I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
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?
It is the same callous disregard that has been shown to over 400,000 disabled people in all our constituencies across the country. It is incredibly disappointing that the Secretary of State is not here to hear those stories today.
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.
Does the hon. Lady honestly think that the founders of the welfare state intended it to be used by single people to live in two, three or four-bedroom houses while families are living in overcrowded flats?
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.
The hon. Lady talks about affected families. What does she say to the almost 400,000 families who are living in overcrowded situations when they look over their shoulders at the almost 1 million spare bedrooms in Britain?
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?
I could not agree more. It is putting housing associations and local authorities in impossible situations where they potentially have to condemn housing that is perfectly fit for people to live in because people cannot afford the rent.
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.
Would the hon. Lady like to stand up and say they are exempt, because that is not Government policy?
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
From what the Minister has said, the Labour party was quite happy to have a bedroom tax, not just in the private sector but also in the social rented sector as soon as rents had gone up.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the House’s attention to the Labour party’s plans. Not only did the Labour party invent the principle of paying for an extra bedroom, it intended to extend it.
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 making an excellent point. Perhaps he would like to extend it by inviting the Labour shadow Minister to apologise for the failure to build social housing—a failure that Labour’s own spokesperson identified as woeful, bleak even.
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?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is encouraging us to apply the policy 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.
My hon. Friend mentioned the mutual exchange service, otherwise known as HomeSwapper. Is he aware that 56,000 one-bedroom properties, 147,000 two-bedroom properties and 104,000 three-bedroom properties are available?
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.
Several hon. Members
I will give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy).
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?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was listening a moment ago when I referred to the specific additional funding we have allocated to remote rural areas to respond to that problem.
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—
Order. Just to help hon. Members, we need shorter interventions. Many hon. Members wish to speak and the matter is important to all our constituencies, so we need short interventions.
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Order. We do not need any help from those on the back row. That was not a point of order, but the hon. Lady has put her point on the record.
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—
Several hon. Members
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.
The hon. Lady says that the bedroom tax should be abolished. Does she agree that it should be abolished for private sector tenants, too?
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.
What would the hon. Lady say to Mr and Mrs Goodwin of Caerphilly borough, both of whom are registered blind, yet have to pay the bedroom tax? Where is the fairness there?
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”.
Order. The hon. Lady says “you”, but I am not responsible and I have no wish to be responsible for what she says.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise. What are Opposition Members doing about it? Clearly not enough.
I shall finish. This motion is despicable. Thank goodness for the reasoned amendment, which I shall vote for with great pleasure.
I will not give way.
Mr Deputy Speaker said that everyone in this Chamber is responsible for what goes on in their constituencies. For goodness’ sake, Labour Members should start leading in their constituencies.
I do not think I quite said that, but I call Jessica Morden.
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).
Will my hon. Friend give way?
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.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
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.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way once, and once only, to an Opposition Member. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to give way now, I shall be happy to do so.
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.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
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?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
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 want to nail that argument, which we have heard time and again from the Conservative party. The fact is that the local housing allowance did not apply to existing tenants. That is the fundamental difference.
The point still applies because ultimately the previous Government were seeking to achieve exactly what the current Government want to achieve in respect of the social rented sector.
Several hon. Members
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.
While recognising that the Deputy Prime Minister has been dragged kicking and screaming into this, does the hon. Gentleman find it regrettable that the review of the bedroom tax will not come through until 2015?
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—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will not take an intervention—[Interruption.]
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.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think that Mr Twigg can just ponder for a while—[Interruption.] I am going to shock the Opposition, who obviously want to shout me down. Unicorns do not exist, fairies do not exist and a bedroom tax does not exist.
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.
That is not a point of order, but it was certainly a point of clarification.
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 invite the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) to come to my constituency and ask my constituents whether the bedroom tax exists or whether they are away with the fairies.
I am happy to give way.
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.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
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.
Is it the Government’s case, then, that they inherited a bad situation and have set about making it worse?
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.
Is not the central issue of this debate the fact that it is wrong to ask the taxpayer to pick up the bill for some people who have accommodation that they simply do not need?
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.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I have given way once already and we are running out of time.
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.
Order. The hon. Gentleman should calm down and stop accusing the Chair of everything. He repeatedly uses “you” when he should be directing his accusations to Opposition Members, not the Chair.
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.
Is not one of the big problems the lack of accommodation? It is ridiculous to try to move people from large to small accommodation when we do not have it. Will that not contribute to the housing bubble?
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.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a sensible policy to interview people in social housing as they reach retirement or as their children leave home and discuss the possibility of their moving into homes for life so that they can give up the three or four-bedroom houses in which they have brought up their families and hand them over to families who need them?
That is an eminently sensible policy and I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised it.
The Government’s amendment
“notes the Government’s continuing commitment to monitor the effects of the policy and the use of Discretionary Housing Payments”.
I welcome that openness. Indeed, this debate is a good opportunity, about seven months into the policy, for the Minister to hear about what is taking place on the ground. Having yesterday met local authorities from the area that I represent, I want to give a few figures and describe a bit of the experience that they set out to me.
As of 30 September this year, in just a small part of my constituency and in one of the social housing providers, 371 out of 467 affected households were in arrears—over three quarters. Another provider had 19 affected households that were at “notice seeking possession” stage. That has arisen only since April, although, importantly, I understand that those 19 households are now being sorted out through the application of discretionary housing payments.
I believe that £100 million has been set aside for DHP, but that it is going to be cut by 33%. What impact does the hon. Gentleman think that cut will have on the tenants he is talking about?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will come to that later in my speech. Discretionary housing payments are extremely important because they provide flexibility; indeed, I would wish for a bit more flexibility.
My authority is working very hard to assist people who are in difficulties as a result of this policy. I want to draw out a number of things from its experience. First, it is vital, as the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said, that local authorities work with social housing providers to help all those affected.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
This will be my third intervention, but as it is the hon. Lady, I will.
I wonder how it will be possible for local authorities to help all those who are affected. Nottingham was allocated £696,000, and over 6,000 tenants in the city are affected. Its total missing housing benefit amounts to over £4 million. It is no surprise when Nottingham City Homes tells me that over half its tenants are in arrears. There is simply not the money to assist all those who are affected.
I am sure that the Minister has heard that. He mentioned the extra £20 million, which I should hope that Nottingham would bid for. Perhaps that sum could be increased; in fact, that is something I would ask for.
Discretionary housing payments are extremely important, as shown by the experience of my local council. As the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), said, the system needs to be administered more flexibly so that, perhaps, hard cases that are currently excluded are included. Again, I am sure that the Minister is listening.
We have heard about tenants getting into debt and therefore being unable to move. That Catch-22 situation has to be dealt with. People who are in arrears must be able to move if they are in arrears as a result of this policy and not of historical arrears. The Government could consider the rates that are charged, which are set at 14% and 25% for one-bedroom and two-bedroom properties. Perhaps there could be a lower rate that was increased gradually over the years as additional appropriate housing was provided. This must not result in evictions. Some councils have no-eviction policies, and that is a very commendable approach. I would look for all possible measures to be taken prior to eviction being enforced.
Many unintended consequences of the policy were mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and, particularly in respect of rural areas, by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George). Those need to be looked at very carefully, and am sure that the Minister will do so.
The Government could also look at the costs of administering social housing. Let me put this in perspective. In South Staffordshire, the discretionary housing payment pot is £90,000, and people are working very hard to make the system work. I was therefore a little surprised to read that the salaries and benefits of the directors of one of the local social housing providers were £223,000, £160,000, £149,000, £136,000 and £139,000. Given that those salaries are paid from the earnings and taxes of hard-working people, perhaps the Minister will look at how housing associations that pay such salaries could themselves contribute to discretionary housing payments.
The Government have committed to monitor the effects of the policy. This debate is a good chance for the Government to listen to reasonable suggestions for changes to the policy in the interests of all our constituents.
As time is short, I refer the House to my speech on this matter in Westminster Hall last week and to a speech I made in February, when Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party and the Green party called a debate on this very issue. I am glad that the Labour party has asked for this debate and I will support it as it supported us in February. I also refer the House to my amendment (b).
The aim of the under-occupancy penalty is allegedly to free up the logjam in available housing, but one of my fundamental objections to it is that the Government are using tenants as a battering ram to do so. That is unacceptable. I asked the Secretary of State a few days ago,
“what estimate he has made of the number of people in Wales who will move house as a result of the social housing under-occupancy penalty.”
The answer is interesting:
“The Department is not able to reliably estimate the number of people in Wales who will move house as a result of the Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy due to the small sample sizes involved.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 95W.]
Clearly, the Government do not expect huge numbers of people in Wales to move. They do, though, expect to make substantial savings on housing benefit. That is the reality—not moving people on, but making savings on benefits. The direct experience of my constituents is that they cannot move on. There is nowhere for them to move to.
Earlier this year, I asked the Government what research had been undertaken on private market elasticity—the ability of the market to provide—in response to the bedroom tax in rural Wales. I was told that no such research had been undertaken before the charge was brought in. There would apparently be research in 2015, and reports would be published in 2016, a full two and half years after the charge was introduced.
More fundamentally, I am concerned about the effect on estates. I was brought up on a council estate. It was a very stable area, with a mix of people from a variety of backgrounds. Many of them were the sort of people who had seen their children move on, but who still lived in three-bedroom houses and provided such estates with the anchor and stability that we believe to be so important. They knew the difference between a house and a home—a distinction that has eluded the current Government.
I will end by referring briefly to funding for hardship and to my amendment—I regret that it has not been selected—which also stands in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards).
My own local authority of Gwynedd has a review group on hardship payments. It brings together people from the voluntary sector, Shelter, the Department for Work and Pensions and even the Member of Parliament. Gwynedd county council, to its credit, has added substantially to the fund, with the result that the number of people in arrears is fairly small at present.
In my constituency, some people who originally were successful in getting the hardship fund are being told when they reapply that they cannot have it because they are not showing sufficient hardship or because they have not shown that they are doing enough to rebudget. Is the hon. Gentleman familiar with that experience? This week a constituent told me that they now have to choose between heating and eating because they are not getting the fund payment.
The hon. Lady makes a telling point and the group in Gwynedd is certainly concerned about that. It goes to the very heart of the cash-limited nature of the fund, which is something that I objected to when the social fund was introduced: it pitted one payment against another, bringing an element of competition to something that should be there to fulfil people’s basic needs, and that is one reason why I object to this policy. I hope there will be no evictions and that the Minister will clear up uncertainty about the fund’s future.
I would also like to hear those on the Labour Front Bench pledge to adopt a “no evictions” policy—the subject of my amendment—where they have the power to do so. Labour’s policy of abolishing the bedroom tax will not come into force until at least 2015, should it win the general election. However, Labour is in power in 77 councils, and the Welsh Labour Government have power to adopt a “no evictions” policy with immediate effect.
If Labour is serious about scrapping the bedroom tax, it should also be serious about preventing the worst effect it can have on tenants. For me, that is particularly true for the Welsh Government, where the Welsh First Minister has the power to stop evictions. For example, Labour in Rhondda Cynon Taf voted with Plaid Cymru for such a policy. The Scottish National party in Scotland has pre-eviction procedures, and I understand that Labour colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are proposing a Bill to bring in a “no evictions” policy—I think they are; possibly they are not. Perhaps they are not sure themselves.
In the Welsh Assembly, Jeff Cuthbert AM said:
“We cannot undo the bedroom tax. We can seek to reduce its impact and we are trying”—
all very laudable. Lesley Griffiths AM said that
“there would be a very high cost, not just a financial cost, but also in terms of the quality of life of people in relation to eviction and then rehousing.”
Plaid Cymru’s Jocelyn Davies asked Carwyn Jones, the First Minister:
“Will you tell us which social landlords in Wales are also going to adopt this no-eviction policy?”,
and he replied:
“That is a matter for local authorities to decide. I can well understand the thinking behind the no-eviction policy, but it is for each local authority to decide how it wishes to approach this inequitable situation.”
With all due respect to the First Minister of Wales, he is wrong. It is in his power to decide. It is time for those in power in Wales, long on rhetoric and slow to act, to give a lead. If he will not give a lead in Wales, might he not be led by Labour here in Westminster?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), and I declare at the start that I have more experience of council housing than many colleagues. Similar to the hon. Gentleman, I too grew up on a council estate, in south Manchester, with my mother, father and four siblings. It was not big, but it was home. We lived there because we needed to and because the state was able to help us find a home that we could fit into and was affordable to my hard-working parents.
Social housing is there for those in need. Housing needs change as families expand and contract. The needs of a family with four children are different to those of a divorced empty-nester. The hon. Gentleman used the example of a council estate where a house is also a home and a place to live. In my personal circumstances, when my father died 30 years ago and my mother was on her own in a three-bedroom house, she moved out and now lives in a one-bedroom flat, thus releasing that property back to the housing stock.
How often does the hon. Gentleman envisage that people should move homes during the course of their adult lives?
I cannot really answer that because it varies so greatly. I have moved several times but I am now settled with a family and envisage not moving for a while. It varies due to individual circumstances.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the three great stresses in life are death, divorce and moving house, especially if someone is being evicted or forced out? What effect does he think the bedroom tax will have on the mental health and well-being of people forced out of the homes they love?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point and he is right to say that moving house is one of the most stressful things in life.
In my constituency, a disabled lady who lived in a three-bedroom property had to sleep in the lounge and was not able to get upstairs. An appropriate home was found for her with one bedroom on the ground floor and she is very happy. Her old house is now filled by a young family with two children and one on the way. Moving house is very stressful, but sometimes it is the right thing to do.
The debate is a rare example of when I can use Karl Marx as a policy template. We can consider the social housing market using the phrase:
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
That is to say, what people can afford is what they need. It is a simple enough concept to support low-income families but, in reality, housing policy has moved far away from it.
First, let us consider the ability to pay. Housing benefit payments almost doubled from £11.2 billion to £23 billion under the previous Government. That is a cost of £900 per household per year. If hon. Members ask my constituents whether paying £900 per year to pay for other people’s rent on top of their own is reasonable, they will get a short response. In fact, if the Government had not taken action—this Government are prepared to take the tough decisions when Opposition Members are intent on driving Britain to economic ruin—the cost of social housing would have risen to £25 billion in the next financial year.
Secondly, let us consider the need element. As I have set out, I understand the importance of social housing and why the country needs it. Let me be clear that the right type of housing should be available to those who need it. A quarter of a million families are in overcrowded accommodation, and 2 million households are on social housing waiting lists. In part, that is because of the lowest housing growth since the 1920s, and that was under a Labour leadership. Some who do not need social housing insist on remaining, blocking families who have urgent need.
The hon. Gentleman gave the House some statistics, but will he concede that, unfortunately, many of the vacant properties he describes are in the wrong places for the people who need them?
There is an element of that in various communities. In my area, people like to live within their own communities. I accept that. The problem is not straightforward, but it is not insurmountable either. People can swap homes within local communities, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is a problem. The problem is not insurmountable for good local housing trusts or local authorities. It might not happen overnight, but with a little bit of creative thinking, moves can be accommodated—people can downsize and upsize.
The hon. Gentleman accepts that the situation cannot be changed overnight, but does he believe it is fair that people should be caught in the trap of having to pay the bedroom tax? He is contradicting his own argument.
I am sorry I gave way to the right hon. Lady.
I want to make one final point. Opposition Members have had nothing to say about someone earning £140,000 a year who uses social housing, not least because the person in question is Bob Crow, the leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.
Unless we reassess ongoing housing needs, we will be unable to support those who need it the most. The changes need to happen, and it is important that they happen now, to restore fairness to the social housing sector in line with the private sector.
There is no doubt that the bedroom tax is a brutal, callous and unfair policy that affects some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our communities, not least those who are disabled. They have been forced into arrears and further debt, and forced to go to food banks. The policy is having a major effect on many people in our communities.
I want to address some of the points that Government Members are using to justify what they are doing, such as the cost. We do not know whether the cost savings are achievable. Some hon. Members argue that they are not, but there is a great deal of doubt. For instance, the Government would have to take account of the £65 million increase in discretionary housing payment budgets that has already been set aside for 2013-14; the additional costs of fitting aids and adaptations for disabled tenants who move; the significant additional costs to housing associations that face increasing rent arrears, re-let times, rent collection and tenant support costs, and the impact of lost development capacity, at a time when the Government are trying to drive increased supply; and the additional indirect costs to other public services, such as homelessness, health, social and advisory services, of coping with the knock-on effects and consequences of tenants moving or accumulating debt. All need to be taken into account, which undermines the Government’s case for savings.
The Government’s amendment mentions
“the potential beneficial impact of this policy on those living in overcrowded accommodation”.
It is worth noting the word “potential”. I asked the Minister to provide figures, or any evidence, to justify the claim that there would be a significant “beneficial impact”, but he was not able to do so.
Government Members have been talking all afternoon about the private rented sector. It is important to understand the difference between sectors, and it is clear that some people do not. The method for calculating housing benefit in the private rented sector is local housing allowance, which is entirely different. It is a fixed allowance paid depending upon household size and circumstances, with no reference to the size of home occupied. A tenant can choose to use the fixed allowance to under-occupy a larger home in a lower-value area without any reduction in benefit. Rents in the private rented sector are not regulated. It is necessary to impose tighter benefit restrictions to curb excessive market rents. Social rents are regulated and are approximately 40% lower. The private rented sector performs a different role from the social rented sector, as hon. Members have made clear. In general, it provides shorter-term accommodation for younger households. Some 28% of household heads in the private rented sector are over the age of 44, compared with 60% in the social sector. That is a significant difference. What is being asked for is a retrospective change.
The Government’s brutal changes are affecting real people in my constituency. I spoke to Mrs Knight on Saturday morning. She has had adaptations throughout the house to ease difficulties that her husband is experiencing: a walk-in shower, a bio bidet, a wheelchair access door leading outside, hand rails on the doors, a drop rail in the bathroom, a rail fitted to the bed, raisers on the seat, and a through-floor lift into the bedroom. They are losing a significant amount of money—£700 a year. They have lived in the house for 29 years and brought up their family in it.
My hon. Friend has just given a comprehensive list of the improvements made to his constituents’ home. If they move to other accommodation, will the council have to pay again to put in those facilities again?
As usual, my hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course the council will have to pay again, and it is significant expenditure.
What about large families that have split up, where some of the children stay with their father for three or four days a week but he has been hit by the bedroom tax? How is that helping families? How does that help parents to stay in touch with their children? The excuse given by the Minister at the time was that it would depend on who had responsibility for the children, but it is causing problems for families.
What about a single man who has lived in a house all his life and has recently become unemployed, finding himself having to live on £70-odd a week and trying to find the difference for the bedroom tax? We talk about the discretionary payment system, but they are temporary payments and finding a job in my area is not easy.
In response to a question I put to the Prime Minister earlier in the year, he said:
“Let me be clear…pensioners are exempt, people with severely disabled children are exempt and people who need round-the-clock care are exempt.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2013; Vol. 559, c. 949.]
That turned out not to be true and I challenged the Leader of the House on it the following day. On the Monday, the Government dropped their appeal to overturn the decision of the Supreme Court on the exclusion of disabled children. People with a disabled child and two spare bedrooms are hit by the bedroom tax. When universal credit comes in, pensioners with one person in the household under the pension age will be hit by the bedroom tax. Disabled people, unless they have a full-time or part-time live-in carer, are not exempt. Disabled people whose family members or friends are supporting them are not exempt. This is a terrible policy. It needs to be changed quickly.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who has given a reasoned and reasonable speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), who provided a different perspective. I start from the principle that it is morally indefensible that 1 million families are waiting for a council property and that 250,000 families live in overcrowded accommodation while at the same time 1 million empty bedrooms are allowed in the social rented sector. Anyone who tries to defend that is extremely foolish.
There is a fundamental philosophical difference between the Opposition and the Government. People in social rented accommodation cannot expect to live in the same home for life without any change to their circumstances being recognised. People in social rented accommodation should stay there for a period and then move on and up when they can. My mother and father started in council accommodation and were the first in our family to buy their own home. Then, during the Thatcher revolution, the rest of my family were able to acquire their own homes, and we became a proper property-owning democracy.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, however, that that was not the initial purpose of social housing? The initial reason for social housing and building council houses was not to deal with social need, as he and other Government Members have said, but to improve the standard of housing in this country? Is that not what council and social housing is about?
During the second world war and the 1950s, there was clearly a need, which was why the Conservative Government in the 1950s built record numbers of council properties—to enable people to live in decent accommodation. I agree about that. Clearly, however, social housing should be based on need, not expectation for life, and as people start new careers and move on, they should vacate social housing for the benefit of others in greater need.
I am not giving way again.
The Labour party clearly does not recognise this fundamental change that needs to take place.
The hon. Lady can keep popping up and down, but I am not giving way.
The Labour party would hand out £500 million of taxpayers’ money while presiding, as it did, over record low levels of housing development. It failed to provide the housing needed during its term of office, and this Government are now trying to turn that around after many years of neglect. The last Government allowed social rents to increase, knowing that housing benefit would pick up the costs for the vast majority of tenants: about 80% of tenants were receiving the maximum housing benefit. That is fine while people are fully occupying those properties—they will be in need, because they will have been assessed as being in need—but once they are under-occupying those properties, it becomes right and proper for Governments and councils to say, “It is time for you to move on and for a family who need that property to move in.”
Earlier, someone challenged the position in the private sector. On average, home owners occupy their property for seven years before choosing to move on, but of course some people fall on hard times and have to sell their property in a rush or lose everything when they lose their job or become disabled. We have to have sympathy and ensure supply for those people across the board. In the private rented sector, on the other hand, we need longer tenancies, because currently they are often for six months or less. Clearly, however, we need some equalisation between the private and social rented sectors.
There are other courses of action that councils can consider. My own local authority has brought in incentives for people who under-occupy to move out. It will give them cash incentives to enable them to buy their own property or move to a smaller property when their families have moved on. That is the right sort of approach. There should be a carrot and stick approach. If someone chooses to under-occupy, they will get less benefit. If they choose to occupy a property that they no longer need, they should not expect the public sector—the taxpayer—to fund them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is hard to know where to start in responding to what he is saying. If this were a matter of choice, it would be a very different issue. Why is it appropriate to apply a financial stick to people who do not, by definition, have the financial capacity to move on because they are on benefits? In those circumstances, there is no choice to be made. An amendment was tabled to the Welfare Reform Bill which would have resulted in this measure applying to people who had been made a reasonable offer but refused it. Does the hon. Gentleman regret the fact that the Government did not accept that amendment?
I thank the hon. Lady for her rather long intervention, which I thought became more of a speech. We need to be clear that people do have a choice. People can choose to under-occupy, and if they so choose, they should not expect the taxpayer to pick up the cost through housing benefit. There must be a clear incentive for people to move on.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not giving way a third time.
The Opposition need to accept the principle of the change, which is that anyone who under-occupies should bear the cost. All afternoon, we have heard a series of heartbreaking stories of people being required to move from properties that they have lived in for a long time. I have every sympathy with people who have been fed the story that they have a home for life, that they can expect to live in it for ever and that the taxpayer will always pick up the cost. The reality is that that is the story that Labour has always sold people.
That illustrates the difference between the parties. Labour would rather have everyone working for a public authority, being dependent on public housing and not being aspirational. We believe in helping people to achieve their aspirations and get to a decent position. We believe in improving the situation in the private sector and enabling people to work and to aspire to being the best that they can be. That is the difference between us. We are the party of the hand-up; Labour is the party of the hand-out.
I draw the House’s attention to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, including the chairmanship of a social housing provider.
This is a cruel policy, based on an unsound and in some respects fraudulent premise. It is cruel because it is causing anxiety, fear and misery to large numbers of people who have done nothing wrong. It is cruel because it is deepening poverty and deprivation in an arbitrary and unfair way, and because the large majority of those who are adversely affected by it can do nothing to mitigate its impact.
The policy is also cruel because it conflicts with basic human instincts, such as the instinct of a parent to have their children to come to stay at the weekend if they normally live with a former partner elsewhere. There is also a basic human instinct for a disabled person to have a carer stay overnight from time to time, or to have a spare bedroom for medical needs such as dialysis.
A constituent of mine is unable to share a bed with his wife due to his painful disability. The bedroom tax will leave his family £9.52 a week worse off. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the bedroom tax pays scant regard to the pain that it causes?
My hon. Friend makes an obvious and clear point that illustrates one of the deeply unfair and cruel impacts of the policy.
The policy runs against basic human nature when teenage children are told that they cannot expect to have a bedroom of their own, particularly at a time when those in charge of education are emphasising the importance of children having a bedroom in which to do their homework, so that they can do well at school.
I have seen an estimate that 375,000 children could be affected by the bedroom tax. Is it the Government’s deliberate policy that up to 375,000 children might have to move school because of moving house as a result of the bedroom tax, so disrupting their hard-earned education?
My hon. Friend, along with many other colleagues, has forcefully made the point about the destructive impact on communities and the impact on people who are unfairly forced to move because of the bedroom tax and other measures.
I have talked about the cruelty of the policy. I shall now show that it is unsound and in some respects based on a fraudulent premise. That premise is that the bedroom tax is about making better use of the social housing stock. This is simply wrong when the supply of smaller lettings available to those adversely impacted is hopelessly inadequate. It is wrong when, according to the Local Government Association, less than a quarter of those hit by the tax have the option of mitigating it by moving into smaller accommodation. It is clearly wrong when the largest single group of people known to be under-occupying social housing—notably those who are over retirement age—are exempt from the tax.
I can understand why, politically, the Government do not wish to be seen to be penalising elderly people, but they cannot on the one hand claim that these measures are about achieving better use of the social housing stock and then entirely ignore the largest group of people known to under-occupy accommodation. Recently visiting a 91-year-old pensioner living in a four-bedroom property brought that home very clearly to me. The council is giving priority for a move locally not to people like her, although that would be logical, but to people who are hit by the benefit cut of the bedroom tax, because it is only right that those people should be given priority, to protect them from the tax. We thus get these absurd and perverse consequences where the policy works against the very objective that it is supposed to achieve.
We have heard about the other perverse consequence—the extent to which the policy is leading not to better use of the housing stock, but to increased vacancies among larger properties in areas where people simply cannot afford to occupy and pay the bedroom tax, and to increases in rent arrears, which is not just bad for the affected tenants, putting their tenancy at risk, but bad for the landlords who require rental income to fund increased investment in social housing.
On all the bases, then, on which this policy is being promoted, it is not succeeding and it is having perverse and damaging consequences. The hard truth is that this is not a policy prompted by a desire to make better use of the country’s social housing stock. If that were the real intent, pensioners would not be exempt, and the Government would be increasing, not cutting, investment in new social housing. Indeed, if the impact of the bedroom tax were, miraculously for everyone affected, to find alternative smaller accommodation, the policy would fail because the Department for Work and Pensions would be left with a half a billion pound hole in its budget.
The whole wretched policy emerged not out of an evidence-based study of patterns of occupation, need and mobility in social housing, but out of a crude cost-cutting imperative that was introduced in total disregard of the human consequences. It is a deeply flawed and cruel policy, based on unsound premises, for which all those who are responsible in the Government should be ashamed. The sooner this wretched tax is abolished, the better.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), with whom I have sparred on a number of occasions on similar issues.
We need to pose ourselves a question: what is dealing with the spare room subsidy about? Is it about reducing the housing benefit bill? Yes, of course it is. The Government propose a £500 million saving, which is important. Let us not delude ourselves, however. We face a structural problem with housing: there is too little of it, and what there is of it is too expensive. The only way meaningfully to reduce the housing benefit bill is to increase the supply of housing hugely—something that we all know will not happen overnight. It did not happen on the watch of the previous Government, but it is happening at least in part on this Government’s watch. Although an important saving is being made, reducing the housing benefit bill is not the principal thrust of the reductions in spare room subsidy.
May I take up that point, which is raised in the Government amendment? Notwithstanding the bedroom tax, the cap on benefit and the annual real-terms reduction in the uprating of benefit, the Office for Budget Responsibility still predicts that the housing benefit bill will rise. This is a failed policy.
What the hon. Gentleman says demonstrates that, as I have just pointed out, what we need is a massive increase in the amount of housing that is built. That was a failure on the part of the last Government, and it has not been easy for this Government to rectify it during the current recession. I believe that we are doing a great deal to try to rectify it, but the real answer is to build a very large number of new houses. That cannot be done in an instant, which is why the housing benefit bill is almost bound to rise in the short term.
This is, in my view, a policy about behavioural change and about the chronic underuse of publicly owned housing assets. Those who live in social housing have no incentive to downsize, because they have tenancies for life. I understand the motivation behind that: as has already been pointed out today, these are not just tenancies, but homes. However, the position is not sustainable given such a limited supply of stock. The Government have, of course, taken action to end tenancies for life, but that will take a very long time to feed through the system. Meanwhile, there are vast numbers of people on housing waiting lists and large numbers living in overcrowded homes, while 1 million or more dwellings have an extra bedroom. That cannot be right.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, but by doing so I shall take time away from Opposition speakers.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that that there is a complete mismatch between the types of homes that are available and what the Government want people to do? In North Ayrshire, for example, 2,260 council tenants are affected by the policy, but only 59 tenants in under-occupied properties have been able to move since April.
The point is well made. I entirely accept that there is indeed a mismatch in many parts of the country. However, it is not impossible for people to move between local authority areas. That happens in the private sector, and there is no good reason why it cannot happen in the public sector. Certainly, it is more difficult, but there is no reason why it should not happen.
I recently visited a young family in Wickham, which is in my constituency. The couple had one child and another on the way. There was one bedroom upstairs, with a small bathroom, a kitchen-sitting room-dining area downstairs, and that was it. The child was living in a cot in the sitting room. Just yards away were two and three-bedroom homes under-occupied by lifetime tenants.
Order. I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman. The clock is wrong, and I should warn him that he does not have five minutes and four seconds left; he has only four minutes and one second.
Thank you for that warning, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The situation that I have described cannot be right, either in terms of the use of resources or in terms of plain fairness. According to the switching site HomeSwapper, those who have successfully moved as a consequence of these changes often say that their understanding of the unfairness of the situation was a significant part of their motivation. However, it is also important to note that the potential reduction in housing benefit payments was what made them actually do something about it.
The unfairness is, of course, only exacerbated by the rules governing the private rented sector, under which only the space that is needed is paid for. That has been referred to at length this afternoon. Presumably, if the principle of ensuring the right number of bedrooms is unfair in social housing, it is also unfair in private housing. That point too has already been made. The motion
“calls on the Government to end these deductions with immediate effect”.
I can only imagine that the Opposition will propose similar changes in the private sector, as the same principle applies. If so, how much will it cost, and if not, why not?
It is clear that the Opposition’s thinking on this matter has been, to say the least, inconsistent. In 2011, I was a member of the Committee that considered the Bill that became the Welfare Reform Act 2012. We had a long discussion, and a number of amendments were tabled to clause 68, which established the principle of the spare room subsidy reduction. All the points that were made were salient, the amendments—most of which were tabled by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who is no longer in the Chamber—were perfectly sensible, and, in large part, the Government have introduced provisions to deal with them. Interestingly, however, no Division was called on a stand part motion, and no attempt was made to remove the clause on Report. I am a novice in these matters, but my interpretation of what happened is that the Opposition accepted the principle. If that is not the case, I should like to hear why it is not.
The Opposition’s difficulty with welfare reform as a whole is clear. Recently, the hon. Member for Westminster North, who very ably took large parts of the Welfare Reform Bill through Committee, including clause 68, was reported as saying that the Opposition had not won the public debate on welfare, and it appears that she is right. Ipsos MORI carried out a survey of 2,000 people in late August this year from which it concluded that:
“By a margin of 3 to 1, the majority of the British public believe that the benefits system in Britain is too generous.”
Interestingly, it also revealed that the public broadly supported the Government’s position on the spare room subsidy.
Back in April, Peter Watt, former general secretary of the Labour party, wrote on the “Labour Uncut” website:
“I don’t know what Labour’s position on welfare reform is”,
“Labour has in the past also talked tough on welfare and that it would like to reduce welfare bills. The problem is that it is currently fighting a battle in which it is opposing the government’s attempts to achieve this. So Labour appears confused.”
Today, in this motion, we see yet another example of this confusion.
It must be right, at a time of acute overcrowding co-existing with a great deal of under-occupancy in the social housing sector, for the Government to take action to encourage change. A broad policy of this sort will inevitably throw up real-life difficulties when applied in the particular, but the Government have been very careful to deal with as many of them as possible and have made many exceptions to the general rule. They have also made substantial amounts of money available through discretionary housing payment to ease the transition for those who are affected.
Furthermore, evidence shows that over 10% of those who have been affected by the change so far have come off benefits entirely, which must surely be welcomed by all. Change of this sort is never easy to implement, but that does not mean it is not fair in principle and that it is not necessary. In this case, it is both, and I will certainly vote for the Government’s amendment this evening.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), who made an excellent contribution.
I am pleased to be called to speak in this debate and I am proud that the Labour party now has a commitment to axing this appalling policy. I am proud of Opposition Members’ contributions to this debate, which stand in stark contrast to some of the drivel we heard from the Government Benches, much of which showed a lack of understanding of and basic research into how this policy is being delivered on the ground.
One example of that was in the contribution of the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who said people should simply work an extra three hours a week to pay for this. If she knew the policy, she would be aware that those in work and receiving housing benefit who work an extra three hours a week will lose 85% of that extra income to pay for their rent and council tax. Therefore they would still have to pay the bedroom tax.
I am the MP for Manchester Central and my constituency has the highest number of people affected by the bedroom tax in the country—over 4,000. That is not just a number; it is people struggling desperately as a result of this unjust policy.
I have three main criticisms of this policy, and they build on the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich: it is a morally wrong and corrupt policy; it costs more than it saves; and it does not even work. By any measure, that is a pretty damning indictment of a policy.
It is morally wrong because it is such a blunt instrument and it is punishing all sorts of vulnerable people who have done nothing wrong. We have heard many examples from colleagues, charting the human cost of this disastrous policy. I want to highlight one other.
Elizabeth has a very disabled son, Ryan. Their case has been highlighted by the Manchester Evening News and the Daily Mirror, both of which have been running excellent campaigns against the bedroom tax. Ryan is a disabled adult and requires around-the-clock care, including overnight care. He is not excluded from the bedroom tax policy, however, because he is not the tenant of the property. Therefore, they are subject to the bedroom tax. After many weeks and months of anxious worrying, Elizabeth finally, after my intervention, was awarded the discretionary housing money. However, this does not take away from the fact that she is not sure what is going to happen next year or the year after that. That is the kind of anxiety people are facing. On the discretionary housing payment, I am delighted that the Minister has today said that if more claimants qualify but the £1.9 million that Manchester city council has received is not enough, the Government will guarantee those payments.
This policy also costs more than it saves, as is highlighted by the case of my constituent, Alan. He is in his late-50s and he has worked for most of his life. He lives in a two-bedroom property because no one-bedroom properties were available for him. He was made redundant and is now on benefits of £71.70 a fortnight. His social housing costs £60 a week and he has been asked to pay the bedroom tax out of that money. If he wants to move to the private sector, which is the only real option for him, that will cost him at least £100 a week in rent, which the housing benefit bill will have to pay. So that is going to take costs up, not down.
The final point I wish to make is that this policy does not even work. Many Government Members have talked about how it deals with overcrowding and people on the housing waiting list. In Manchester, 19,000 people are on that list and that figure has not moved one jot since this policy was introduced, because all the slack of available property is being taken up by people doing housing swaps. The only properties becoming available are two-bedroom properties in blocks of flats, which are unsuitable for families with children. So those properties are going to people in band 5—people who are not most in need. Those who are most in need are being pushed further and further down the waiting list.
My hon. Friend is making a strong speech, in which she mentioned families with children. Did she share my shock at Lord Freud’s comment that families who are separated should get a sofa bed to deal with the problem of being hit by the bedroom tax? Was that not a shocking thing to say about the situation of families in this country?
It was a shocking thing to say. It showed a complete failure to understand what family life is like and to understand that many fathers—I thought the Conservatives claimed to be the party of the fathers—have contact with their children only if they have a spare bedroom for them to stay in, so they will be losing that contact. That is a disgraceful aspect of this policy.
Perhaps if the Government had done a little more research, analysis and modelling before introducing this proposal, they might have foreseen some of these knock-on consequences. Labour Members are all for looking at how we can deal with some of the issues relating to under-occupancy and housing shortage, but this sort of brutal, blunt instrument does nothing to address that—in fact, it does quite the opposite. We need a long-term strategy bringing together the housing associations, other policy makers and tenants to work out how we can best use a carrot and stick approach to deal with under-occupancy. What we have from this Government is a morally corrupt policy that does not work and is going to cost the taxpayer even more.
In debating today’s motion, it is instructive to look back at the manifesto on which Labour Members stood at the last election. They talked about the need for “tough choices on welfare” and stated:
“No one fit for work should be abandoned to a life on benefit, so all those who can work will be required to do so.”
They also promised reforms to housing benefit so that the state does not subsidise people to live on rents that working families could not afford. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), when they were in government they intended to introduce the very same measure. So what happened?
Labour has reverted to type, defending those who are getting more than their fair share out of the system, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of others who are worse off through no fault of their own. They include the 6,687 households on my local authority of Dudley’s housing waiting list. That is why Labour has opposed every single measure this Government have taken to reform the welfare state.
The public know that the catalyst for the reforms we have introduced was the ballooning deficit left to us by the previous Government. The overriding mission behind the reforms had a much wider moral purpose: to make work pay, to end the something for nothing culture, to ensure a strong safety net for those who cannot work and, in the case of the reforms to housing benefit, to reduce overcrowding and homelessness.
The hon. Lady is talking as though the only people in social housing are those on benefit or not working. It is an in-work benefit. More importantly, many people in this country who work for the minimum wage and work very hard will never be able to afford to purchase a property. That is why we have social housing and why we have homes for life for those people.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and I agree with much of the principle behind it. Of course, some people will never be able to afford to buy their own homes—although this Government are intent on helping as many people as possible to own their own homes—and that is the purpose of social housing and housing benefit. There is no argument with that principle, but we must be cognisant of the number of people who, at the moment, cannot even get council housing or privately rented social housing. That is one of the driving purposes behind the reform.
The subsidy has become something of a totemic issue for the Opposition. They want to position the end of the subsidy and the creation of a level playing field between all recipients of social housing support as a modern day poll tax. Whatever the merits or otherwise of different systems of raising taxes locally, there is no doubt that the poll tax lacked public support. That is the difference, and it is worth exploring why the policy we are debating today enjoys public support.
The MORI poll that my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) mentioned found that 78% of respondents supported the need to reduce under-occupation and overcrowding in social housing, whereas 54% of them agreed that people of working age who live in social housing should receive less housing benefit if they have more bedrooms than they need. Some 60% of those polled believed that those affected should seek work or work longer hours if they could.
The hon. Lady drew a parallel between the bedroom tax and the poll tax, and said that the difference between the two was that the poll tax was not popular. Does she therefore accept that the bedroom tax is a tax?
I certainly do not. It is not a tax. A tax is a Government levy on somebody’s income, whereas we are clearly talking about reducing a subsidy.
Let me return to the subject of work. Many groups are exempt from the measure, including people in receipt of state pensions, families with disabled children, foster carers and other groups. Those who are in a position to seek work or extra work should either do so or try to swap their property for accommodation that meets rather than exceeds their needs. If their accommodation exceeds their needs, that is not a tenable or fair position for the long term. We are talking about only a few extra hours of work a week at the minimum wage. Instead of conducting a campaign of misinformation against the reforms to housing benefit—reforms that Labour accepted were necessary at the last election—local authorities should instead be helping people to downsize to accommodation that meets their needs, freeing up much-needed housing stock for the 2 million families on housing waiting lists.
I commend the Government for taking the tough decisions and, moreover, for their commitment to build 170,000 new social houses by 2015. In addition to this measure, that will help to ease overcrowding in many homes. I also hope that the Government will take a lead in encouraging housing associations and local authorities to convert some of the excess of large properties at their disposal so that we can begin to meet the needs of the 60% or so of people applying for social housing for single occupancy. I hear far more complaints from constituents who endure overcrowded accommodation than I do about ending this spare-room subsidy. I find the contents of my postbag quite instructive in that regard, so I shall support the Government amendment.
In the lead up to the 2010 general election and in a desperate attempt to detoxify the brand, two words were bandied about to persuade the electorate that there would be a different kind of Tory if the Conservatives were elected. Those two words were “compassionate conservatism”, whatever that is. Wolves in sheep’s clothing—that is what I call it. No one standing on a Tory ticket in the next general election should be in any doubt whatsoever that once again it will be two words that will define their heartless brand of ideological politics—“bedroom tax”.
What happened to the Prime Minister’s mantra that we are all in this together? What happened to the Chancellor’s claim that he would not balance the Budget on the backs of ordinary people? Whatever happened to big society? Almost two thirds of those affected by the bedroom tax in my part of the world are disabled—that is 21,000 people hit the hardest while millionaires get tens of thousands of pounds every year in a Tory tax bung. Before the inevitable accusations of being feckless or unemployable are levelled against any of my constituents by Members such as the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), whose rant should be videoed and played to anyone who doubts that it is the same old Tories, let me point out that 6,000 people on Merseyside who are now in rental arrears had never missed a payment in their life until the coalition’s welfare changes. The majority of those clobbered by this Con-Dem con trick are ordinary working people on low wages. This is entirely a Tory and Lib Dem-manufactured hardship imposed on those who need help the most, driven not by fiscal constraints but by political dogma.
I want to concentrate on three consequential areas of this policy. First, the Government have not given sufficient regard to the impact that it has already had on housing associations.
My hon. Friend is right that there is a significant impact on housing associations. The Home Group, a large housing association that has many properties in my borough of Gateshead and thousands of properties across the north of England, has seen a 53% increase in arrears in the past 12 months, mainly as a result of the bedroom tax.
My hon. Friend is right. In areas such as Liverpool and other major UK cities, rent arrears have increased dramatically, which means that housing associations have to find a way to combat the decrease in income while, at the same time, they are expected to commit to building more one and two-bedroom houses. That has the potential to affect their asset base and their ability to borrow money to build those houses.
Secondly—again, colleagues have mentioned this—this is a policy that will cost the Exchequer more than any potential savings. On Merseyside, housing demand is inversely proportionate to supply. As a consequence of not having enough of the right housing type it is virtually impossible for people caught in the bedroom tax trap to move into suitable social housing, so they are forced to consider renting in the private sector, even if that costs more than staying in their existing property and even if no one wants to move into the house that they are kicked out of. It is the economics of the madhouse, and it is our neighbourhoods that are suffering, decimated by a reckless and irresponsible Government inflicting poverty, creating urban blight and breaking up established communities. They are carrying out Thatcher’s legacy by causing instability that destroys the very fabric of society on which established communities are built.
My final area of contention is the social engineering that this Government are imposing on the poorest areas. Moving house may mean kids moving school, as has been mentioned, but it is also about families moving doctor and dentist, and mothers and older children who used to live within walking distance having to travel many miles to see each other. Many families have been forced out of the homes that were theirs for many decades. If they had been paying a mortgage instead of rent, which they could have done, they would have owned the property outright by now. For many they are homes, not houses. Hard-working families have been penalised simply because they could not afford a deposit. Surely that is not what is meant by “compassionate conservatism”—an oxymoron that will be consigned to the annals of political history alongside “Lib Dem principles”.
Be in no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the British people will not support a policy that punishes the poorest, the disabled, our armed forces, those riddled with cancer, the suicidal, the frail and the vulnerable. As the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) alluded to, this is the Tory poll tax of the 21st century. To think that this policy is a vote winner is severely to underestimate the compassion of the British people. I will always put my trust in the real people outside this place, rather than in a bunch of born-to-rule Tories who have no concept of what ordinary people have to contend with on a daily basis, and a Lib Dem party that has long since sold its soul.
I was getting flashbacks to 1970s socialism during that contribution—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) is very proud of that; that is good to hear.
It is said that a lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on, and such is the case with Labour’s bedroom tax. I am pleased that the name of the debate has changed, and I welcome the chance to clarify the details of the policy. I am sorry that the debate has been somewhat binary. Some good points have been made by Members on both sides and some pertinent questions have been asked. The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) posed a very important one: how does somebody who is told to go out and work in order to pay for that second room manage to do that? I hope the Minister will elaborate on this, but the universal tax credit system will come in to address that.
The debate has illustrated the cultural divide that exists between this Government and Labour. On one side there is an attitude of responsibility and holding welfare reform to account, and on the other there is a continuing concept of offering welfare as a lifestyle choice. That is no longer possible. After 13 years of Labour the cost of housing benefit doubled to £21 billion. That is unacceptable. The cost to taxpayers was £900 per household. The system was getting out of control. There was no house building programme, leading to overcrowded accommodation, and there was no management of the housing stock, which left some families receiving housing benefit of more than £100,000.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the reason that housing benefit has gone up is the rising cost of rent in the private sector? Does he not accept that this Government’s policy of trying to force house prices up is putting rents up, which will make the housing benefit problem even worse?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I cannot accept that a doubling of housing benefit to £21 billion is accounted for by the private sector alone. There are other aspects, such as the type of housing we are building. We were building the wrong type of houses—60% of new houses built needed to be for single occupancy, but only 30% were. That is Labour’s legacy. It raises the fundamental question of today’s debate: in these financially tough times, should those on housing benefit be allowed to stay in accommodation with more bedrooms than they really need? This Government say no and Labour says yes, even though it said no in 2008 when we had exactly the same debate on private sector housing, proving that a little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Very briefly; we are eating into other Members’ time.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber for the earlier clarification, given by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), that the local housing allowance was not retrospective. This tax is retrospective and it penalises people for not changing their circumstances.
I welcome the hon. Lady to the debate. It is clear that Labour still has not learned from its mistakes. In the last eight years of government, Labour lived beyond its means. In 2002-03, it spent £26 billion beyond its means. Four years later that rose to £33 billion. In its final year of office, the deficit rose to £156 billion. That always accumulates, which means that by 2010 when Labour departed office we had a debt of more than three quarters of a trillion pounds. Where are these benefits that Opposition Members endorse? Where will that money come from? To date, Labour has refused to support a single reform to the benefit system put forward by the Government. Aside from failing to recognise, first, the need for reform of our complex system, and secondly, the consequences to society in promoting a something-for-nothing culture, Labour has voted against £83 billion-worth of welfare savings introduced by the Government, proving that it has yet to learn the lessons of the past.
Labour owes the taxpayer an explanation as to how it would afford to keep its complex, costly and broken benefit system in place. The challenge is simple. Thanks to the housing shortage, created under Labour, some 400,000 people are in overcrowded housing. Yet there are almost 1 million spare rooms throughout the UK paid for by the taxpayer at a cost of around £0.5 billion a year. This policy better matches our housing stock, but also protects the most vulnerable, such as pensioners, those in foster care, disabled children and those requiring overnight care. They are all exempt, as indeed are those who have served in the armed forces.
Those affected by the policy, as others have made clear, who are living in larger than necessary housing have four choices. First, they can participate in a house swap scheme, which has not really been embraced by all councils. Secondly, they can pay the reduction in housing benefit, which equates to about £14 a week for a room. Thirdly, they can sub-let that room. Finally, they could apply for the hardship scheme, and a couple examples have been given of that. I am pleased to hear the announcement today that if councils run out of that hardship funding, they can apply for more. That is a message that needs to be sent from both sides of the House, to ensure that councils do not run out of this important support.
The policy already exists in the private sector, introduced, as I say, by Labour in 2008. I welcome this policy and the debate, which I hope will help Labour Members to recognise how inaccurate and misleading some of their comments have been. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) is in her place. I have a lot of respect for her, but she spoke eloquently about a council home being a home for life. I cannot agree with that analysis. A council home should be there as a method of support for those trying to get on in life and for those in a difficult period of their life. It should not just be given to somebody as a gift, early on in their lives, never to move away from. That is the distinct difference between the two sides of the House, on which we will have to agree to disagree.
I welcome the policy and the debate, and I look forward to the Minister clarifying some of the many points that have been made by Members on both sides of the Chamber.
I rise to speak on behalf of approximately 2,000 people in my constituency who are affected by this iniquitous and cruel bedroom tax. I have listened to the whole debate, and if anything shows the dividing line between Government and Opposition Members, surely it is this issue. My constituents watching this debate in the hope that the Government will be persuaded to change tack and admit that they have got this wrong will be horrified at just how out of touch Government Members appear to be: not only do they not understand their own policy, but they simply do not understand the impact it will have or how housing benefit works. The notion that people can simply go out and get extra hours of work to pay for the bedroom tax, or deal with the reduction in working tax credits or the fact that wages are not rising, shows just how out of touch the Government are.
The Government are also out of touch because they appear to have no idea of the circumstances in which ordinary people live. Listening to Government Members, one might think there was a swathe of empty rooms across the whole UK, but my constituents who have come to speak to me about the bedroom tax are the grannies who help with the child care and often have the kids at the weekend—[Interruption.] Someone says, “Pensioners.” It might have escaped the Government’s notice, but not all grannies are pensioners yet. My younger sister is a granny, but I am not at that stage quite yet.
There are also the kinship carers, who are not covered in the way foster carers are, particularly those who provide informal care in families that are having difficulties. There are also people trying to do the best they can to bring up their families after relationships break down. One of the cruellest things about this policy is the fact that the needs of children do not appear to have been taken into account at any level whatsoever. How can we say to a child who has been used to living with their mother but going to stay with their father at weekends or during the holidays, “You’re no longer entitled to sleep in a proper bed when you visit.” That is the result of this iniquitous bedroom tax. I wrote to Ministers about that and received a response that seemed completely out of touch with the way families make those arrangements. It is also unacceptable, in my view, simply to suggest that families should take in lodgers. Would Government Members be happy to do that in their family homes?
I do not have time to talk about all the issues, but I want to point out the problems for disabled people. Many disabled people in my constituency took the homes offered to them by the council, even if they were not ideal or in the areas they wanted, because they were on the ground floor and could be adapted for their needs. It makes no sense at all to take them out of a two or three-bedroom flat that has been perfectly well adapted and move them to an area where they will not necessarily have the same care and support systems in place simply because that is what this Government believe is the right way to go about things. It does not make economic sense, and it makes no sense with regard to communities or the provision of social care.
As I said at the outset, I think that there is a clear dividing line here. Some hon. Friends have said that there is no longer any compassionate conservatism, but I am not sure that there ever was. If anything, this debate shows that the Government are out of touch and have no ideas how to solve the problems, and this afternoon they have certainly shown that they simply do not care.
I feel slightly unhappy about being told that I am out of touch. Yes, I was a millionaire by the age of 27, but I was on benefits in 1981 and both of my parents were born in Birmingham council houses, so I understand the importance of social housing and that there is a value in security of tenure. I find it rather sad when, as has happened in Birmingham, people are evicted from their family houses for under-occupying, perhaps because their parents have died. That is sad. However, we find ourselves in a society with problems. A lot of families live in overcrowded conditions. Those people come to see me and I cannot just ignore them. It is not a bedroom tax; it is a bedroom rent. People are paying rent for the spare bedroom. If somebody buys a house and it has an extra bedroom, they pay for it. If somebody rents a property, they pay the rent for the property. If they have a property in the private sector and they are on housing benefit, the local housing allowance sets limits based on the number of bedrooms.
On 19 January 2004, a Labour Minister said:
“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector to enable people in that sector to benefit from the choice and flexibility that the reforms can provide. 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.]
That is in Hansard; anyone can get hold of it.
Several hon. Members
When I am down to two minutes, I will take interventions.
The Labour party in government recognised that there was a problem with pressure on housing. We cannot suddenly magic up 1 million more rooms overnight. The reason there was not a lot of pain when the local housing allowance was introduced is that it did not affect anyone who was already on housing benefit; it only affected new claims. The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) was very good on that point. To be fair, if we applied the same approach now, or had done so back in April, so that this did not affect anyone until they got a new tenancy, nobody would really bother about it. The problem with that is that we have a deficit. [Interruption.] Labour Members seem to forget the deficit, but we need to deal with these issues. However, we have found £180 million of the £500 million savings, so for over a third of people this need have no effect. To get my support, the Government will have to deliver more on discretionary housing payments, because that is the area I am concerned about.
Let me deal with the consultation document. I shall quote from Hansard:
“Yes, it was in the consultation document, but we listened to the consultation responses and recognised that it would be inappropriate to roll it into the social housing sector.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 2 November 2006; c. 453.]
That was the response of the Minister in the debates on the Welfare Reform Bill to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. The reason I know it was said and can confirm it is that I said it.
It was an idea that the Opposition produced when in government because they recognised there was a problem. [Interruption.] I quoted precisely; I do not know what else was said in the debate.
Because of the situation with the bedroom rent, three tenants in my constituency have found a way in which they can all three exchange properties so that no bedroom rent is paid, an overcrowded family has found somewhere comfortable to live, and everybody is happy. The problem is that the council is saying that one of the doors in one of the properties is a bit distorted, so the transfer cannot happen. That is complete nonsense. It is like the nonsense of saying that someone cannot move if there are housing arrears. We had a case like that in Birmingham before the bedroom rent was introduced. People knew beforehand that it was coming in, so they planned for it and arranged transfers to avoid it. We had a case when someone was told they could not move because they were in arrears, and we managed to sort that out.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) asked about people with children in the house accepting lodgers. I have had children for many years, and we have had lodgers. We even had four refugees from Croatia as lodgers. There was a slight problem one day when one lodger used the milk and found that it had been expressed for the baby the previous night—that was a bit of a surprise for the lodger—but we got on with it.
Lodgers are not necessarily strangers. There are four options. The fact is that the Government have changed the rules so that people keep the first £20. If a single man who lives in a three-bedroom flat takes in two lodgers—I deal with such real cases—they can end up £40 a week better off and without any bedroom rent. That would be far better for them financially than their current position. Those arguments need to be put to people so that they can best decide whether they should move in order to get the discretionary housing payment. I emphasise again that I want to maintain the discretionary housing payment, which deals with the issues.
I am not sure how many lodgers the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) keeps, but he certainly seems to be in favour of the principle. The lodgers in his house no doubt put him in a better financial position.
I do not plan to detain the House for long. When the bedroom tax is viewed in an island context, it can be seen for what it really is: an attack on the living standards of the poorest. On an island, the poorest can be almost anyone’s neighbours, friends or relatives. In the social rented sector in my constituency, fuel poverty is between 33% and 61%, depending on how it is measured and counted.
On the island perspective, I am grateful to John Maciver of the social housing landlords’ Hebridean Housing Partnership for supplying me with figures. In Na h-Eileanan an Iar, 188 people are affected by the bedroom tax and there are more than 2,000 properties. On one island, the Hebridean Housing Partnership took over the housing stock from the council a number of years ago, and of the 105 properties, 50% are occupied by single people, but only 20% of the stock is designed for single occupancy, so some people will always be penalised by the bedroom tax. There is no solution on the island to this policy from Westminster and this Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman support Scottish Labour’s proposed Bill in the Scottish Parliament that says that there should be no evictions and that the Scottish Government should provide full funding to Scottish councils for the costs of the bedroom tax?
The hon. Lady should know that the underlying problem is that Scotland has a Government whom it does not elect. If the hon. Lady joined me, we would not be in this situation in the first place.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I have given way once, but I might give way again later.
Importantly, the number of those on the islands who are suffering from the bedroom tax can vary throughout the year as a result of seasonal work. Some people need to move house every six months due to the seasonal nature of employment. To those who say that they should move to other islands, I say that the reality in the Hebrides has always been difficult. Indeed, I was 17 years old before I first crossed the sound of Barra to South Uist. In fact, I spent two years in school in Lewis before I went to South Uist. Communities are distinct and far away from each other. Therefore, a move would be socially isolating for people initially, and of course they would lose whatever employment they had on the original island that they lived on.
To answer that bureaucratic problem by building houses would definitely be inefficient, because the needs and variations of people’s lives change all the time. In fact, the bigger the house, the better in many ways, except for the bureaucratic problem that is being created here.
I will give an example of the difficulties involved in moving from place to place on the islands. I once flew to Stornoway and beside me on the plane was Michael MacKinnon, an elderly gentleman from the island of Vatersay who has since sadly passed on. He was travelling to a hospital appointment and I asked him by way of conversation—in Gaelic, of course—when he had last been to Stornoway. He said it was his first time and, had it not been for his hospital appointment, he would have been very much looking forward to it. I was surprised. Michael was a well-travelled merchant seaman. I said to him, “I suppose you’ve been all over the world, Michael.” “Yes,” he said, “I’ve been to Pitcairn island in the middle of the Pacific 13 times, but not to the other end of the Hebrides.” One thing I can say for Pitcairn island is that it does not have the bedroom tax, although perhaps the Government might want some of my islanders to move there.
That is an illustration of how the bedroom tax can affect local people in the Hebrides. It does not and cannot work. It penalises the poorest and those in our society who circulate money the fastest. Some people have wealth, while others have the cash flow and they have it by necessity.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one solution to the problem would be to offer Scotland the same opportunity as Northern Ireland to exempt all existing tenants from the bedroom tax? I understand his unwillingness to accept the principle of the bedroom tax, but if parties in Northern Ireland can agree to that, surely those in Scotland could agree to provide such assistance to our constituents.
The hon. Gentleman should know that welfare is devolved in Northern Ireland, but I am glad that he supports the principle of devolving welfare to Scotland. In fact, we can devolve everything to Scotland by voting yes on 18 September next year.
The chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, once said that the best form of quantitative easing for Japan about 10 or 20 years ago, when it was going through its economic travails, would be to pile cash in a helicopter and shovel it from above over any Japanese city, down on the citizens below. What is happening at the moment is the opposite of that because the Government are taking money from those who circulate it in the economy. The quickest way to stimulate demand in the economy is to put money into people’s hands; the Government are taking money out of their hands.
The money that people are losing would quickly end up in the hands of small businesses, yet in Scotland alone, £54.5 million has been taken out this year. Trickle-down economics never worked, but hoover-up economics certainly does work. Quantitative easing in this country has been a welfare subsidy of epic proportions to bankers and those who are already rich, yet this afternoon we are discussing how to take even more money from those who can ill afford it.
There are further complications with the bedroom tax. Discretionary housing payments have two important conditions. People cannot claim retrospectively and must apply for a housing transfer, but many people in my island constituency feel that is dishonest and do not want to do it for the simple reason that they do not want to move house. They also know that they might be moved to another island if the policy was to go through to its ultimate logical possibility. Of those 188 people in the Hebrides, only 80 or 90 have so far claimed discretionary housing payments. Hebridean Housing Partnership is in rent arrears, and more worryingly, 20 people have not engaged with, responded to or acknowledged the process at all. They are reckoned to have drink, drugs or mental health problems, and ultimately the tax could end up further destabilising their lives. At the very least—I make this plea to the Department for Work and Pensions —we should allow retrospective claims. Some people are currently trying their best to manage, but I feel that they may fail in their attempts and need support. That support should be retrospective.
Further complications are added by seasonal work, and the small amount that people earn from jobseeker’s allowance while having to pay for essentials such as food and big annual demands such as the TV licence. Losing £10 from 70-odd quid a week is quite a lot and a huge hindrance in life.
Some people watching this debate probably begrudge what other people have, but they should look to countries such as Norway and Denmark where the unemployed do far better, society is far healthier and unemployment is far lower. To those who are still begrudgers I say, “Look at the wealth disparity in the United Kingdom, the fourth most unequal country in the OECD, where sadly the super-rich are getting richer.” That is where the real societal flaws are.
I have known the father of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Mr Di Alexander, for 10 or 15 years, and he has worked in social housing. He is, of course, very proud of his son, but he has stuck to his principles. I strongly admire what he has said about the bedroom tax, which was absolutely spot-on. If we listen to anybody on or connected to the Government Benches, it should be Mr Di Alexander.
I previously opposed this policy not because I think we should necessarily pay money for spare bedrooms, but because the consequences that we have heard about today were highly predictable, and I shall speak about some of them. It is no wonder that we have a crisis in rents and social housing availability when 421,000 social houses were lost under the Labour Government—a truly shameful record.
We have also heard about the different effects of the policy in different parts of the country, and I find myself identifying most with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), given the characteristics of my constituency. Social housing is in reasonably plentiful supply and regeneration is required in many areas, but we are now getting housing blight because of the availability of three-bedroom houses that people do not want to take. Previously, smaller family units were put into those houses, but people will not take them now.
As most hon. Members have said, there is a suitability of stock problem. My constituency made the front page of the newspapers after a calculation that said it would take 37 years to make available one-bedroom accommodation to all those who need it.
The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points. I recognise that situation in Newcastle. Given that Government policy is punishing people for a problem—the stock available—not of their making, will he vote with the Opposition?
I worry that housing policy tends to be dictated from inside the M25. It becomes less appropriate the further away from the M25 that we go.
My constituency has a discretionary housing payments problem. The last figures that I have seen show that there were 1,307 applications, but that only 358 awards were made. That happened because the money ran out, not because the applications were inappropriate.
We also have a one-size-fits-all penalty in the calculation for the amount of the spare room subsidy. In my constituency, the cost of an extra bedroom is about £7, but people are penalised by about £11. Therefore, people who should move from a three-bedroom property to a two-bedroom property get less housing benefit than they would get if they were in a two-bedroom house, which is deeply immoral.
Like many hon. Members, I have campaigned on various issues. I am pleased to welcome the Government’s concessions on foster parents, serving military personnel and disabled children. I also welcome the trebling of discretionary housing payments, but there is a lot of unfinished business. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, made some good points. I would make a plea for the exemption of disabled adults. Children are exempt when they need separate bedrooms for medical reasons. Let us do that for adults, instead of making people go through the demeaning process of applying. In my local council, people have to apply every quarter, and the application form is deeply intrusive.
As the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) has said, many people are perfectly willing to move to right-size accommodation, but it simply does not exist anywhere in their area. In the north of England, we have a shortage of one-bedroom accommodation. In fact, some one-bedroom accommodation is being demolished in my constituency.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful speech. I assume that he has a Labour-run local authority. If it has told him that the money for discretionary housing payments has run out, will he ask it why it has not applied for our additional funding? It appears not to have done so.
I thank the Minister for that response. His announcement of that extra funding is the first I have heard of it. I will ask my local authority why it has not applied.
We need to recognise that some people simply cannot afford right-size accommodation and that it does not exist in their area. The Government should seriously consider a policy of treating those people as willing but unable to move and give them concessions in the system.
In my area, there have been some helpful consequences. I have been thanked by a number of families who have managed, owing to the policy, to get a bigger house in the area where they want to live. One social housing provider I met was surprised by the number of large families moving into their houses from overcrowded private rented accommodation. I do not know why that provider was surprised; surely, we ought to have expected that. Only the week before last, I was in an excellent hostel run by Coatham House, a charity in my constituency for homeless young people. It has said that it has seen a dramatic fall in the number of homeless young people. It put that down to the policy. Hon. Members might think there are bad reasons for that—I can think of those, too—but there might also be good reasons.
Many points have been made in the debate. The hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) mentioned the financial stability of some of the stock transfer social housing providers. Some of them are highly leveraged and threatened by arrears, which will increase when direct payments begin. They could find themselves financially unstable.
I welcome the Government’s efforts to free up the system. One of the first cases that I dealt with as an MP was that of a single man living in a three-bedroom house. He wanted to downsize, but the system was so rigid that he was told that he would be moved to the bottom of the waiting list, with no guarantee of how and when he would get his next social house. Guess what? He did not move. I welcome that the system has, to an extent, been freed up and that exchanges are happening more often.
I welcome the continued commitment to review the policy, as it does need continual review. Despite the views that I have expressed in my speech, it is hard to welcome the hypocrisy evident from the Labour party on this issue. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Order. I am sorry to disappoint the House, but speeches have tended to be at the limit, with lots of interventions taken. I have to reduce the time limit with immediate effect to four minutes, otherwise colleagues will not get in. People do not have to take the full time, but they can.
Dumfries and Galloway council does not have any housing, so in my constituency we depend on three or four registered social landlords. The two biggest social landlords are Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership and Loreburn Housing Association. Opposition Members have been good enough to explain the human consequences of this measure: its impact on disabled people and their carers, and on the access fathers from broken relationships have to their children. While foster carers have been supported, kinship carers have not. For single homeless people in my area, the situation has become very difficult indeed, as no one-bedroom properties are available. I also have to say, in case it has passed people by, that the cost of moving home for the poorest in society comes at a price that many cannot afford to pay.
I have two or three points I would like to raise with the Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who laid out how the local housing allowance came into being. The big difference between what has gone before and what we are faced with is the simple fact that when this legislation came into effect people were trapped—they had nowhere to turn. The idea that 1 million empty bedrooms and 250,000 overcrowded households could all of a sudden be put right is totally wrong. Last year, my Tory-run council wrote to the coalition Government to tell them to rethink the bedroom tax, because one-bedroom properties simply were not available. I have to ask: why do the Government not listen to their own?
The Minister of State, who opened the debate, is consistent—he always comes out with the usual nonsense about it being everyone else’s fault. On the complaint about the inherited position, not once did I hear anyone on the Government Benches talk about a school that we built that they did not want, a hospital that was built that they did not want, or infrastructure we put in that they did not want. Investment was not the problem for this nation—it was the banks. Government Members want to forget that.
I am amazed that we still have this legislation. Whatever lies behind it, there must have been Government targets. Was it about saving money? Seven months in, how much money have the Government saved? Was it about swapping people around in the system to make sure that those who were under-occupying moved out and that those who needed larger homes got them? Has that succeeded? Will the Minister tell us how many families have been able to downsize? How many social tenants have moved into the private sector because no social housing was available? I say: bring forward that review. As we have heard time and again from Government Members, the Bill was introduced because it was populist, and for no other reason. It is about kicking people in society when they are down. That is the true face of compassionate Conservatism.
Much of my speech will be about facts, figures and statistics, but contributions thus far, certainly from the Opposition, have focused on the real impact of this policy on people’s lives. Be they people with disabilities, people with access to children at weekends that they cannot maintain or others—there are many more—these are real people, and this has real consequences for their lives, so this debate is about not just facts, figures and statistics, but how this policy affects people’s lives.
For precisely that reason and because Northern Ireland will be worse affected than any other region of the UK, does the right hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive and political parties there are joining together to prevent this from hurting the vulnerable people of Northern Ireland?