illness are being taken into account in declaring that people can afford to pay the bedroom tax. People were never given DLA to pay their rent, and if they are using it to do so because they have been deemed to have enough income to meet the gap between their rent and the housing benefit that they receive, they are not spending their DLA on their disability. Having a second tier of means tests is quite unacceptable. I talked about outside toilets, and we are back in the 1930s again with this issue; we are back with the means-test officer telling people that they really did not need the sideboard or the record player they had had for some years, because they were too poor.

Or we have the Minister, Lord Freud, telling split-up families that the kids should share a sofa bed—that is the type of perversity being suggested by Ministers, and that is the means-testing culture that we are getting into. That is a sad message for a Minister to send out.

I thank my hon. Friend.

We must never forget the personal picture and the difficulties involved. One constituent is a cancer patient, although he is, fortunately, recovering. He has a two-bedroom house—nothing terribly big—and his three children come to him every weekend. One suffers from autism, which creates difficulties if the children have to share a room. My constituent wrote to the Prime Minister asking what he should do, and the Prime Minister said, “Apply for a discretionary housing payment.” Well, my constituent has, of course, applied for a discretionary housing payment, and he has been refused. He appealed, and he has been refused. I am not quite sure what he is expected to do next, other than to fall into rent arrears, which is what is happening. He is worrying about that, which probably is not helping his recovery. Alternatively, he could move, which will make it virtually impossible for him to have his boys to stay, which cannot be right.

I hope that we all agree that we want to increase the housing supply and particularly the affordable housing supply, so we have to agree that the bedroom tax is simply the wrong way to do that. It starts at the wrong end, and it is not resolving the problem, for all the reasons that have been given. If we really want to improve housing supply, we have to do two big things. One, obviously, is to invest in it, and the other is to allow local areas to decide on the appropriate way to address their problems. There will be differences; I have described how different my city is from some places in the north-east of England, which face quite different issues. We therefore need to allow local knowledge and local planning to come into play, but that is not happening with the policy that is being imposed.

Order. Time is moving on, and a large number of Members wish to speak. I intend to call the Front Benchers at 3.40 pm. If Members can be respectful and keep their speeches to five minutes, I will be able to call everyone who wants to speak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this important debate.

The stated aim of the under-occupancy penalty, to give it the Government’s preferred name, was to free up larger accommodation, and to cut the housing benefit bill by moving people into smaller properties. Well, the policy has not released larger accommodation; nor will it save the housing benefit it set out to save. Instead it will, as we have heard, drive people into the private rented sector and add to costs. Just where are local authorities and housing associations to find the smaller accommodation? The truth is that it could take years to place people in smaller homes, and that is assuming that no one’s circumstances change.

In Scotland, the UK Government’s changes to housing benefit have had a significant impact on claimants. The people affected by the changes are those with specially adapted homes to reflect their health conditions; separated parents, who potentially face losing access to their children; and tenants who are struggling to find alternative smaller accommodation, despite being willing to move.

All the under-occupancy charge has done in my constituency is bring people to the verge of crisis. Many are building up arrears, trying somehow to cope using discretionary housing payments, while others are desperately trying to find smaller accommodation. All that worry and panic is despite the best efforts of the housing associations and the council in Inverclyde. Advice agencies are also working together to reassure and help people. I recognise the assistance given by the Scottish Government to alleviate the cost of this penalty, although more could always be done.

The panic and fear instilled in our most vulnerable people is evidenced by Citizens Advice Scotland, which advised on almost 20,000 new housing benefit issues in 2012-13. That is about 75 per working day—an 11% increase on the previous year. However, there was a 40% increase in April 2013 compared with April 2012. Those increases can all be explained by the introduction of the new under-occupancy rules. In the first week after the start of the bedroom tax, 700 affected tenants approached Citizens Advice Scotland for advice. That is not to mention the numbers of worried, concerned and frightened people who visited my surgeries—and yes, I concede that many were exempt.

Another concern about the housing supply relates to adapted homes. If people who have adapted their homes to cater for their disability by installing step-in showers or wet rooms decide to move rather than incur the penalty, they will need to reinstall these adaptations in their new home, at significant cost. Surely it cannot be seen as an effective way of spending time and resources to move people out of homes that meet their needs into new homes that do not, and that must subsequently be adapted. It is a crazy situation, and the cost is getting out of control. It is short-sighted, and an unbelievable waste, as it costs the taxpayer more money, never mind the upheaval for the individuals concerned.

The vast majority of those affected in my constituency will be moving from two-bedroom to one-bedroom accommodation, if they can. That is being replicated throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK. Of the 105,000 households in Scotland affected by the under-occupancy penalty, an estimated 83,000 include an adult with a recognised disability. The proposed changes will therefore have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities. Many of those tenants have severe health conditions and face reductions in income that could affect their health. Adapted housing will be affected. Estimates show that some 16,000 households have some form of aid or adaptation already in place. I acknowledge that the UK Government have increased the fund for discretionary housing payments, but the funding is still far below the level of payments that will be lost by claimants.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about the eight out of 10 households in which a disabled person lives that are affected by the bedroom tax in Scotland. Does he accept that if people are to move to one-bedroom properties, those will almost certainly be in the private sector, where it will be even harder to get the kind of adaptations that disabled people often need in their homes?

Absolutely. I fully accept that. I noted earlier in my speech that the changes are pushing people to find accommodation in the private sector, with all the additional costs involved.

Research by the National Housing Federation found that if the additional funding were to be distributed equally among every affected claimant of disability living allowance, they would each receive just £2.51 per week, compared with the average £11-a-week loss in housing benefit in Scotland. The pressure to find smaller homes and flats has become immense. In Inverclyde, there is a huge lack of one-bedroom accommodation. I ask the Minister: what are my constituents to do? Many will fall into arrears. Housing associations warned the Government from the start that the under-occupancy penalty would not work, and that families would face financial hardship and struggle to make ends meet.

On the point about arrears, does my hon. Friend agree that it is nonsensical that many housing associations will not move people who are in arrears into new accommodation? They will not give them new tenancy agreements until their arrears are cleared. That is one more perverse—indeed, Kafkaesque—consequence of the policy.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Housing associations need flexibility to ensure that no one falls into arrears, or into the eviction bracket.

Housing associations warned also that there would not be the house building that would be required for people to avoid the penalty. That is certainly true not only in Scotland but across the country. People cannot move to smaller homes to avoid the bedroom tax because there are not enough smaller properties. In Inverclyde, I could count on one hand the streets, outwith the private sector, that offer single-bedroom accommodation.

I ask again what my constituents are to do about the policy. There are now rent arrears, evictions, financial distress, and difficulty in finding alternative or adapted accommodation. That all shows that there is a lack of appropriate housing and house building throughout the country while we have the dreadful bedroom tax.

Order. With the permission of the Chairman of Ways and Means, I intend to call the Front Benchers at 20 minutes to 4, so I impose a time limit of five minutes per Member.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing the debate. We shall, of course, have a further opportunity to deal with the issue next week, and I look forward to that.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) to my left. I hope that he will soon leap up to defend the Government’s policy. I am also glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), because Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party and the Green party called a debate on the issue in March. I am glad that the Labour party is joining us in opposing a cruel and pernicious charge.

The aim of the under-occupancy penalty is, allegedly, to free up the logjam in available housing. That is a laudable long-term aim, and people should clearly move to make way for younger people with families.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He mentioned my name; I supported the Government’s proposal because I wanted young families to be given the opportunity to have better housing. As to the discretionary housing payment, my authority has been allocated £512,000, as opposed to £60,000 last year. It will not spend it, and will have to send it back to Government unless something is done. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the DWP inquiry should include the use of discretionary payments by local authorities?

That is a good point, to which I intended to refer later. I recently tabled several questions to the Government about the use of discretionary payments, what planning had gone into them, and what amounts were to be available this year and next year. The answers were clearly wanting.

The aim of the charges—freeing up the logjam in the availability of three-bedroom houses for younger people—is laudable in the long term. However, one of my fundamental objections is that the Government are using tenants as a battering ram to free up that logjam. Tenants are carrying the burden of the charge and will have to find alternative accommodation, when there is none available. That is pernicious, and destructive of communities. That is one reason, indeed, for my opposition to the charge.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the allocation of houses, and the need for housing for families; does he agree that social housing, which is always the cheapest available, should be allocated on the basis of need, not household size?

That is an excellent point. The need has in some ways been artificially generated, and that is not a sensible basis for housing policy, even if people are able to move. However, some hon. Members will have read in The Independent today that 96% of people are unable to move home.

I tabled a question to the Secretary of State, asking

“what estimate he has made of the number of people in Wales who will move house as a result of the social housing under-occupancy penalty.”

The answer was quite revealing:

“The Department is not able to reliably estimate the number of people in Wales who will move house as a result of the Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy due to the small sample sizes involved.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 95W.]

That reveals a great deal, including the fact that the Government do not expect huge numbers of people to move. They expect, I understand, to make substantial savings on housing benefit. That is the reality, and the answer is something of a give-away.

Earlier in the year, I asked the Government what research they had undertaken into the private sector, and private market elasticity—the sector’s ability to respond to an increased demand for one-bedroom places. I was told that no such research had been undertaken before the measures were brought in. There would apparently be research in 2015, and reports would be published in 2016. That will be, of course, more than two and a half years after the charge was brought in—two and a half years of suffering by people who can scarcely afford to lose 12% or 25% of their benefit.

We have heard that particular groups are affected, such as disabled people, who have a legitimate need for extra space. I have constituents who have been charged extra. One such gentleman said, “I shall certainly move from my house, which has been adapted—there is a new bathroom at the back, and a stair lift—and move to a smaller place. The council can then put in a new stair lift, and a new bathroom at the back; and then I will move again.” It is folly. There are single parents without care who will take children for a day or so at the weekend, who will lose out.

More fundamentally, there is an effect on estates. We talk a lot about social life degenerating, and about things not being as good as they used to be. By the way, I was brought up on a council house estate. It was a stable area, with a mix of people from working-class and upper working-class backgrounds and those who were almost middle class, who had been there for a long time. They were the sort of people who had seen their children move on, but still lived in three-bedroom houses, and who provide for such estates the anchor and stability that we think are so important; yet the Government want them to move on. I understand that the technical term is “forced decanting”, which is very bad.

In the short time available to me, I want to point out that we might be left with a further supply of houses that are hard to let, not because they are in difficult areas or do not have basic facilities, but because they have three bedrooms. If the policy actually succeeds, that will be a potential waste of resources.

I end by referring briefly to funding for hardship. My local authority has a group—it brings in people from Shelter, the Department for Work and Pensions and Members of Parliament—to administer such funding. It has added substantially to that fund, with the result that the number of people in arrears is fairly small, and I hope that we will have no evictions. I would like to hear the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), who will speak for the Labour party, pledge that the Labour Government in Wales will have a “no evictions” policy. Local authorities and housing associations are doing their best; it is time for other people to step up to the plate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this most important debate and on her fantastic speech.

A senior officer from one of my social housing providers has said:

“It is as if the Government was following a blueprint of how to ruin social housing within 5 short years.”

Let me give the background to why she said that. Since April, Bolton at Home has had arrears of £200,000. Many people are only partially paying their rent, and 9% of those in debt have arrears of more than £600. Bolton at Home is about to take 25 cases to court because of arrears due solely to the bedroom tax. Wigan and Leigh Housing has arrears of £650,000 and the number of people in debt has nearly doubled to 11,500, so it has revised its income rate to 96% of the amount it should get.

There are knock-on effects on costs. Providers now have to deal with an increased number of calls to the call centre and to employ more people to collect rents. There are increasing court costs, and many other costs besides. All providers are finding it harder to let three-bedroom houses, and have had to increase the number of void days on which they do not collect rent, which again costs them dear.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), has told social housing providers to knock down three-bedroom houses and build something suitable. I would question her reasoning in the first place, but where are they supposed to find the money to alter houses or to build new ones when they are losing so much money because of the policy?

If the policy is so successful, why have the Government recently increased the discretionary housing payment pot by millions? Welcome though that is, it demonstrates how the policy is just not working. It is ill thought out, and in areas such as mine the majority of the housing stock is three-bedroom, so it will do nothing to alleviate overcrowding. It hinders the building of new homes and simply places people in abject poverty.

Behind housing providers’ problems are real-life difficulties for real people. Most of us would think that people with two children would be suitably housed in a three-bedroom house, but sadly not this Government. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Education clearly agrees with me, because he thinks that every pupil should have a bedroom in which to do their homework. He should speak to colleagues in other Departments who think it entirely appropriate for a 15-year-old studying for their GCSEs to share their bedroom with a crying toddler, or for children to have their education disrupted when their parents are forced to move home—not once, but several times—when they or their siblings reach a milestone age at which the family’s accommodation is deemed unsuitable.

My hon. Friend is describing a common circumstance, certainly from the stories I hear from my constituents. Does she agree that the cumulative impact—the stresses caused by high energy prices, the bedroom tax and all these things coming together, particularly for disabled and vulnerable people—is causing pain and distress to many of our constituents?

My hon. Friend’s intervention leads me nicely to a study by York university and the Northern Housing Consortium, “Real Life Reform”, which states:

“Households are surviving on restricted budgets and struggling to get by. 65% have less than £10 per week to live on following rent and essentials such as food and bills. 37% have nothing left each week. Households are intending to cut back spending on food and fuel. 25% spend less than £20 per week on food. Eight out of ten households are already in debt and 83% are worried about getting into more debt. Over half of those in debt doubt they’ll ever be able to clear these debts… Households are reporting increases in levels of stress and depression. 88% of households are worried welfare changes will impact on their health and wellbeing. Parents report they are going without to protect their children’s health.”

That is a story of absolute misery.

I want to tell a story about two of my constituents, whom I will call Mr and Mrs Smith to protect their identity. Mrs Smith came to see me at my surgery because she was absolutely desperate. She came with her mother, but actually looked older than her mother because of the worry and stress she was going through. Her husband is desperately ill, having had a double lung transplant. Sadly, he is unlikely to survive. He needs apparatus to help him to breathe, so there is no way she can share a bedroom with him. The box room is full of oxygen tanks, and the fire brigade has said that no one can sleep in a room with oxygen tanks, because of the risks.

Mr Smith sleeps in one room, Mrs Smith sleeps in another—she cannot sleep with him because of the apparatus and the noise it makes—and oxygen tanks and other equipment occupy the box room, but they are deemed to be under-occupied by two rooms. That is absolute nonsense. They cannot get discretionary housing payments, because he gets disability living allowance, which just enables them to get about and to lead as normal a life as possible, bringing them up to other people’s income. The DLA is taken into account, which puts them over the rate at which they would qualify. Does the Minister think it right that DLA is taken into account? If not, will he do something to change that?

I will finish with a quote from another of my housing providers:

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a policy applied retrospectively. We are used to managing change, but not when the goalposts are moved overnight.”

The policy is cruel and heartless. It will not achieve the savings predicted by the Government. It will not allow the building of new homes and it is causing untold misery. I wish the Government would rethink: do as the Labour party says and abandon this cruel, heartless tax now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this incredibly important debate and on her outstanding contribution. Many passionate speeches have been made by my hon. Friends, but there is a notable absence of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, and we have not yet heard a single speech from Government Members. I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. This is, I am sure, the first of many occasions on which we shall debate housing.

The truth is that there is a chronic shortage of homes in our country, and we are building fewer than half the number we need to keep up with demand. Not only is the bedroom tax cruel and unfair, but it is exacerbating the housing crisis that we face. The Government are in denial not only about the effect of the bedroom tax, but about the scale of the housing crisis. Two weeks ago, in his first media appearance, the Minister, who has responsibility for housing, denied on “Channel 4 News” that there is a housing crisis, yet the very next day, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who has responsibility for planning, said in Westminster Hall that there is a housing crisis and that it is particularly intense in some parts of the country, including pockets of Yorkshire, which is where the Minister’s constituency is. People often say that Departments work in silos, but it is quite incredible to have a division of opinion within one Department—the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The chronic housing shortage is clear for all to see and the Government are presiding over the lowest level of house building since the 1920s. As soon as they took office, they cut the affordable homes budget by 60%. Home ownership is falling and private rents are soaring. Five million people are on the waiting list for social housing, and homelessness and rough sleeping have both risen by more than a third since the general election. The reality is that the bedroom tax is making the housing crisis worse, not better.

The Government continue to maintain that the bedroom tax is about tackling overcrowding, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) has said, the tax is not about making the best use of the social housing stock; it is about saving money, and it is questionable whether it will do that. Indeed, it is making the poorest people across our country even poorer and costing an average family £720 a year. On the same day that the tax came into force, every millionaire in the country got an average tax cut of more than a hundred grand.

Two-thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax are disabled. Some 220,000 are families with children, and many tenants want to move but simply cannot find a suitable property to move to. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) said that in her constituency much of the housing stock is three-bedroom properties, which is the case in other parts of the country, including my own constituency.

The bedroom tax is also hitting housing supply. As many of my hon. Friends have underlined, local authorities are suffering. Areas such as Wolverhampton, Nottingham and elsewhere have to put money into helplines to ensure that people are not left without housing. The tax is also having an impact on affordable housing budgets, particularly for housing associations. A survey by the National Housing Federation found that a quarter of households affected have fallen behind in their rent for the first time ever. Such arrears have major consequences for house building, too, and they are jeopardising the ability of housing associations to borrow, plan for the future and, ultimately, build more homes.

I have a number of questions to which I would like the Minister to respond. In particular, what assessment has his Department made of the rent arrears for councils and housing associations and of the impact that those arrears are having on their ability to build the affordable homes that we so desperately need? How many homes are standing empty across the country because of this failed policy, and how many councils have received permission from the Minister’s Department to draw money from the housing revenue account to protect the most vulnerable? I understand why they want to protect the most vulnerable from the impact of the policy, but, as several of my hon. Friends have said, that is having an impact on the money that they are able to spend on repairs and new homes.

The bedroom tax is cruel and unfair, and it simply is not working. The Labour party has pledged to scrap it. Far from tackling overcrowding, the bedroom tax is exacerbating the biggest housing crisis in a generation—a housing crisis that the new Minister says does not exist. We beg to differ. Perhaps the Government want to forget that they are presiding over the lowest level of house building since the 1920s.

The Labour party is determined to get a grip on the issue. The bedroom tax is having a negative impact not only on the poorest in our society, but on the number of houses being built.

I am nearly out of time.

We want to get Britain building again and have pledged that, by the end of the next Parliament, we will double house building. Something radical needs to change in this Government’s policy. They need to get a grip not only on the implications of the bedroom tax for the most vulnerable and poorest people in our country, but on its impact on housing supply. I hope that they also get a grip on the housing crisis that is affecting families in my constituency and across the country.

What a pleasure and privilege it is, Mrs Riordan, to serve for the first time under the chairmanship of a fellow Yorkshire MP. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this important debate and on the passion with which she delivered it. We may not agree on some of the points, but I know how sincerely she presented her case, and I appreciate that.

The hon. Lady raised two constituency issues relating to Ashley, who is disabled. If she will write to me about them, I will attempt to give her a formal and proper response, rather than just having a discussion across the Chamber. She talked about the 1 million new houses that the Labour party proposes to build. I presume that the money will come out of bankers’ bonuses at some point. I realise that after some 13 years in government and the many decades since Macmillan was in power, we have never actually hit the figure of 240,000 houses. I am not sure how Labour will pay for them. Perhaps we have a common aspiration to deliver that number of houses during the period when we are in government.

Will the Minister admit that, in terms of completions, the Government have done a very poor job? Since the Government came to power, housing completions have been at their lowest since the 1920s—only 107,000 properties in 2010-11. That is simply not good enough. In our period in office, in 2007-08, we hit 170,000 properties, and we have said that we will aim to build more than 200,000 a year by 2020. That is a realistic objective.

Let me say that Labour presided over a period of massive boom, yet it still managed to secure fewer affordable houses by the end of that period—420,000 houses. I appreciate the aspiration, but now I want to make some further comments and respond to the Members who have spoken.

The hon. Members for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) talked about arrears. That is a matter that we are watching and we are keen to understand the consequences of the new system. A review will be published next spring that will help us in that regard.

The hon. Members for Edinburgh East jested about portaloos and outside toilets. In the lead-up to the 2010 general election, I visited a house with an outside toilet. They are not a fantasy, or even an issue to jest about; they exist. Some of the housing stock out there is appalling, which leads me to the meat of my speech.

Will the Minister clarify whether some of the worst housing is in the private rented sector? As far as I am aware, in my city and throughout Scotland, no homes in the housing association and council sector have outside toilets.

The hon. Lady is right. The house that I was talking about was in the private sector. In my period in local government, the housing stock in my city was absolutely appalling. The then Government rightly wanted to intervene, but the then Labour-led council refused to support such intervention. The idea that—[Interruption.] I want to conclude this section and move on to the rest of my speech. It is being suggested that we had a utopian social housing model before 2010 and then somehow we made a transition to an uncaring world, where no one cares about social housing. Let me tell Members that my parents were brought up in a council house. I lived in a council house and I care about those individuals. I want to talk about—[Interruption.] I will continue, because we do not have much time.

I will make one final point on the interventions and the comments that were made. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) talked about Mr and Mrs Smith, and I understand why she talked about people in that anonymous way. Again, I say to her that if there is anything I can do to respond to the concerns of those individuals, I will do so. I would be grateful if she wrote to me, and I would seek to get an appropriate response.

I refer back to a point that the Minister made earlier when he referred to research into the charge, to understand what has happened. Will he concede that the usual progress of social policy is that there is research first, then planning, then implementation and then a review? That is the usual way that it is done.

There was a significant amount of research into the whole issue of welfare reform, which was debated at length, so I do not think that anyone came to this view without understanding the issue. However, we can only evaluate a process after it has been in place.

No, I will carry on, because I want to make some progress.

I will just pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East, who said that I had said that there was no crisis. Just to provide some clarification and so that this myth does not continue, I will say that I was asked about a housing bubble in London and whether or not there was a crisis, and there is not. I actually used the backing of the Governor of the Bank of England, who says there is no housing bubble, and that was what I was specifically referring to. Also, the Chancellor has put in place the means to intervene on any of the measures that we have in place, through the Financial Policy Committee; if a bubble was emerging, he could intervene at that point.

An issue that has come out in the debate is the comparison between, “We’ve said it’s about saving money,” and, “You’re saying now it’s about supply.” There is a need to save money. We inherited a bill that had doubled to some £24 billion by the time we came to power, and it was important that we addressed it because we ended up with a deficit where we were spending—in fact, despite a reduction of a third, we are still paying £120 million a day in interest and we have a responsibility to address that.

I am sorry, but I will not give way.

Despite the fact that we have this huge deficit, we wanted to ensure that the burden that was placed on this sector was as small as possible. In fact, it is 0.3% of the deficit reduction strategy that was put in place.

Answering the question about supply, the Government have already delivered 334,000 houses; we have made a commitment of £20 billion to deliver 170,000 houses before the end of this financial spending period; and we have made further commitments of £23 billion to deliver another 165,000 affordable houses. So I am afraid that the idea that money is not being raised or that councils or housing associations do not have the ability to deliver affordable housing is false. Despite the limited resources that are available, the Government have been absolutely committed to delivering affordable housing, and we will continue to deliver it.

Rather than talking about imaginary numbers of a billion houses over the next period, let me say that Labour clearly failed to deliver in a time of boom. For a period of 13 years—it was 11 years of boom— Labour failed to hit the target that it was talking about. And it has not said how it would fund its plan to address this issue.

On the ground out there at the moment, there is real growth in supply. The construction industry is running at a six-year high; the construction sector has said that it has had a higher expansion in the past six months than it has had for some time; and most of that construction growth is from housing. So the supply issue is being addressed by Britain getting out and building, and we have resourced that.

The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply has said that we are experiencing the highest rate of building for a decade and that housing supply is now at its highest since the end of the unsustainable housing boom of 2008. As I said, some 334,000 houses have been built.

On what figures does the Minister base the statement that he has just made, because even if we look at starts and completions, it simply cannot be the case that this Government have done better than the previous Government? We built more than 2 million homes and 500,000 of them were affordable. He keeps talking about 300,000 houses, but that is over three years. That is an abysmal record, and he needs to face up to it.

First, I made the point that Labour was building in a period of boom and still managed to reduce the number of affordable houses by 420,000 and that, in a very difficult period, we have grown the number of affordable houses and we have delivered them. We said that we would deliver 170,000 houses on the basis of a public and private investment of £19.5 billion. We have already delivered 84,000 houses, and as I said before, we intend to go up to 2018 with a further investment of £23 billion, which will deliver another 160,000 affordable houses.

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is so generous. I wish to make a genuine inquiry. Will he congratulate the Labour Government in Cardiff on their success in house building, and even possibly the Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh as well?

I have great passion for those two areas of our wonderful country, but I cannot bring myself to congratulate those two Governments.

The Minister may not be aware that the Scottish Government have taken on a very ambitious programme of house building in Scotland that far exceeds anything that went before in the devolution era. However, the private sector housing that is coming on stream is significantly more expensive than the housing that people are currently living in, so I do not believe that the policy that we are discussing today is saving any money. I hope that he will be able to say categorically today that it is saving housing benefit costs.

What I will say is that, in my early days in this post, I assure the hon. Lady that if I can learn anything about building more houses, because that is really important to the economy of our country, I shall inquire—

No, I will not give way. In fact, I will give way in a second or two, but not just at the moment.

I reiterate that we recognise that 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.

I feel extremely uncomfortable that people are turning around and saying that this is an uncaring and—[Interruption.] What I can say is that I know my commitment to addressing the number of houses that we have out there and to ensuring people out there have access to affordable housing.

The Minister is saying that the Government are not uncaring. If they are attacking 400,000 disabled people, by reducing their benefit when they have nowhere else to go, how is that caring?

In any transition from one state to another, we need to take responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient resources to make that transition happen. That is why, despite the difficult financial circumstances that we find ourselves in, we have invested some £405 million, including £25 million of discretionary payments to disabled people, to make that transition right.

With the process that we have gone through, what is important is that we understand the issues involved—I particularly want to understand the issues about arrears—and make sure that we are building the supply of houses and continuing to grow it. When the opportunity comes to understand further, when the interim report is published in April next year, I hope that we will be able to address many of the issues that Members have raised in Westminster Hall today.