I beg to move,
That this House regrets the pernicious effect on vulnerable and in many cases disabled people of deductions being made from housing benefit paid to working age tenants in the social housing sector deemed to have an excess number of bedrooms in their homes; calls on the Government to end these deductions with immediate effect; furthermore calls for any cost of ending them to be covered by reversing tax cuts which will benefit the wealthiest and promote avoidance, and addressing the tax loss from disguised employment in construction; and further calls on the Government to use the funding set aside for discretionary housing payments to deal with under-occupation by funding local authorities so that they are better able to help people with the cost of moving to suitable accommodation.
This is an important debate, which is why it is so good to see so many Opposition Members on the Benches behind me and so disappointing to see so few Government Members on the Benches opposite. I am also sorry that we will not be joined today by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who apparently has more urgent and important business at an intergovernmental conference in Paris. Some might welcome the fact that one of Parliament’s more dedicated Eurosceptics has suddenly developed such a passion for discussing his problems with our European partners—perhaps he has had a second epiphany—but those affected by his policy will be disappointed that he has chosen not to be here today to answer for the distress and disruption his policy is causing up and down the country and to explain himself to his victims, the more than 400,000 disabled people, as well as their families and carers, as many as 375,000 children forced out of their homes or pushed deeper into poverty and debt, and the foster carers and families of those serving in our armed forces who have also been hit. Those people are at the sharp end of the Prime Minister’s cost of living crisis. They are already struggling to survive and to do their best for their loved ones, yet they have been treated with callous disregard by this out-of-touch Government.
Before the hon. Lady moves on from her remarks about the Secretary of State, is she really suggesting that he should not be discussing youth unemployment with other Heads of State? Is that what she will say the next time we discuss youth unemployment?
Rather than going to a conference to discuss youth unemployment, he should be doing something about it in this country.
I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have a chance to meet some of the people who have come to Parliament today, many of whom have travelled across the country, to tell their story and hear the debate. But even as they got off their trains and coaches in London this morning, the Secretary of State was already scuttling across the channel on the Eurostar.
One of my constituents who could not be here today has a terminal illness. I wrote to the Minister about his case but was told that there could be no guarantee that he would not be affected by the bedroom tax. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State has shown the same callous indifference by not being here to try to defend this indefensible policy?
In Brighton and Hove there are now 300 council tenants in arrears who were not in arrears before the bedroom tax was introduced, and 205 of them have disabilities. Does the hon. Lady agree that this is a despicable policy brought in by a Government who simply do not care and that it is having a disproportionate effect on people with disabilities?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is the story we are hearing in all our constituencies from people who are being hit by this policy and have nowhere to turn. Is not the truth that the Secretary of State does not want to answer for the waste and chaos in his Department, his failure to deliver the great welfare reform he promised, his failure to get more people into work and his failure to get the benefits bill down? He does not want to answer to this House, or to the British people, for the distress and damage he is causing, with desperate measures designed not to control costs or build a fairer system, but merely to distract from his own incompetence.
The shadow Secretary of State promised that she would be tougher on welfare than this Government. Given that it was the previous Labour Government who introduced this policy in the first place, it seems that she is going to be not only not tougher than this Government on welfare, but not tougher than the previous Labour Government.
We have been very clear about how we would pay for this policy, if indeed it costs as much as the Government have said it will: we would crack down on bogus self-employment in the construction industry, reverse the tax cut for hedge funds introduced in the Budget earlier this year and cancel the Chancellor’s failed “shares for rights” scheme. We have called this debate to bring the Government to their senses and to ask Members on both sides of the House to consult their consciences and their constituents and call a halt to the havoc this heartless policy has unleashed.
Is not the essence of that heartlessness the extent to which the policy affects carers? Carers UK has said that three quarters of the affected carers it surveyed were cutting back on food and electricity as a result, and one in six face eviction. How do the Government justify that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because many of the spare bedrooms are used by carers supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies. We think that the time is now right for each and every Member of this House to show where they stand, because we know the facts. Stories of the hardship and heartache that the Secretary of State is causing are streaming in from every part of the country and every constituency.
I commend my hon. Friend for bringing this motion before the House today. In Tameside, New Charter Housing has seen the number of people in arrears rise by two thirds as a result of being clobbered by this pernicious bedroom tax, yet Tameside council’s discretionary housing payments go nowhere near tackling the real problems families are facing. This is not creating new capacity in housing; it is clobbering the poorest the hardest.
As in Tameside, two thirds of the budget for discretionary housing payment in my constituency has already been used, despite the council adding £250,000 to the budget.
I have heard heart-rending testimony about the tax. I have heard about a man who received worrying letters about rent arrears while in hospital for a triple heart bypass because he suddenly had to find another £18 a week to keep the specially adapted home he had lived in for most of his life. I have heard about a woman with young children who had found another flat with a family and wanted to swap, but she was in a Catch-22 situation because she could not move until she had paid off the arrears she had built up as a result of the bedroom tax. I have heard about a family with a disabled son who have discovered that the room that carers stay in is now designated as a spare bedroom with a charge of £14 a week.
In so many cases, local authorities and housing associations are put in impossible situations, trying to minimise the impact of this badly designed policy on local people. Decent people in tough situations who are doing their best and trying to survive are being trapped by an absurd policy that makes no sense. They are terrified of losing their homes or sinking deeper into poverty and unmanageable debt.
My hon. Friend is demonstrating through individual cases just how unfair this appalling policy is, but does she agree that it is also unworkable? Only last month in the borough of Sefton there were 4,963 people registered for a one-bedroom property, but just 10 such properties were available. Does that not demonstrate just how wrong the policy is?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As well as being cruel, the policy is unworkable. I know that hon. Friends have heard many such stories, as many have already testified today, about people in their constituencies. I know that we will hear more this afternoon. We know that around 660,000 households across the country have been hit by this punitive tax. All the people affected are in this country, rather than in Paris, where the Secretary of State is today. Many of them have conditions that mean they need to sleep separately or accommodate carers or special equipment. A large number are families with children and they are already at or below the poverty line.
I join my colleagues in commending my hon. Friend for securing the debate. She is listing the people affected. A constituent came to see me the other day, a father whose children stay with him at weekends. It is the only chance he gets to see them. One of the conditions is that they have a separate bedroom. He will be stopped having his children to stay as a result of these cruel measures.
It is an anti-family policy as well as an anti-disabled people policy.
The average hit per household is £14 a week, or £720 a year. It might not sound much to members of the Cabinet, but it is more than the cost of a daily school meal. It is almost the entire cost of feeding a growing child for a year, or equivalent to someone losing all their child benefit for a second child.
When a Labour Government introduced the welfare state it was a safety net for some of the most vulnerable people. The 400,000 disabled people who are going to be hit by the bedroom tax are exactly the people who Beveridge’s and Clement Attlee’s welfare state were designed to protect—and shame on you for taking that safety net away.
Many of the people affected by the bedroom tax have nowhere else to go and no choice but to take the financial hit, making impossible choices between feeding their children, paying the gas and electricity bills, and paying the rent.
I say that instead of presiding over the lowest rate of house building since the 1920s, this Government should get on and build some houses.
No wonder the Trussell Trust—[Interruption.] Government Members do not want to hear about food banks, and nor does the Prime Minister, but they will hear about food banks. The Trussell Trust cites the bedroom tax as the key driver behind a threefold increase in the use of food banks since April this year. No wonder more people are turning to payday lenders and to food banks. No wonder the Samaritans are training up staff to help people left desperate and distraught by the Secretary of State’s bedroom tax. Those who do not move may end up in less suitable housing—homes without adaptations for people with disabilities, or where children have to change school or live further away from family or support networks.
Is my hon. Friend aware that people who have dialysis at home, who have moved into homes with a spare bedroom specifically so that having the dialysis equipment in a sterile environment will allow them not to use hospitals, are being expected to pay bedroom tax for a room that is actually a hospital at home? This is an appalling waste of public money, because hospital care costs more.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Hospital care costs more, but so does making adaptations to a new property, which is what will have to happen if people are moved.
People up and down the country are asking why. Why are we putting vulnerable families through this? Why are we hitting some of the hardest-pressed households in our country? Why are we hitting disabled people like this? Why did the Prime Minister introduce this policy on exactly the same day as cutting taxes for millionaires? It shows how out of touch this Prime Minister and his Government are.
The Government would like us to believe that the bedroom tax is cutting the benefits bill and dealing with under-occupancy in social housing, but it simply does not add up.
The shadow Secretary of State is providing a litany of cases, half of which are exempt under the legislation while many others will be beneficiaries of the discretionary housing payment, which this Government have trebled to £190 million per year. Did not her party in government introduce the local housing allowance to cover tenants in the private sector? Why is it one rule for them and one rule for others?
First, as the hon. Lady knows, the Government’s policy is retrospective whereas in the private sector it is not. Also, the discretionary housing payments are not nearly enough to cover this. In my constituency in Leeds—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady has asked the question; perhaps she will listen to —[Interruption.]
Order. There is far too much noise—a complete cacophony of noise—on both sides of the Chamber, such that the Chair cannot even hear what is being said. I recognise the strength of feeling on both sides, but I appeal to Members, as I have said many times before, to have some regard for the way in which our proceedings are viewed by people outside this place, who would hope for some seemly conduct.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
In Leeds, where I am a Member of Parliament, two thirds of the budget has been used with less than half the year gone, despite the fact that the council has topped up the discretionary housing payment pot to help as many people as possible, so that money is not nearly sufficient to help all those who are hit, particularly disabled people.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just a callous policy but a downright stupid one, because in my constituency we now have two and three-bedroom properties lying empty and unable to be modified, while housing associations throughout south Wales have rising levels of bad debts on their books that are jeopardising their financial security?
Can we nail the issue of dialysis, because these situations do happen? In my constituency, David Holdsworth is in renal failure and attached to tubes. He cannot occupy the same bedroom as his wife, and the other bedroom is occupied by their adult disabled daughter. They do not qualify for DHP—they have been denied it. This is more evidence of how pernicious this tax is and how out of touch this Government are with the most vulnerable in our society. [Interruption.]
I thank my hon. Friend. It is a shame that of instead of just shouting that he is wrong, no Conservative or Liberal Democrat MPs came to visit today’s lobby of Parliament by people who are affected by these policies. It is also a shame that the Secretary of State is in Paris rather than listening to these stories and hearing about the impact of his policy.
Obviously it was the Labour party in government that introduced the bedroom tax—in the private sector. On 19 January 2004, Labour Ministers said:
“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector”.—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1075W.]
The question for the shadow Secretary of State is, “When did you change your policy?”
It will be interesting to see which way the hon. Gentleman votes this evening given that his own party conference has said that this is an unfair tax. Will he vote with the Conservatives or with his own party? Let me be very clear: if I am Secretary of State in 2015, the first thing I will do is reverse this unfair and pernicious tax. It is a shame that his party and his Minister will not do likewise.
There is a contradiction at the heart of this policy that shows how disingenuous the Government’s justifications are for it. On the one hand, they say that it is necessary to deal with under-occupation and overcrowding, yet on the other that the benefit savings they are claiming assume that nobody moves. So which is it to be, because it cannot be both? Is this a policy to cut costs by getting social housing tenants to pay more, or is it a policy to move people out of their housing to avoid paying the tax, in which case it does not raise any money? It just does not add up.
Government Members have been calling out that this is a legitimate policy response to help with overcrowding, but the Government’s own impact assessment says that
“the highest rates of overcrowding are also those with the lowest percentage of under occupiers…this mechanism for encouraging the more efficient use of social housing may make less of an impact in those regions most affected.”
So the Government’s own impact assessment states that this policy is a nonsensical response to dealing with overcrowding.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The justifications for this do not stack up. People are not moving but they are not paying either. More and more people are falling into arrears. As many as 50% of them, hit by the tax, are now behind with their rent. The loss to local authorities and housing associations is already running into tens of millions of pounds, and the cost of evicting all those who have not paid their rent and then dealing with the resulting homelessness could cost many times more. While the Government preside over the lowest level of new home building since the 1920s, their answer is to make the housing crisis even worse by making it harder for housing providers to meet local housing need by blowing another hole in their budget and destabilising their fragile finances further.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the research done by the centre for housing policy at York university on the lack of any financial benefits accrued from this policy. Does she agree that it is almost unheard of for such a policy to inflict so much misery on some of the most vulnerable in our society for so little financial benefit to the rest of the country?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Indeed, analysis by York university’s centre for housing policy suggests that this will cost £160 million, because the Department for Work Pensions has underestimated the impact on the housing benefit bill of people moving to the private rented sector.
According to the National Housing Federation, 100,000 disabled people—some of whom we have already heard about—live in properties specially adapted for their disability, but the average grant issued by local authorities for adaptations to homes stands at £6,000. The total cost of doing the adaptations all over again could run into tens of millions of pounds.
What I would really like the hon. Lady to explain is how, out of the 77,000-odd properties in Leeds, only 36 have been swapped. What this is about is making sure that people who are in overcrowded accommodation can live somewhere decent. Would the hon. Lady like to address that?
The hon. Lady said from a sedentary position that disabled people are exempt, but she would not say it when she was on her feet because she knows it is not true.
Many of those who move will end up in the private rented sector, meaning that the housing benefit bill may be much higher. The National Housing Federation says that families removed from a two-bedroom home in the social sector to a one-bedroom home in the private rented sector would end up claiming an average £1,500 more in housing benefit. How can that make sense? How do the sums stack up? They do not.
To cap it all, we have learned of the absurdity—the complete and utter travesty—of housing associations looking to demolish homes that the Government now refuse to house people in, while the families being forced out by this policy are left to the private sector, where rents are higher and conditions are poorer.
A young man who lives in Earls Court has total renal failure. His spare bedroom is a dialysis unit, but he has been told that he now has to pay the bedroom tax. He is very happy with the efforts of his Member of Parliament—who is not of my political persuasion—to attempt to free him from the chains of the bedroom tax, but my brother faces losing his home of 20 years for being a kidney patient. Does my hon. Friend not agree that this is beyond disgraceful?
I thank my hon. Friend for that moving intervention. So many of us can give examples from our constituency surgeries. If Government Members were honest, they would say that they hear the same sorts of stories at their surgeries. They know that these people are not exempt.
This is not a housing policy or a way to get the benefits bill down. It is an attempt to victimise some of the most vulnerable families and most vulnerable people in our country, and it is making the housing crisis worse.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. May I make a small plea? Traditional families and communities where people lived by their grandchildren, looked after one another and had mutual concern are being broken up throughout this country.
I can think of another example from my constituency, where a gentleman has lived in his house for 30 years. He brought up his family there, but the estate he lives on is made up of three-bedroom properties and if he is forced to move he will be moving away from the people with whom he went to primary school and secondary school, and from his children and grandchildren. How can that be fair and right, and how will it help foster the big society that we used to hear so much about?
I pay tribute to the contribution my hon. Friend is making. Before she moves on from talking about personal cases, I think we should pay tribute to all those people who came and told us their personal stories. That is a hard thing for some people to do. They are the people who have really fought this campaign and we support them in this House today. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must pay tribute to the bravery and courage of people such as my constituent, Ms Davis from Bebington, who came forward and told their story?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Surgeries can be difficult when we discuss these issues with constituents and they break down in tears. It is people who have done the right thing, gone out to work and tried to support their families, but who have fallen on difficult times, done nothing wrong and whose children have left home or gone to university who will be saddled with this tax. I pay tribute to them for sharing their stories and to those who came to London this morning to tell us their heart-breaking stories.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, in Islington borough, 3,100 families will be affected by the bedroom tax? The local authority is making a stupendous effort to build as much social housing as possible—the joke is that if someone moves their car, they will return to find that a flat has been built in its place—but even it has been able to let only 1,600 flats in the last year and it cannot keep up with the demand of people who need to move because of the bedroom tax, let alone because of the general housing crisis.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
We say that it is time to stop this cruel and mad policy. It is time for Members on both sides of the House to take a stand. It is time to stand with the desperate families who are being forced out of their homes or forced into debt, and time to stand with anyone who knows anything about housing or homelessness, the plight of disabled people or the lives of children in poverty, who are all warning that this policy is fast becoming a fiasco. Indeed, it is time to stand with the father of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and chair of the Lochaber housing association, Mr Di Alexander, who says that the policy is
“particularly unfair in that it penalises both our tenants and ourselves for not being able to magic up a supply of smaller properties.”
It is a shame that the Chief Secretary listens to the Prime Minister instead of to his father.
It is also a shame that the pensions Minister does not listen to his own party, which only last month, at the Liberal Democrat party conference, voted overwhelmingly against the bedroom tax, saying that it is
“discriminating against the most vulnerable in society”,
and noting that the Government have shown
“a lack of appreciation of the housing requirements of children and adults with disabilities and care needs”.
I am afraid that that is what we get with the Liberal Democrats: they say one thing at their conference and when they are out on the doorsteps, but they vote another way here when it really counts. When they could make a difference, they turn the other way. While the Secretary of State scuttles off to Paris, he gets his Liberal Democrat pensions Minister to defend a policy that is not even part of his brief and that is in contradiction with his own party’s policy. I say shame on him and shame on his party.
We know that tough decisions are needed to build a social security system that is fair for all and to bring the benefits bill down, but this policy does neither. It may well cost more than it saves, but to be absolutely certain that its reversal will require no extra borrowing we have identified the funds that could more than cover the costs. They will be raised by cracking down on bogus self-employment in the construction sector, reversing the tax cut for hedge funds announced in this year’s Budget and cancelling the Chancellor’s failed shares for rights scheme, which according to the Office for Budget Responsibility has opened up a tax loophole of up to £1 billion.
The Labour party is committed to reversing the bedroom tax, if elected in 2015, but we know that for many families that is too long to wait, so I hope that Members on both sides of the House will vote with us tonight. If the Government stick their heads in the sand, let no one be in any doubt that this will be the beginning, not the end, of our campaign to cancel this unjust and unworkable tax. If this Government do not repeal it, the next Labour Government will.
Order. In a moment I shall call the Minister to move amendment (a) in the name of the Government. Before I do so, I remind the House that, in recognition of the enormous number of Members seeking to catch the eye of the Chair in this debate, I have imposed a five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. Let us first hear the Minister move amendment (a).
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes the substantial structural deficit which was inherited from the previous Government and the need to get the nation’s finances back into shape; further notes the need to bring expenditure on housing benefit under control; further notes that the proposed reversal of this policy would cost the Exchequer around half a billion pounds a year; regrets any exaggeration and misrepresentation of the effects of the policy; recognises the inequality of allowing social tenants to receive benefit for a spare bedroom whilst denying this opportunity to private tenants; supports the Government’s action to deal with this unfairness whilst protecting vulnerable groups such as pensioners and providing substantial funding through Discretionary Housing Payments to local authorities to support other tenants who would otherwise be adversely affected; further notes the Government’s continuing commitment to monitor the effects of the policy and the use of Discretionary Housing Payments; and welcomes the potential beneficial impact of this policy on those living in overcrowded accommodation and the 2.1 million families on waiting lists.’”
I begin by reasserting that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is meeting European leaders at a long-arranged summit to tackle the vital issue of youth unemployment. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) might not think that a priority use of his time, but we do.
The hon. Lady’s motion did not mention people living in overcrowded accommodation. Indeed, the voice of those in overcrowded accommodation has not been heard from the Labour Benches, and it is the coalition Government who are speaking for those people. This policy will help to address those long-standing needs.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to make a little progress. Let me take the first line of the Labour motion and change one word so that it reads,
“this House regrets the pernicious effect on vulnerable and in many cases disabled people of deductions being made from housing benefit paid to working age tenants in the private rented housing sector deemed to have an excess number of bedrooms in their homes”.
The Opposition position seems to be that this is pernicious and evil when it affects social tenants, yet not merely acceptable but policy when it affects private tenants. There are two coherent positions: one is the Government position that asks anyone on benefits to contribute towards the cost of an extra bedroom, and the other is to state that anyone on benefits will receive housing benefit, regardless of the size of house they need; that would cost a lot of money but it would be coherent. The Labour party’s position is incoherent. It states that social tenants should not have to pay towards an extra bedroom, but that private tenants should. We have heard cases of people who need extra bedrooms, for example for dialysis machines. Social tenants need an extra room for that machine, but private tenants should have to pay for it. Surely some mistake.
One of the strangest things in this argument about the private rented sector is that during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill I never once heard the Government mention it—it is one of those later justifications. The problem is that people in the private rented sector were not suddenly told one day, “Your house is too big; you have to start paying for the extra rooms regardless of whether you can move.” That is a huge difference and the two things are not comparable. If we want to talk about equalising, perhaps we should equalise rents.
I am interested that the hon. Lady mentions rents, because if we compare private and social tenants, she is saying that social tenants, who already benefit from subsidised rent, should not have to pay for an extra bedroom, whereas private tenants paying a market rent should pay for it. That does not seem fair to me.
I will give way in a moment. In an intervention on the hon. Member for Leeds West, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) pointed out something that has not hitherto been flagged up—Labour’s intention to extend the principle of the local housing allowance to social tenants. Let me quote Hansard from January 2004 when the late Malcolm Wicks stated:
“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector…We aim to extend our reforms to the social rented sector as soon as rent restructuring and increased choice have created an improved market.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1075W.]
Interestingly, the Labour party planned to do that, yet when this Government do it, suddenly it is somebody else’s problem.
What research did the Government do into the flexibility of the housing market, in both the private and public sectors, before introducing this policy? Was it a case of introducing the policy now, researching it next year, and reporting on it in 2015?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the flexibility of the housing market because to hear Labour Members one would imagine the market was static. When they talk about the availability of one-bedroom properties—someone said a moment ago that there were 10 available or something—those are empty one-bedroom properties. If one looks, for example, at social housing swap websites, significant numbers of social tenants are looking to free-up small properties and exchange with those looking for family-sized accommodation. There is plenty of evidence of fluidity. Tens of thousands of social tenants move house every year; this is not a static market.
The Minister said that we are ignoring the potential benefits of his policy on overcrowded accommodation. Will he tell the House why his amendment includes the words “potential beneficial impact” and say how many people have been helped to date?
I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to overcrowding, because strangely that was an omission from the Labour motion. It is almost as if the voice of the overcrowded has not been heard. To give him a sense of scale, based on the English house condition survey we estimate that more than a quarter of a million households in social accommodation are overcrowded. Census data, which offer a different definition, suggest there are getting on for 400,000 overcrowded households. The research the Government are undertaking as the policy is rolled out will monitor the extent to which people are trading down and moving from overcrowded accommodation, and the extent to which they take jobs, take in lodgers or use discretionary housing payments. People can respond to the policy in a whole raft of ways, but the idea that we can have hundreds of thousands of people in overcrowded accommodation while there are free spare bedrooms does not seem fair.
There is a sense of déjà vu in this debate because we discussed this issue in 2008 with reference to the private sector. Going back to 2008, one major problem is the lack of housing stock and new builds. Just 30% of new houses are single dwellings, although the demand for that is 60%. Does the Minister agree that that imbalance needs to be addressed?
My hon. Friend is right. Labour Members say there is a mismatch between housing stock and housing need, but who was doing the house building for 13 years? Why do we have that mismatch? On the volume of social housing construction, I was shocked when I saw that in many years of the previous Labour Government, fewer than 25,000 new units of social housing were built per year. Even in these difficult economic circumstances, the coalition Government are already building more social housing every year than in most years of the Labour Government, and that will only increase.
My hon. Friend is right. The level of new housing association properties built was well below 25,000 in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. The Government are already building well over 25,000 social houses a year, and have further plans for expansion.
The hon. Gentleman began his contribution by talking about overcrowding, which is something Labour feels very strongly about, certainly in my borough. Part of the problem, however, is empty nesters—elderly people whose families have grown up. If the principle behind the bedroom tax is to free up homes and move people to smaller units, why does it not apply to pensioners?
The hon. Gentleman will be surprised to hear that I am doing my job and probing the Government to find out the purpose of this policy. He began with the justification of dealing with overcrowding—something I feel very strongly about after what I have seen in my surgeries—but my borough authority has always had a policy of speaking to people as they retire, and encouraging them to move onwards, not doing this.
At least an Opposition Member is talking about overcrowding, which is a start—we might be making progress. The hon. Lady is right that we need to do more to assist and support older tenants to move into more suitable accommodation. One thing we have discovered in the course of doing that work is how little many social landlords knew about their tenants. We were shocked to discover that. Part of the process is social landlords engaging with their tenants and helping them to move to the right sort of accommodation.
We often hear from Opposition Members the refrain, “There aren’t the properties,” but my hon. Friend has exploded that myth. Significant numbers of people want to move from one-bedroom properties to two-bedroom properties, and from two-bedroom properties to three-bedroom properties. That will be facilitated by our measure.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—it is characteristically generous of him, particularly because he knows my past record and that I have been unable to give my support to his policy. I have a specific question on how the policy will develop. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recommended some time ago that communities of fewer than 3,000 people could be exempted from the impact of the policy. I represent the largest geographic constituency in Britain, and that question is of great interest to the Highland council welfare committee. Will he please look at it?
My right hon. Friend and his hon. Friends have been effective in lobbying for the needs of remote rural communities. That is why we specifically made available this year an additional £5 million, focused exclusively on remote rural communities, which face difficulty because of the distance people might have to travel to alternative accommodation. I hope that that Government decision this year has helped to address those concerns.
What solution does the Minister suggest for a Hebridean island where there are 105 houses, 50% of which are single occupancy, but only 20% of which have one bedroom? If people live on such islands, what is the solution?
Does the Minister agree that the spare room subsidy is one reason why we do not have the right mix of housing? Social housing providers could build houses as big as they wanted, knowing that the Government would cover the full bill irrespectively. In that respect, does he deplore the social housing provider in my area, of which a Labour MP is a director? It complains on the one hand that it has too many three-bedroom houses—
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend raises an important point on the responsibility of social landlords to build housing stock to meet the needs of local people. For too long under the previous Government, that did not happen.
My hon. Friend made the point that some social landlords have worked the system. One or two hon. Members have shouted, “No, that cannot be the case,” but I want to refer to the oral evidence given by Fife council to the Scottish Affairs Committee. Fife council saw the arrangements as a nice little earner. Apropos of two-bedroom properties occupied by a single person, Fife council said:
“we have under-occupied them to maintain an income from them”.
It also stated that the
“progress that we had made in maintaining our income by allocating properties with perhaps a spare bedroom is under risk now.”
I do not apologise for that. The purpose of housing benefit is not to subsidise social landlords who are using the system; it is to help people who are in need.
The extra money that the Government have given to sparsely populated councils for discretionary housing payments has been welcome. It has helped Argyll and Bute in particular and other sparsely populated councils. Can my hon. Friend give me reassurances that it will continue in future years?
My hon. Friend has been a doughty campaigner for his rural constituency. I cannot commit the Government to a further £5 million—that is the amount allocated this year for remote rural areas—but I am aware that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury tends to be quite sensitive to the needs of remote Scottish constituencies.
Let me address the amendment, because the shadow Secretary of State did not mention the state of the nation’s finances—she used to be an economist, so I am surprised she did not mention the subject. The context of the debate is a deficit in 2009-10 in excess of £150 billion a year. The previous Government were spending £4 for every £3 they raised in taxes—that was not investment for the long term, but borrowing money to pay today’s bills. There is nothing progressive or fair about asking our children to pay the costs of current spending to benefit ourselves. That is why the context needed to be addressed.
I am going to make progress.
The deficit was £150 billion. How can we address that? The biggest area of public spending is the Department for Work and Pensions. More than half of that budget goes on pensioners and pensioner-related benefits, which we had pledged to protect. That meant that a very substantial budget—the working-age welfare budget—had to be addressed. The biggest income-related benefit is housing benefit. The biggest group of housing benefit recipients comprises social tenants. We are told that the Labour party would have sought to address the budget deficit, but if we are looking to do so, housing benefit for social tenants must be looked at. If we have to make savings in that, where do we do it? We look at spare rooms in the social housing sector.
However, some people legitimately have a need for an additional room or should not be asked to move. The issue of adapted accommodation was raised. We could have dealt with adapted accommodation in two ways. First, we could have written in a long, complicated statutory instrument what is and is not adapted accommodation. Clearly, just a hand rail would not constitute adapted accommodation and a whole extension probably would, but what about the properties in the middle? Given that there are often no records of how much has been spent on adaptation, trying to write that into the law of the land would not have been an effective way to help those in need.
We therefore decided that we would estimate the cost of protecting those with substantially adapted properties—our estimate was £25 million—and allocated the money to local authorities to assist those in need. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) says that it is not enough. Last year, we were told, if I remember rightly, that the discretionary housing payments we had made available for other housing benefits changes were “not enough,” but, at the end of the year, local authorities repaid to the Government £10 million of unspent discretionary housing payments.
I can absolutely guarantee that the Minister will not be getting any of his money back this year from any of the local authorities, and certainly not from Manchester. My constituency has among the highest number of people affected by the bedroom tax in the country. The money is fast running out, if it has not already run out, because there are far more people with adapted homes than there is money to go around. I can guarantee that he will not be getting any money back from Manchester city council this year.
We have estimated £25 million to cover adapted properties. The hon. Lady might have better statistics than the Government on adapted properties, but I suspect that the default position of Labour Members is to say, “It’s not enough; it should be more.”
Let me address the issue directly to respond to the hon. Lady’s point. In 2012-13, we made available £60 million of discretionary housing payments. This year, we have trebled that amount to £180 million. That money is what we might call hard cash for hard cases—the cases to which hon. Members have referred. I say this sincerely to hon. Members: those who raise individual cases should be holding their local authorities to account. The Government have given local authorities the money to help people in need. In fact, we have gone further. Within year, we have allocated an extra £20 million for local authorities to bid for. If they have exhausted, or if they anticipate exhausting, their discretionary housing payments budgets, they can come to the Government for a top-up. So far, barely a dozen local authorities have asked for additional funding.
The hon. Member for Leeds West mentioned the strain being putting on her local authority’s discretionary housing payment. Leaving aside the fact that Leeds has an extraordinarily low rate of home swaps—in other words, is the local authority doing the right thing by its tenants?—it has not asked the Government for a share of the £20 million. If Leeds is so cash-strapped for DHPs, why has it not asked us for the money it says it needs, rather than turning away people it thinks are vulnerable?
The Minister talks about cash-strapped authorities. Stoke-on-Trent has been the third hardest hit by cuts every year and simply cannot mop that up. He made a point about swaps. In Stoke-on-Trent, approximately 11,000 people are on the waiting list. Where are the one-bedroom flats? Where are the two-bedroom places? They do not exist in Stoke-on-Trent. Will he tell me where they are?
The hon. Gentleman misses the point. He mistakes the issue of empty properties for properties that are currently accommodated. The social housing swap website indicates tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in smaller properties who want to trade up, while people in larger properties want to trade down.
In response to the hon. Member for Manchester Central, I am rather startled by this figure, but it appears that last year Manchester local authority sent back to the Government £595,000 of unspent DHPs.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and his colleagues for the extra allocation of money. My local authority has bid for an extra £600,000, which I hope it will receive. I supported the motion at the Liberal Democrat conference arguing for changes in this policy. [Interruption.] I will take no lessons from Labour Members. Will my hon. Friend look at exempting those who have applied and are eligible for a smaller property, and are waiting to be allocated?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for referring to our policy motion, which is a darn sight better than the one we have been asked to consider by the Opposition. The Government are addressing many of the elements in our conference motion. For example, the motion calls for
“an immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy”
which we are undertaking, and
“A review of the amount allocated to local authorities for the Discretionary Housing Payment Fund”.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister incorrectly gave figures for last year—the bedroom tax was introduced only in April. I was talking about money that will come back this year. I can guarantee that the Minister will not be getting any money back from Manchester this year—the year of the bedroom tax.
I will come back to that in a moment.
I can assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) that we are addressing many of the points raised in the conference motion, not least because the motion congratulates our colleagues on their role in securing additional discretionary housing payments—something they can all be proud of.
The hon. Member for Manchester Central says that I referred to last year’s figures. I did, because we have not got to the end of this year yet. Last year, we stood here and other Opposition Members said about last year’s budget exactly what she has just said. We allocated DHPs for other changes to housing benefits. They said there would not be enough money, but at the end of the year substantial amounts were repaid.
I have no idea what that gesture means, but last year we allocated just under £1 million to Manchester, of which more than £500,000 was repaid. This year we have allocated nearly £2 million to Manchester to address those concerns. If it finds that it is still short of cash, despite sending back £500,000 last year, we will of course consider an application to our top-up fund, which we have not so far received.
We have heard nothing from the—[Interruption.]
Order. In fairness, a lot of people want to listen to this. All of our constituencies are affected and it is better if we all listen. The Minister has given way a lot. Hon. Members should indicate that they want the Minister to give way, but please accept it if he does not want to
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am aware that a large number of hon. Members want to participate in the debate, so I will sum up the Government’s position.
The Opposition do not talk about the £150 billion deficit, because they are rightly embarrassed and are ashamed of the state in which they left our finances. They would have had to deal with the same deficit that we had to deal with, but we have no idea how they would have done so. The idea that they could reverse this change by finding £500 million from obscure corners is implausible. They could not raise anything like the sort of amounts they are talking about. We recognise that it is not appropriate to expect every person to move to a smaller property, which is why we have trebled the budget for discretionary housing payments. I say to Opposition Members and all my hon. Friends that if someone comes to see them with a legitimate reason not to trade down—they do not have an option to work, to take in a lodger, or to do the other things people do —the local authority should be asked to explain whether it has spent its cash and, if it has spent it, whether it has asked the Government for more cash. We can then have a conversation. Until that point, we need fairness between—
Order. I said that hon. Members should indicate if they want to intervene, but do not continue to stay on your feet, Mr Burden. It is for me to judge and for the Minister to give way. Please do not take advantage of the situation. That is not good for this Chamber.
We need action on overcrowding, we need fairness between social and private tenants and we need action on the deficit. Those are the things we need. The Labour party has no answer to those problems. The coalition has addressed them. I commend the amendment to the House.
Let me begin by putting on record that I think that the bedroom tax should be abolished. This is a pernicious and vindictive measure that blames people and is causing a huge amount of distress. It blames, then punishes, people who very often have had little control or choice over the house in which they live. It punishes people whose crime is not to earn enough money to afford their rent. It punishes people who have lived in their council house for most of their lives but have temporarily lost their job and are now deemed as having an extra bedroom. It punishes the victims for a failure of housing supply, and punishes those who would like to move to a smaller property but cannot because none is available.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of social housing. When my parents got their first council house, they thought that that was their home for life. That is not the same for people who rent in the private sector as a stepping stone to buying a house. My parents never had that expectation, and anyone who has lived in a council house would understand that.
The bedroom tax hits the most vulnerable, many of whom do not qualify, despite everything that has been said, for discretionary housing payments. In Aberdeen, I have been hearing the stories of people who have fallen on hard times and become victims of drug or alcohol abuse. They are now trying to get their lives back together but cannot, because they are being hit by the bedroom tax. For example, a 37-year-old merchant seaman sustained injuries in a car accident, and he therefore needed a ground-floor flat. He was allocated a two-bedroom flat because that was all there was, and he has now been hit by the bedroom tax. A 47-year-old disabled man, who, after his parents died, continued to live in the two-bedroom flat that he had been born in, has been hit by the bedroom tax.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she share my concern about the scale of debt being created by the Government’s brutal policy? Freedom of information figures show that one in three council house tenants are being pushed into rent arrears. Given that not enough smaller properties exist, how is that possibly fair or progressive?
And in many of my examples, people’s situations have been made worse, because they now have housing debts, so they cannot be re-housed and have to return to the very hostels that they thought they were escaping from.
Also hit by the bedroom tax is a 52-year-old woman who suffers from depression and chronic anxiety and who depends on her neighbour and so cannot contemplate a move. I know of many more examples. Some people would move but cannot, because suitable properties are not available, while others cannot move because they would lose the support that they depend on to lead independent lives.
Even if the Government do not accept Labour’s proposal to scrap the tax—I always live in hope—they must extend the exemptions. I shall propose just two very modest ones that they should accept, if only because, given how they have been shouting this afternoon, their Back Benchers obviously think these things are exempted already. The first exemption should apply to homes specifically adapted for disabled families, about which I really do not accept the Minister’s argument: this is a man who thinks that he will change the whole pensions system in Great Britain, yet he is not clever enough to come up with a definition of an adapted home. I don’t think so! The second exemption is for situations where it is unreasonable to expect a couple to share a bed or room because one or both have a disability.
On the first exemption, it is incredibly difficult and expensive for someone who needs adaptations to their house to move. Council tax regulations recognise that people who need extra room because of a disability pay council tax on a lower band, so it is ridiculous that this space requirement is not recognised in housing benefit regulations. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to find suitable housing and how long adaptations take to make, and this is an exemption that the Government could easily include.
On the second exemption, whoever in government thought it acceptable to expect a couple, one of whom is disabled, to share a bedroom clearly has no idea of the size of the average council house bedroom. It is certainly not big enough for a hospital bed, possibly some lifting equipment and a second bed for the other person, and such an arrangement would not give a good night’s sleep to someone who might also have an important caring role. Discretionary housing payment is not a solution. It is meant to be transitional—to get people from where they are now to where the Government want them to be —whereas the situations that I am describing are permanent.
I could talk about disabled children, but those two situations should certainly be exempted, and those people should not have to apply year on year either. No matter how much money is made available, it is wrong that they must apply for a discretionary payment, and the word “discretionary” is the key, because it means that they will not necessarily get the money. If Ministers do not accept the need to get rid of this measure, at least they could extend the exemptions; these modest measures would not cost more either, if what the Government say is right, because these people are already getting discretionary housing payments. The exemptions would alleviate a great deal of anxiety and make this appalling measure a bit more bearable for some of our constituents. But I stand by my original comment: it is time that this measure was abolished.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, opposing the main motion but supporting the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friends. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. We might disagree on elements of the policy, but I appreciate that she holds her opinions very strongly.
Government Members are keen to create a fair housing market. It is astonishing to hear Opposition Members talk of the criteria, given that they voted for them with the introduction of the local housing allowance. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) talked about divorced families, but that situation happened before and still happens now. Why should those in the private sector or people who own their own homes be treated differently? I recognise the point about the retrospective nature of the policy, but the Government are trying to fix problems left unfixed by the last Government, and although some of these necessary changes might seem difficult, overall fairness is what truly matters.
I do not know the details of the hon. Gentleman’s case, but I am sure that he is taking it up with his local council. Rather than responding to individual cases, however, I would prefer to stick to the principle of why we believe this to be fair and right. I will come to my reasons in a moment.
On social housing, as the Minister said, it would be wrong to expect thousands of homes to sit empty waiting for people to move in. I took up such a case in my own constituency recently. The local council said that it was not getting as much new homes bonus as it had expected, and I wondered whether that was because Suffolk, thought to be prosperous, was missing out. We looked into it and discovered that 120 of the homes sitting empty belonged to the local housing association. I found that extraordinary. So we brought the association in to find out what was being done to maximise the use of those houses—whether they were one, two or three-bedroom homes. Not only will Flagship have to pay more money council tax, if those homes are not used, because we have allowed councils to charge 100% for empty homes after a certain time, but maximising their use would help the council to keep more of its new homes bonus.
Of course, the market can operate in social housing, as has been eloquently explained, via house swapping. I understand that 392 house swaps have been arranged in north Kensington, compared to only nine in Doncaster. It is incumbent on Members to work with their councils to understand what they are doing to facilitate house swapping. From what I learned this morning, my own area is not doing enough, and I will pursue that matter in the future.
The problem is that the hon. Lady and her Front-Bench team do not seem to know what the policy is for. We hear that it might be about making savings, but if everyone slots into the right-sized house—according to the Government’s criteria, which I do not necessarily accept—there will be no saving. Is it about making savings or making better use of properties? If it is about making better use of properties, there are lots of better ways to do it.
The beauty of Government Members is that we think we can achieve both. We believe we can save the taxpayer money and put it towards the affordable homes programme. Our estimate—I appreciate that it is only an estimate and that we will have to wait and see—is that it will save £500 million a year. Meanwhile, we have set aside £4.5 billion for the affordable homes programme to build houses in this Parliament and are already arranging the programme for the next Parliament.
I will not give way. I have given way already and lots of people want to speak.
With this policy, we are trying to achieve multiple aims, by making better use of the housing stock and working to get more housing built. It is worth noting that Labour voted against the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, which is one of the things that we introduced to unblock housing developments.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South and the Minister mentioned adaptations for disabled people. More than a quarter of my constituents are over 65, so hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that my constituency has a fair number of adapted houses and flats. It is appropriate that local councils should make an assessment and decide whether it is better for someone to stay in their home, rather than having to redo the adaptation somewhere else. I understand the point that the Minister made about this. If a wet room needed to be recreated, for example, there might well be merit in deciding that instead of someone having a three-bedroom house with a wet room, they should move to a one or two-bedroom apartment, as appropriate. We are saying to councils and housing associations that, instead of Whitehall setting those criteria, they should look after their housing stock together and ensure that people’s needs are met.
Listening to the stories that have come out today—I appreciate that they are personal stories about what people are experiencing—anyone would think that we in government had done nothing about this. However, we have allowed councils to retain the underspend in discretionary housing payments from previous years, and we have put in extra money for those payments. It is not as though we are sitting on our hands and doing nothing.
The last sentence of the Labour motion talks about using
“the funding set aside for discretionary housing payments to deal with under-occupation by funding local authorities so that they are better able to help people with the cost of moving to suitable accommodation.”
In an answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister has told me that a £20 million fund was set aside for new ideas for councils working together. At that time, only five councils had applied for that funding, and I would encourage our colleagues to speak to their councillors about that.
The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) talked about pensioners. There might be some people who can work an extra three hours to capture that extra £14 a week. [Hon. Members: “What?”] The Government are fixing the problems of the past. This debate reinforces the fact that we in government want to fix the problems, and that Labour remains the party of welfare.
I intend to use the term “bedroom tax” today and not “under-occupancy penalty” or “single room subsidy”. If that offends anyone, I can assure them they will not be anywhere near as offended as thousands of my constituents have been by this repulsive Government attack on disadvantaged and disabled people. The conflict surrounding the description of this despicable act reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to force the term “community charge” down the throats of the British people. Not surprisingly, she failed, and history damned it as the poll tax. The same fate awaits the single room subsidy.
The policy itself will also fail because, like the poll tax, it is based on mean-mindedness and political dogma. It will be also rejected by Conservative and Liberal leaderships yet to come, and once it has gone—as it will do after the next election—it will be disowned. Even as Margaret Thatcher was being driven away from Downing street in tears, John Major was planning to ditch the poll tax. He had remembered what Mrs Thatcher had clearly forgotten: that, regardless of how big someone gets for their boots, if they want to win elections and stay in power they should keep in touch with public opinion. They should also bear in mind that our electorate are, I am proud to say, for the most part decent and fair-minded people who know a pig in a poke when they see one. John Major understood that, which is why he went on to win the next election in 1992.
Prime Ministers have their albatrosses, however: John Major’s was the exchange rate mechanism; Margaret Thatcher’s was the poll tax; Tony Blair’s was Iraq; and Jim Callaghan’s was the winter of discontent. The bedroom tax will belong to the present incumbent. As with the ancient mariner, it will hang round his neck in shame.
The hon. Gentleman might wish to check the recent opinion polls. We would appreciate it if he were more consistent about changing the rules for people on local housing allowance. If they were so bad for private sector rented flats, why is the situation so different for the public sector?
I do not think that my political principles have changed, to be perfectly honest. I would have put forward these same arguments prior to the election as well.
On a more serious point, nearly 2,500 people back home in Bolton have been affected, and more than 75% of them have fallen into arrears since April—so much for this being a money-saving measure.
On the difficulty of moving, I have a constituent who has got into arrears because of the bedroom tax. The only way in which she can get out of arrears is to move to a smaller property but, guess what, she cannot move because she is in arrears. Does not this demonstrate the madness of this policy?
Absolutely. I will come to that point in a moment.
The fact is that millions of pounds will be lost. That represents much-needed cash that needs to be spent on making living conditions better, not worse. The demand for debt advice and financial service advice is bound to soar, and housing staff will concentrate most of their efforts on chasing rent arrears and helping people to move—when they can, that is. Legal expenses will escalate, and the potential cost of evicting decent families is enormous. This additional expense might not come directly from the Government’s coffers, but it will come from British people’s pockets and, frankly, we have better things to spend it on.
One example of the measure’s inflexibility involves constituents of mine who have two children, a boy and a girl. The girl was nine when they moved in, just before the bedroom tax was implemented. They were not entitled to live in a three-bedroom house until she was 10, when she could no longer be expected to share a room with her brother. As a result, the family were penalised for months until she was 10. The problem with this cruel measure is that it is focused on punishing people, and not on dealing with the problems of under-occupancy.
Under-occupancy is plainly a problem, but the bedroom tax is definitely not the solution. Where is the justice in denying tenants the opportunity to move to smaller, more energy-efficient properties when there are hardly any available—that is certainly the case in my constituency —and at the same time penalising them financially? The sensible solution involves helping people and building affordable homes for rent. It also involves giving tenants an incentive to downsize, not making them suffer because they are poor and in receipt of welfare benefits. Back in Bolton, the Conservative and Liberal councillors actually get it, and they have voted for a council motion to abolish the bedroom tax—then again, maybe they understand what John Major understood when he abolished the poll tax.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby). In my five minutes, I shall explain why what is going on in Labour-run councils is so different from what is going on in Conservative-run councils. I had the honour of being the leader of South Derbyshire district council when the Conservatives took control from the Labour group in 2007. In 2008, we implemented the Labour policy of the local homes allowance and we managed fine. That is coming along, and I am delighted to say that the present leader of the district council is my beloved husband. He is also managing fine. In our retained stock, 318 families are affected by the measure, and we have immediately adopted a policy of appointing a specific officer to talk to each of those 318 families.
I am not giving way; I have only five minutes.
The important issue is what we are doing about under-occupancy and what we are doing about the 1,700 families on the huge waiting list as a result of no new properties being built. I can say that in South Derbyshire—
No, I will not give way to the hon. Lady.
We saw this policy coming along in South Derbyshire for some time. What did we do? We built 88 new units of one and two-bedroom properties. Immediately, the council was able to swap 18 families, and Home Swappers was able to swap a further 86 families. We are proactive in South Derbyshire. We saw what was coming and we talked to the 318 families. The amount is £11.88 a week. Some 44 of the 318 families have said that they want to pay that £11.88.
No, I am not giving way to the hon. Lady.
That is what a proactive council does. I ask Labour Members: what are you doing talking to your Labour leader; what are you doing talking to your housing chairman; what are you doing talking to the Homes and Communities Agency; what are you all doing? The answer is, “Not enough”.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The bedroom tax hits Wales the hardest, which is why it is good to see so many Members from Welsh constituencies on the Opposition Benches; I see that, on the Government Benches, Wales is represented by the lone voice of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies).
I thank my hon. Friend, but it is a pity that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), who put questions to Labour Members, did not let any of us intervene. In my constituency, 280 households affected have been able to move—close to the hon. Lady’s 318—but 85% of affected households, which means 4,500 in Salford, cannot move. The hon. Lady should think a bit more about those figures: 300 is nothing in comparison with the work load of Opposition Members.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and she is exactly right. The bedroom tax particularly hits people in Wales—a point to which I shall return. The policy affects proportionally more housing benefit claimants in Wales than elsewhere in the UK, with 40,000 households affected by the bedroom tax—46% of working-age social housing tenants, when the UK average is 31%, and 25,000 of those have a disabled person living in the household. These are huge figures.
A little under a year ago, social housing tenants in my constituency received their letters telling them that, thanks to this coalition Government’s changes, they would have to pay more rent or move home—that is effectively their choice. Opposition Members warned then of the terrible impact the bedroom tax would have on some of our most vulnerable families, and of the fear and uncertainty it would bring. I hope the Minister does not underestimate in any way the palpable fear and anxiety felt out there among the disabled communities and families with small children.
Does my hon. Friend also appreciate the humiliation and the distress caused for many people with disabilities who have been forced to claim the discretionary housing payment? They have to fill in several pages of a claim form—the claim will often last only for six weeks—detailing, for example, how often they wet the bed, how often they need the bedding changed, how often they put the heating on, and so forth. That is a personal invasion, which they found humiliating.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is not the only process they have to go through, either. The cumulative effect of the Government’s different benefit changes, particularly on disabled people, makes things all the more arduous for them.
The warning from Opposition Members was that far from saving money, this policy could end up costing money. The warning was that the very notion of tenants moving to smaller homes was clearly absurd, as there were nowhere near enough smaller properties for them to move into.
Does my hon. Friend recall the Government’s 2012 impact assessment, which said:
“Estimates of Housing Benefit savings are based upon the current profile of tenants in the social rented sector, with little tenant mobility assumed. If a significant number of tenants wished to move, this would reduce direct savings and place extra demands on social landlords.”
Does she agree that this confirms that the Government’s real intention was to balance the books on the backs of the poor and vulnerable?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is clear that the Government will save money only if people stay put and pay up, which is the fundamental point.
The shortage of housing is no more acute than in Wales, where traditional three-bedroom properties predominate and there is a huge shortage of smaller social properties. Again, the warning back then was that discretionary housing payments were not enough to help the disabled and that housing associations would be left with a burden of debt, and unenviable choices.
All those warnings were ignored by the Government coalition parties. Government Members said that debates such as this one were characterised by exaggeration, that we were painting too bleak a picture and that our predictions were inaccurate. Tragically, those predictions were not wrong.
All Members have constituency cases to quote, so here are just a few of mine from the last couple of weeks. The mother of a disabled child who up to now used the third bedroom as a sensory room for her autistic son, as recommended by a paediatrician, is now struggling to find the extra rent. A divorced father whose two sons normally stay with him during the summer months has had to move because he cannot afford to keep his current home and will no longer have that access to his children. The largest group is the numerous families with disability adaptations to their properties who have no prospect of being moved to smaller accommodation that fits their needs because it would cost far too much to adapt the new properties. It is now clear that the financial “assistance” provided to already cash-strapped local authorities is not enough, as I see every day in my case work.
I would love to, but I am running out of time.
Local housing associations are working hard and using their creativity, doing their best to lessen the impact. From the work I see in my constituency, I realise that they know their tenants and have been in contact with them in the years preceding this situation. The simple fact remains that the vast majority of people hit by the bedroom tax have nowhere to move to within existing social housing provision.
A BBC Wales report earlier this year found four local authorities in Wales, including Monmouthshire, had no one-bedroom properties at all. In Wales, Shelter Cymru has argued that the chronic shortage of one and two-bedroom properties will drive many households into the private rented sector, where the local housing allowance for smaller two-bedroom properties outstrips the rents of three-bedroom social property. The difference is as much as 46% across Wales, and in Newport private rents are 36% higher. One Gwent housing association pointed out that every single private rented property is more expensive than the social rented property.
More damningly still, over the summer my office conducted some research on housing associations in Wales, showing that more than 50% of affected housing association tenants previously not in arrears—these people were always up to date with their rent—have now been plunged into debt and fallen behind on payments, with housing associations in Wales shouldering over £750,000 of extra debt. These are people who were up to date with their rent before April. When even the hon. Member for Monmouth commenting on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee report admitted publicly that the bedroom tax is simply not working in Wales due to the dearth of smaller properties, we know just how badly judged this policy is.
The bedroom tax is a bad and cruel policy. It is forcing people who cannot move into debt. I am thus very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) tabled the motion before us today.
Since we have heard a lot of anecdotes from Labour Members, perhaps I should tell one or two myself. I was contacted by the BBC—not an organisation known for its right-wing reactionary views—and asked to meet and talk to people affected by the spare room subsidy. I went along and heard some very interesting stories. I met a lady in her late 50s who had worked her entire life. Her family had left and she lived on her own in a house with too many bedrooms. She was going to have to move. Having been made redundant, she had gone out and got herself another job in an area where it was difficult to do that. I had a great deal of respect for that lady, and I still do. I feel sorry for her. I think one would have to have a heart of stone not to feel sorry for somebody in that position. However, when a system is spending billions of pounds and looking after millions of people and that system then changes, there will always be people with unfortunate stories to tell, and I believe that she was one of them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity. There is a point that he and his hon. Friends continually miss. I have a constituent who is disabled and lives in a two-bedroom council property. Given that 660 people in my constituency are affected by the bedroom tax and 25,000 are on the housing list, the only way in which he can move to a one-bedroom property in Edinburgh is to go into the private sector. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that will cause the housing benefit bill to rise?
Let me return to what I was saying. The BBC took me to meet three groups of people, whom it had chosen. The second lady whom I met was looking after four children. They were not her own children; she was their grandmother. The mother, because she was not the main carer for the children, was going to lose out on housing. What those people wanted were two large houses to look after the same family. While I felt sorry for everyone involved, including the children, I have to say that the state is not there to provide not one, but two sets of very large houses for people with large numbers of children.
Another question arose while I was meeting that lady, and it is a frank question. I never use the term “single mother” because I think that it is pejorative, and it has affected people in my own family. I think it is a generalisation. However, I have absolutely no hesitation in talking about feckless fathers. Those children had been brought into the world by a group of different males, and those males, having brought those children into the world, had disappeared and left the two ladies to try to bring them up themselves.
No. I said that I would give way only once to an Opposition Member.
I think it absolutely outrageous that so many young men in our society feel that they can go out, get women pregnant, allow them to have children, make them bring up those children by themselves—often on benefits—and then just disappear. That is utterly shocking. I hope that Ministers will note what I am saying, and that they will get hold of some of those feckless fathers, drag them off, make them work—put them in chains if necessary—and make them pay society back for the cost of bringing up the children whom they chose to bring into this world.
I also met a young couple, 17 years old, both of whom had never worked in their lives. They were living in a two-bedroom or perhaps a one-bedroom flat, and were being expected to suffer some inconvenience—perhaps to move into a studio flat. Let me say to Ministers that, in many instances, they are being far too generous. Why should the state pay for two people to set themselves up in what is frankly a teenage love nest? When I was 17 years old, if I wanted to see my girlfriend I would go and see her on a park bench in Newport. Why are the Government paying for those young people to have a flat all by themselves at all, regardless of whether it contains one bedroom or two?
I got into a lot of trouble, because I suggested to the young man that perhaps he should go out and find himself a job. He said that there were no jobs, which, incidentally, contradicted the example of the lady whom I had seen before him: she had found work. I said, “Why do you not move to where the work is?”, and immediately received a whole load of criticism.
I was even sent an e-mail from someone who wrote “You are a Christian. You should be serving the Lord. One day you will stand by the Lord and account for this hardship.” I wrote back to him saying, “I read my Bible. I do not see anything in the Bible that says that 17-year-olds should be given a flat, but I see plenty of examples of people who have had to move to find a better way of life: Abraham going off to the promised land, or Moses, or the disciples, who toured all over Europe. They all moved.”
Victoria station is a prime bit of expensive real estate. There is Boots, Costa Coffee and Starbucks, and there is an office which is recruiting people to work for Pret A Manger. I went there one day last week, and saw that there were 100 vacancies at Pret A Manger in central London. It was just waiting to take people on. Young people with an attitude and an ability to go out and do a bit of work can find a job with no problem whatsoever, and I do not think that we should be supporting them in the way that we are.
Opposition Members have heard a few anecdotes from me, because they have liked giving anecdotes themselves. What we have not heard from them is anything with much substance. They do not want to talk about the fact that they introduced a measure like this for the private sector. None of them will answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). They do not want to talk about their disgraceful record on house building, which has led to a disgraceful level of overcrowding. Most of all, they do not want to talk about the fact that by borrowing hundreds of millions of pounds which they did not have, they created the financial crisis that forced us into this situation in the first place.
I am very happy to be here supporting the Government —the coalition Government—on this important issue today. I have only one criticism of the Front Bench, and that is this: the next time we are expected to come here and defend a policy with which all of us on these Benches agree, they should issue us with umbrellas, so that we can shield ourselves from the shower of crocodile tears that are raining down upon us from Opposition Members.
I am not sure how to follow that, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I shall do my best.
I listened very carefully to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), and also to other Government Members, including the Minister. At the end of the Minister’s speech, I concluded that they just did not get it. Almost a decade ago, the Secretary of State, who is not with us today, set up the Centre for Social Justice. He said then that his aim was to put social justice at the heart of British politics. What could be more opposed to that aim than this appalling, cruel and unjust policy of the bedroom tax?
The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said that 300 families in her constituency were affected by the tax. In a single ward in my constituency, Norris Green, more than 1,000 families are affected by it, and 2,500 are affected in the constituency as a whole. It is a totally different situation. One in six households in a ward that suffers enormous social and economic deprivation are faced with the cruel and unjust policy that she defended.
However, it is not just the cruelty and the injustice to which I am objecting. The bedroom tax also undermines the good work that is being done by social landlords working with local communities. We are seeing increasing amounts of rent arrears, and increasing numbers of void properties. Many people who are finding the money to pay this tax are having to give up other essentials as a result. As others have pointed out, they are going to food banks and to payday lenders. Two in three of those affected have disabled people living in their households, and—again, others have mentioned this—many of them have adapted their homes to meet the needs of their disability.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, the policy also undermines communities. Why should people who have lived in communities for decades, who have been born and have grown up in those communities, be forced to leave them?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting some of the injustices of this policy. Does he agree that Labour councils such as the one in my patch in Carmarthenshire should introduce a no-evictions policy?
I do not want to see people evicted, but I think that there is a more intelligent way of achieving what the hon. Gentleman and I want to see than merely adopting a slogan. I think that Labour and other councils all over the country are doing their very best to prevent evictions
In Merseyside a year ago, there were 1,378 empty properties run by social landlords; the figure is now 1,956. That is a 40% increase. In Liverpool, rent arrears have already risen by 12.5%, and we are only six months into this policy. We heard a great deal from the Minister about discretionary housing payments. The pot for Liverpool is £1.6 million, but the housing benefit shortfall that has resulted from the introduction of the bedroom tax is £7.5 million. In other words, less than a quarter is available through discretionary housing payments. A lady who came to my surgery last week had just received her second discretionary housing payment, with my support. It will last her until January, but the money simply will not be there in January for her to receive a third payment.
We heard about Manchester city council’s discretionary housing payment pot. I now have the figures. Manchester has been allocated £1.9 million, and £1.2 million of that has already been spent. Did my hon. Friend gather from the Minister, as I did, that he was guaranteeing that all those who qualified for money from the discretionary housing fund would be able to receive it later in the year?
I listened carefully to what the Minister said, and it seemed to me that he was saying exactly that. I should appreciate an answer to my hon. Friend’s question from the Minister. If the needs of the lady in my constituency whom I have just mentioned are the same in January and there is no longer any money left in the pot in Liverpool, will the Government come up with the additional funds that are needed to ensure that those discretionary payments continue?
I have given way twice, so I shall not do so again.
I have also noticed a perverse effect of this policy on the constituents who come to see me. Often now, people who have been on the social housing waiting list for some time and who are entitled to a larger home are reluctant to move to a larger home. That is sometimes because they would have to pay more. However, I am meeting families who would not be subject to the bedroom tax but who are nervous of taking the larger property because they think their situation might change in the future—they might lose their job and therefore have to go on to housing benefit, or their sons or daughters might move away and suddenly they have spare bedrooms.
The result of this is not just a general increase in the number of empty properties, but, in particular, an increase in the number of empty larger properties. Liverpool Mutual Homes has had a brilliant programme over recent years of improving its properties so the standard is very high, yet it is finding it very difficult to fill those properties. In April last year LMH had just 18 vacant three-bedroom properties; that number has now trebled to 54. How can that be right, and in the name of dealing with overcrowding how can it make any sense to have an increase in the number of empty larger family properties in Liverpool and other communities around the country?
We heard earlier from the hon. Member for South Derbyshire about leadership. The Opposition are showing real leadership. This is an enormous issue in the city of Liverpool, in my constituency and across Merseyside. It is directly affecting families and communities across my constituency.
The Prime Minister said at last year’s Conservative party conference:
“Conservative methods are not just good for the strong and the successful but the best way to help the poor, and the weak, and the vulnerable.”
Where is the social justice in the bedroom tax? There is no justice. Where is the compassion we used to hear about from this Government? There is no compassion.
The promises we have heard—the words of the Minister today, the words of the Prime Minister last year—ring very hollow in my constituency, not just to those affected by the bedroom tax, but to others who care about the communities in which they live. This is a tax that hits the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. It is a symbol of the social injustice for which we know the Conservative party stands. I urge colleagues on both sides of the House, including the Liberal Democrats, to vote with us tonight against this cruel, unjust, unworkable bedroom tax.
I voted against this policy before and I will again be voting against the Government today, but I have to say that the Labour motion is tortuous and convoluted and not very well argued. My hon. Friend the Minister who opened the debate for the Government is right that the Labour party is incoherent in that it brought forward policies introducing a bedroom tax in the private sector yet opposes it, on the basis of a principle it claims to abide by, in relation to this measure.
I will not give way again on that point.
The debate has thus far largely focused on talking about a ghetto—or, rather, reservation—of people who live in social rented accommodation. It is, however, important to place this debate in the context of the way in which the whole housing market works and the important role social housing plays in relation to that.
In my constituency, many properties are sold as recreational investments to wealthy investors to be used as a second home or holiday home. Meanwhile, some hard-working, low-paid families will be evicted from their council houses because the Government believe they have one more bedroom than they deserve. I voted against this policy previously and my opposition to it is, if anything, even stronger now that I have met many of my constituents who are affected by it.
This policy will not increase the stock of desperately needed affordable homes for local people. The spare room penalty or bedroom tax victimises the most marginalised in our communities, undermines family life, penalises the hard-working low-paid for being prepared to stomach low-paid work, and masks the excessive cost and disruption to the disabled who have to move from expensively adapted homes. It is, in my view, Dickensian in its social divisiveness. It is an immoral policy.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech and I am glad he will vote with us tonight. Does he agree that one of the most vindictive aspects of this policy is the way it penalises carers? I have mentioned the Carers UK research on how carers are being affected. It found that among the households affected, one in six carers—people who cannot get more hours of work because they have given up their jobs to care—had rent arrears and faced possible evictions.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I think this policy has been introduced in such a headlong rush that some of the inconsistencies and consequences have not been thought through carefully enough. The issue has been approached from entirely the wrong angle. If there is a problem with the housing stock, it is wrong that people in the social housing sector who are apparently over-housed should, in effect, be blamed by people elsewhere in the local community who are rather under-housed. They are being blamed for the effects of the failure of successive Governments to build enough affordable homes of sufficient size to give communities the flexibility to be able to ensure that local families have accommodation of adequate size and to meet the range of needs that exist.
The Liberal Democrats have proposed a mansion tax. That has been opposed by some people with large mansions who are quite happy to impose a bedroom tax on people who are clearly going to be severely affected by that. Furthermore, in rural areas like mine, many of the people who are affected and who are prepared to uproot themselves and move—in many cases from long-standing family homes to a smaller property—cannot find a property within 20, 30, 40 and sometimes 50 miles. In order for many rural areas to be able to comply with this policy, people have to uproot themselves from their community and place of work, their children’s schooling, their church, and their social and family networks—from everything—and go to alien places. Even in Cornwall there are places which many Cornish folk would find alien to them. That is the only option for them, however, other than having to face extremely penal charges in order to carry on living in their current home.
I was involved in building affordable homes for local people before I was elected to this place. We tried to introduce new schemes with sufficient three and four-bedroom accommodation to ensure that the community would in future have the flexibility to meet the range of needs that might arise. That was important because these properties would be available for decades. This tax will discourage housing associations and others who want to build housing in years to come from making sure they build a broad range of properties and thereby provide the flexibility to meet future needs. They will instead build smaller properties, which will result in increased overcrowding in future. If we go in that direction, we will end up with further ghettos. The ghettos of the future will be built as a result of this policy. That will be the consequence of going forward on this basis. If this policy is not based on a prejudice in respect of some of those who are marginalised, many of whom do not vote, I am sorry to say that it is based on an indifference to the most vulnerable families in our communities.
I rise to support the motion, but before I do so, I would like to express my deep appreciation to all hon. Members who have expressed their condolences on the death of Eddie McGrady; their sympathy is deeply appreciated, and I thank them for it.
The bedroom tax is a pernicious and cruel tax that is causing untold hardship to the most vulnerable in our society. This crude and ill-thought-out levy is perhaps the least palatable part of the Government’s welfare reform programme. Only parties so detached from the lives and struggles of ordinary people could be so heartless as to inflict this tax, which is causing so much hurt to people whose only crime seems to be that they cannot afford to buy their own home. The fact that the Government—or, more correctly perhaps, the Deputy Prime Minister—have been dragged kicking and screaming into undertaking independent research into the impact of it all tells its own story; in his heart, he must know that this tax is wrong.
Yes, I do, and I am deeply concerned about that. However, we do not need any more research to tell us that this tax is wrong and that it will inflict an inordinate degree of hardship that shames us all, and the Government in particular. Those who are suffering from the impact of this tax—they are some of the very weakest in our society—do not want research on how it will affect them; they want these cruel deductions in housing benefit stopped, and stopped now.
I represent a constituency in Northern Ireland where the bedroom tax has not yet been introduced, and my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly and I are fighting tooth and nail to prevent it from happening. That is because more than 32,500 households in Northern Ireland are bracing themselves for the pain and suffering this tax would cause. They look at what is happening on this side of the Irish sea and they are deeply fearful. A couple of aspects of this bedroom tax make it an even crazier proposition for us in Northern Ireland: we quite simply do not have the required housing stock for people to downsize, and the stock we do have is, sadly, segregated.
I welcome everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that there are times in this House when things are so profoundly wrong that those on both sides of the House recognise it, but the trouble is that some cannot get around to admitting simply that they were wrong? Will he urge those who have not yet been convinced to say exactly that?
I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman The point about this tax is that when it was introduced it looked bad, but with every week that goes past it looks worse. We have to do what we can. With all honesty and all integrity, I can say that I think it is damaging, and I will come on to say why.
Given the number of people on disability payments in Northern Ireland, the lack of alternative housing and the complicated matter of segregated housing, which I have mentioned, the bedroom tax poses us unique challenges that are currently being overlooked here. These issues do not particularly affect this side of the Irish sea, so let me go into them in some detail.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive manages mainly three-bedroom homes that were built 20 to 30 years ago, because that is what we needed then, and it is facing unique pressures because of these benefit reforms. Even if some of the 32,500 households affected request to be rehoused in smaller properties, the smaller properties they require simply do not exist at this stage and it will take us 10 years at least to get them built. Northern Ireland does not have enough small homes to cater for people forced to downsize.
The unique and sensitive situation of segregated housing in Northern Ireland makes things even worse and needs to be taken into consideration. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has come out against the bedroom tax, highlighting the pockets of deep poverty and the fact that more than 90% of public housing is segregated along religious lines—that is a hangover from the troubles, whereby people are segregated for safety. Northern Ireland is facing unique, exceptional challenges that would be severely worsened by the tax. It is failing the most vulnerable in society and no Government could or should be very proud of that.
Not only would the bedroom tax be cruel and savage in Northern Ireland, but it would be illogical. Research has shown that implementing the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland would cost more than it would save or was designed to save. The Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations and the Chartered Institute of Housing have published figures showing that implementing the tax would cost the housing associations and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive £21 million per year, but would save only £17 million per year, so the mathematics of this brutal tax do not make sense either. I draw the House’s attention to the following words from Cameron Watt, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations:
“It’s clear that the numbers don't add up on bedroom tax. Northern Ireland cannot afford the human or economic damage this policy would inflict.”
The Social Democratic and Labour party, which I represent, has social justice as a core pillar of its purpose and its existence as a political organisation. The bedroom tax is a clear assault on social justice, as was demonstrated clearly by the Housing Rights Service, which provides independent housing advice and training in Northern Ireland. The HRS has told us how it is already being contacted by many social housing tenants who are living in fear and dread of the bedroom tax. Many of those tenants have lived in the same home, as secure tenants, for a lifetime and cannot understand why they should suddenly be asked to pay more or get out. The HRS has told us about
“clients with disabilities who need an additional bedroom to store medical equipment”,
and we have heard about that again today. The HRS has also spoken of
“single fathers who require more than one bedroom to facilitate overnight access to children.”
The introduction of a bedroom tax and the implementation of the under-occupancy penalty can only result in increased hardship, confusion and the erosion of community cohesion. This is a bad tax, a pernicious tax, and it is my fervent hope that, like the poll tax, it is consigned to the dustbin.
Before I make my speech, let me say that I listened to the passionate remarks made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who was really unhappy about the impact of the benefit changes. However, perhaps he would like to speak to his Labour-run Liverpool council and ask why, when it received £892,000 in discretionary housing payments last year, it actually sent back £337,000. Perhaps he could take that up when he leaves the Chamber—
Order—[Interruption.] Order. That means you, too, Mr Rotheram. Let us calm down. The hon. Lady has made a statement and I think Mr Twigg would like to have caught her eye, but it is up to the Member who has the Floor whether they want to take an intervention.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady did not show me or the House the courtesy of allowing me to intervene after she referred to something that I had said. Does she accept that the figures that she has given are from before the bedroom tax was introduced? This year, Liverpool city council will certainly spend the entire discretionary housing pot.
As I was about to say, unicorns do not exist, fairies do not exist and—it does not matter how often Opposition Members say it—a bedroom tax does not exist. I found it very interesting when we all looked at our Order Papers yesterday and there it was: we were going to discuss a bedroom tax. Funnily enough, however, we are not discussing a bedroom tax, because it does not exist and it would be procedurally out of order for us to debate it. The mishmash of today’s debate has been rushed through because the Opposition realise that by closing their eyes and saying the wishful words “bedroom tax” they cannot conjure one up—it does not exist. If they consult Tolley’s tax guide, they will see that they are being financially illiterate—
No, I will not give way. The hon. Lady can make her own remarks.
It appears that in trying to garner support for the incoherent policy that tried to level the playing field with the private rented sector—I thought that was a good idea as a Labour party policy—Labour started the process that should have been continued by ensuring that people paid for the accommodation that they were using. I have not heard from Opposition Members—perhaps they can illuminate the House and the public on this point during their speeches—what, if they choose to get rid of the inequality of a bedroom tax, which obviously does not exist, but let us go with the fantasy for a moment, they will do when they are in power. Will they allow the anomaly, or will they pledge, at goodness knows what expense, to reverse the proposals that they introduced in 2008?
No, I will not give way to the hon. Lady.
The Opposition should also address overcrowding. As yet, they have not done what Mr Tom Copley says that they should do and apologise for the fact that they never addressed the dire need to build more social housing to allow—
No, the hon. Lady will have her time at the end.
Mr Copley said:
“As a Labour politician one of the things that really galls me is that there’s this statistic that more council homes were built in the last year of Thatcher’s government than were built in the 13 years of Labour government, and that’s something I think as a Labour Party we need to apologise for.”
The apology needs to be made because the dearth of social housing that we inherited was a direct result of Labour’s inability in the good times to deliver sufficient adequate social housing. The Labour party should be ashamed of itself and it should apologise.
I do not think that the Opposition has a coherent policy. They want to penalise people in the private rented sector. They are not making any commitment to redress the imbalance, yet they wish to have what they see as a core vote that might be deserting them in droves. We helped the aspirational working class during Thatcher’s era under the right to buy, but unlike us, they introduced a policy to penalise only the private sector. Labour is the party of inequality, not the party of equality. I congratulate the coalition Government on all their efforts to level the playing field for more people both in social and private rented housing.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady wishes to give herself another minute, although her colleagues might object. Would she like to explain how Labour was prepared to level a tax on the private rented sector and why they believe another tax is being introduced in the social rented sector when no such tax exists? Why are they shroud waving?
The hon. Lady’s question has been answered by colleagues on numerous occasions today and it is an absolute red herring.
We can all accept that welfare reform is necessary, but it must be based on what is fair and what best protects the most vulnerable. In other words, it must provide a secure safety net. Plenty of people are plummeting to the ground right now in my constituency. The Government’s reform is based on pure populism; they are picking on the poor and turning one section of the community against the least well-off, many of them disabled, while having the bare-faced cheek to say that we are all in it together.
When was it decided that only those with means have the right to a stable and loving home environment, never mind the fact that smaller social rented homes are not available? I am tempted to ask, “Hands up all hon. Members who have at least one extra bedroom in their home,” or perhaps even, “Hands up those who have one extra house.”
The cost of living is the main concern in my constituency, and we all know that the use of food banks is rocketing. The local citizens advice bureau tells me that the number of people coming to it with problems connected to payday loans is increasing. I am worried about tenants getting into debt as a result of the bedroom tax, but, in some ways, I am more worried about the people who pay the bedroom tax. Where do they find the money, as they cannot possibly afford it? How many of them are sitting silently at home, feeling that there is nowhere to turn? It may come as a surprise to some Members who do not understand working-class values, but getting into debt or seeking discretionary housing payment, even if people are entitled to it, is anathema to many of them.
I challenge the Government to have the courage and honesty to admit that the measure is not about under-occupancy at all. It is part of a regime of sanctions on those who dare to be poor. The Government should also have the courage and honesty to admit that this is an attempt to shift responsibility for this shambles on to underfunded local councils and housing associations, which have been left to pick up the pieces.
Although the bedroom tax is disgraceful and its impact on residents who are affected is absolutely shocking, I hope that my hon. Friend will make a point about its impact on housing associations and councils that have built up arrears and will not be able to deliver good housing in future.
Indeed. Councils face massive cuts in their budgets and daily increases in the demand for services, and they are inadequately funded to provide discretionary assistance to those who face bedroom tax arrears. That is not helped by the kind of council beauty contest that the Scottish National party has encouraged between Labour-led and SNP-led councils, or any other combination of council leadership, about who is doing most to protect tenants from eviction. All councils, I am sure, are doing their best to protect tenants in difficult circumstances.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one thing that could be done in Scotland would be the enactment of the Member’s Bill introduced by my former colleague, Jackie Baillie MSP, in the Scottish Parliament?
I am going on to refer to that.
In East Ayrshire council, 2,300 tenants are caught by the bedroom tax, and more than 1,400 are already in arrears as a result—that is 62%—and the figure grows every month. The council estimates that it will have £500,000 of arrears by the end of the financial year as a result. In Scotland, as my hon. Friends have said, we have the added dimension of an SNP Government on pause, while they throw everything into their referendum campaign.
I do not have time, sorry.
Even scrapping the bedroom tax is relegated to a “things to do after independence” file—a very fat file indeed. The SNP boasts that it will abolish the bedroom tax after independence. People should not hold their breath waiting for that day to come, but nor should they have to wait for a Labour Government to scrap the tax. The Government should have the decency to scrap it now, and they would do so if they had an ounce of decency.
We need action here and now, and if the coalition Government are not prepared to act others must do so. That is why Labour has introduced a Bill in the Scottish Parliament to ensure that any social tenant who is genuinely unable to pay the bedroom tax will not be evicted. The Church of Scotland said in support of the Bill:
“Whilst we recognise that local authority budgets are being continually squeezed, forcing those who cannot afford these additional payments to carry the burden for this flawed policy is not fair.”
It is for times like these that the Scottish Parliament was created. The bedroom tax is a perfect example of just how the Scottish Parliament could act to make a real difference to tenants across Scotland, when the UK Government refuses to listen, but that would mean making devolution work for vulnerable Scottish families, and the SNP cannot allow that to happen. When it comes to the bedroom tax, the SNP, like the Tories, has its own agenda and priorities. This Government see nothing wrong with the bedroom tax, as we have heard. In fact, some Government Members do not even think that it exists. The SNP see it as an opportunity for building resentment. Only Labour sees it for what it is—a social injustice which must be scrapped.
Having sat through 90 minutes of a Westminster Hall debate last week ostensibly on housing supply, where housing supply was barely mentioned, I am not surprised that housing benefit has barely been mentioned in today’s debate. We have had the same old stories as we heard last week and in previous weeks trotted out yet again. The Labour party is still fiscally incoherent and still policy incoherent.
Thirteen years of Labour created the problem. For 13 years, the Labour Government did nothing about it. They created the perfect storm of insufficient house building, record overcrowding and housing benefit out of control. This is a Labour problem and even a Labour solution, as we heard earlier today.
No. The crux of the matter is that we inherited a bad situation and we are setting about putting it right. That is what this is about. At least the Labour housing spokesman on the London assembly had the honesty to stand up and say that the Labour party got it wrong and that it should apologise, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) mentioned. He also pointed out that every Conservative Government have built more social housing than any Labour Government in recent history. Even in Mrs Thatcher’s last year, the then Government built more social housing than was built in all 13 years of the Labour Government, so we do not need lectures on housing supply and social housing from the Opposition.
My hon. Friend is right. My casework is about families living in overcrowded accommodation who cannot get into the right accommodation. That is what we need to put right.
With reference to London, as that is the most populous part of the UK, let us not forget how Labour’s Ken Livingstone destroyed social house building at a stroke when he was Mayor. His arbitrary thresholds ground social house building to a halt because builders built to the threshold and then they stopped.
No, I am sorry. I have given way once and I am running out of time.
Under that policy, we got no social housing at all on smaller developments because builders built to the threshold. That was Labour’s legacy in London. Of course there are difficulties, as the population makes the transition to the new arrangements, but, as I mentioned, I cannot be alone in the Chamber in having to deal with constituents in accommodation that is too small for them, where children and parents are sharing bedrooms, where children of different sexes approaching puberty have to share bedrooms, or where living rooms are doubling up as bedrooms.
What about the families consigned to emergency accommodation? We do not hear much about that from the Opposition today. That is a problem forgotten by Labour and being dealt with by the Government. It is argued that it is cheaper to subsidise spare rooms than to move people or adapt homes, yet the overall costs of converting larger properties to smaller accommodation would be repaid by the savings on emergency accommodation alone.
You can bob up and down as much as you like. I have given way once.
The capital cost of adaptions for disabled people moving into smaller accommodation is also likely to be offset by the savings in rehousing those who are in temporary accommodation. In my authority, the average cost of adaption for a disabled property is £7,000, yet my council spends on average on emergency accommodation £14,000 for one placement. So one placement would pay for two houses to be adapted. Again, the fiscally incoherent Labour party argues that the cost of downsizing is offset by the housing benefit, but what about the larger families already in the private sector who may then be rehoused in those properties that become vacant? Little is said of that saving.
This is a completely one-sided debate. What about the private rented sector? People in such accommodation do not get spare rooms. What about the people in my office? They work, yet they do not even get a flat of their own. They have to share. You are quiet on the private sector. Let us make it fair. This was your policy. You were quite happy to tax the private sector spare rooms, but now you say no.
I would never be rude to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you well know, but I feel passionately about this. I was raised in a two-up, two-down, with no outside toilet—[Interruption]—with an outside toilet and no inside bathroom. Opposition Members might laugh, but I know what it is like to live in poor accommodation and I do not need lectures from them about what it is like to live in poor accommodation. The Conservative party is the party of aspiration; it is the party that is solving the mess; and I will vote for the amendment.
In powerful speeches from the Front and Back Benches, we have heard arguments against the bedroom tax, all of which were predicted and laid out by the Government in their impact statement. The impact statement made it clear that if this policy worked, in so far as it allowed people to downsize and their properties to be occupied by other social tenants, it would not save money, and that savings would come about only if the policy did not work. Contrary to the statements from some Government Members, those two objectives are mutually incompatible.
The impact statement showed that an estimated one in three of those affected would go into arrears. The Government knew that arrears were the likely consequence of this policy, and that is what we have seen. What we have not heard is another truth, which is that two thirds of those people affected by the bedroom tax are also affected by the Government’s cuts in council tax benefit. Out of their very low incomes of £75 or £105 a week they are having to make a contribution of £14, or in some cases £20-plus, for their bedroom tax and their council tax.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was about to make that point. The impact assessment also told us—as has been mentioned already this afternoon—that the distribution of properties across the country does not match the two objectives of downsizing and dealing with overcrowding. In the north-west, in Yorkshire, 43% of social tenants are affected by the bedroom tax, and I think the figure is worse in Wales. That is more than double the rate for London, yet it is London that has the most serious problem of overcrowding: one in six properties is overcrowded. So the policy is predicated not just on people moving from one property to another in their neighbourhood or community, which might have some sense to it, but on people moving from one part of the country to another, from one end of the country to another. Frankly, that is not how people live. People are not sticks of wood. People are not crates of dry goods that can be put in a container and taken from London to Liverpool or Wales, because that is how the distribution of property suits their needs.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that this will lead to the mass movement of vulnerable people around the country. What impact does she think that will have on seaside towns, which have many hundreds of houses in multiple occupation, which are not fit to bring children up in, or for anybody to be living in?
My hon. Friend is right. We are already seeing some of the impacts of this and other housing and welfare policies impacting detrimentally on seaside towns, in the same way as happened in the 1980s and 1990s. But the fact is that this policy simply cannot achieve the objective of tackling overcrowding because the larger properties are in the wrong place, and the numbers demonstrate that. It will work only if people do something that they do not want to do, which is to leave their homes, communities, networks, grandchildren, and families—to leave the people for whom they provide care.
That is also why those Government Members who have repeatedly made the argument that the Labour Government introduced a local housing allowance that applied a restriction on bedrooms in the private sector are so fundamentally wrong. A third of all private tenants across the country have lived in their homes for less than a year. Whether we like it or not, and whatever changes we might want to make to it, the private rented sector is highly mobile. Some 40% of all social tenants have lived in their homes for 10 years or more.
People went into a social property believing that it was a home for life. They believed that they would be able to bring up children, look after elderly relatives, care for people, live in their communities and contribute to them because they had a home there. That has now been removed, and it has been removed—this is the absolute cruelty of the bedroom tax—retrospectively. The situation simply cannot be compared with the private rented sector, because people in that sector move around much more and they are not impacted retrospectively.
I agree with the hon. Lady that this is retrospective, unlike her point about local housing allowance, but the principle is the same, although it might not have been applied retrospectively when it was introduced by the previous Government. On her point about private mobility, it is we on the Government Benches who are trying to help people buy their homes.
There is no attempt to do anything of the kind, otherwise people would be looking at longer-term tenancies and introducing that. The fact is that there is no principle in this. The principle of a tax being retrospective, as it is in this case, is the only principle that matters.
Even within the Conservative-led London borough of Westminster, which has a serious overcrowding problem, people are still unable to move. They are unable to move within the borough, let alone to Liverpool or Wales. Of the 405 families affected—it is a small number, because London is not the most affected by the bedroom tax—only 40 have been able to move. Half of them are in arrears and half of them are disabled.
I will conclude my remarks by referring to one of the many difficult cases that have been brought to my attention. A gentleman e-mailed me at the weekend. He wrote:
“I’m a 50-year-old single man living in a two-bedroom flat and have been hit by the so-called Bedroom Tax. I’m on employment support allowance and have been suffering from Chronic Depression and Anxiety for several years now and I’m now finding these latest attacks on the weakest and most vulnerable in society very difficult to deal with. I have little money and now find my rent arrears total nearly £800 as a result of the Bedroom Tax. I’m continuing to pay the previous level of rent, but the council have now sent me a letter saying that the next step will be to serve me with a Notice of Seeking Possession if I don’t pay the arrears in full. I simply can’t do this.
I’m loth to downsize for several reasons. My main reason is that I’ve lived at my present address for over 29 years and there is a lot of sentimentality connected with my home… because I lived here with my brother, who sadly passed away… This is my last link to him and I really couldn’t envisage living anywhere else. I’m feeling increasingly fatalistic and helpless and my thoughts are turning more and more to ending my life, which is something I’ve successfully avoided since my brother’s death. This latest setback just seems so insurmountable and there really doesn’t seem to be any sympathy or understanding… I no longer have anywhere to turn.”
He asked me to vote against the bedroom tax this afternoon, and I will be very proud to honour an obligation to him by doing so.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), both of whom illustrated the passionate arguments on both sides of the debate. On one side, there are the concerns about overcrowding, and many constituents have come to see me about that. One constituent, in particular, has been trying for 10 years to move out of her two-bedroom house with her partner and three children and into a three-bedroom house. On the other, there are concerns about people who find themselves in the position the hon. Member for Westminster North has just outlined.
Housing policy in this country has been in a bit of a mess for years, under many Governments. I remember the attempt at housing market renewal in north Staffordshire, when the previous Government tore down hundreds, if not thousands, of perfectly good houses in an attempt to boost house prices. What a misguided policy.