House of Commons
Friday 5 September 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Affordable Homes Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I have not been present on Fridays recently and I had forgotten how popular they can be. Perhaps we should move a motion to do this more often.
It was my good fortune to come top of the MPs’ national lottery for private Members’ Bills, and a great opportunity it was. Just as we have held the Commons prayer that we should be working
“to improve the condition of all mankind”,
I felt that an area of greatest concern in my constituency, and the area of policy that I would like to advance the case for, is that of addressing the desperate need for affordable accommodation of very large numbers of the population throughout the country.
I have been engaged in discussions with many interest groups and many colleagues around the House to seek to advance that cause. Indeed, when my name came out of the hat first, I consulted my constituents and proposed a range of ideas. I listened and was bombarded by a large number of proposals for a private Member’s Bill, and I narrowed them down to three: one on health, one on devolution and the other on housing. Having consulted my constituents, it was clear to me that housing was the most pressing issue they face, especially the lack of affordable housing and the poverty caused as the result of policies that perhaps need to be adjusted to take account of the conditions in which people live.
Having had a range of discussions on different aspects of the Bill—it started quite wide and we have narrowed it down—we have come to a proposal that has three elements. Existing tenants will not be subject to any housing benefit deduction until they have received a reasonable offer of alternative social rented accommodation with the correct number of bedrooms. Tenants who need an extra bedroom for genuine medical reasons or whose homes are substantially adapted will not have their housing benefit reduced. Clause 3, as people will have noticed, will encourage a systematic review of the Government’s efforts to provide affordable housing and, in particular, intermediate market housing.
I consulted the Public Bill Office, and the Clerks were enormously helpful to me in drafting the Bill. They assure me that it meets all the requirements of a private Member’s Bill, including that its primary purpose clearly is not to spend money. Indeed, in relation to its housing benefit implications, there is a lot of speculation about the likely impact of the Government’s current policy and their policy as amended by the Bill. I am very much reassured that the Clerks have given me that support.
I mentioned that a number of other measures were originally in the first draft of the Bill, including placing a cap on the number of second homes by introducing a new planning use class. In discussions with a wide range of people, I could not get sufficient support for that measure, but I am keen to advance that policy in other ways. Another measure was a “use it or lose it” approach to deal with the problem of large numbers of developers who land-bank, or hold back development land, which has the effect of driving up development land prices and therefore the ability to build affordable homes.
I have promoted intermediate market housing for many years. Indeed, in a professional capacity before I was first elected, I was engaged in that activity and work. I am keen to ensure that we have an opportunity to develop a new lower rung of the housing ladder to advance that case. Clause 3, largely through tentative steps, encourages the Government to look more urgently at the opportunities that people need to address that issue.
This is the first coalition Government for many years, and I have personally taken the strong view that coalition should be relatively easy to do. We should simply get on and deliver the things on which we agree and seek compromise in those areas where we disagree; but I am personally a strong parliamentarian and I believe that, where coalition parties fail to achieve compromise, it is better to resolve the matter here on the merits of the debate, rather than through backroom deals and matters that are not open to debate in the House.
Will the hon. Lady allow me to make this point, if she does not mind?
In advancing the Bill in the form in which it now appears on Second Reading, I know that there have been a number of discussions between all parties. I ask the Minister whether he will confirm in responding to the debate that collective responsibility will be suspended on this private Member’s Bill.
The hon. Lady will have an opportunity to intervene on me in a moment. If collective responsibility has been suspended, I hope that she and her colleagues and, indeed, all hon. Members will have the opportunity to reach a judgment on the merits of the Bill.
I have had a wide range of discussions, and when the Bill is considered in Committee, we will doubtless have an opportunity to do that. I was disappointed that, having sought Ministers’ co-operation to advance the Bill, I was told that I would not have that co-operation. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Clearly, in terms of being able to advance a discussion on matters relating to how the Government perceive the effect that the measures in the Bill would have on public expenditure, I would be very keen to have that discussion with the Minister. I certainly hope that when the Bill is supported—as, indeed, I believe it will be because hon. Members will be persuaded by the strength of the arguments today—we may have the opportunity to have those discussions before the debates in Committee.
No, I will not give way. I am well aware—it is quite evident from the large number of Members who are here—that many Members wish to speak in the debate, and I therefore do not intend to speak for long, to enable as many Members as possible to take part.
I can understand the rationale that the Government have advanced for implementing the regulations.
I am certainly not going to give way to the hon. Lady again.
I can entirely understand the rationale for advancing the regulations: to apply the regulations to the social rented sector that previously applied only to the private rented sector. As a rationale, that is entirely understandable. The Government certainly had an opportunity to see how those regulations would bed in. The purpose of the Bill is to reflect on the results of interim assessments of how the new regulations have fared since their implementation on 1 April last year.
We have now had long enough to be clear about how the regulations have an impact. Therefore, it is clear that if we are to ensure that private and social tenants are treated equally, yet the vulnerable are properly protected, we have as a result of the interim evaluation commissioned by the Government evidence of how the policy has fared. I propose, therefore, that the rules be changed so that existing tenants are not penalised when they cannot move into smaller accommodation because it is not available in their locality, or if they have a serious medical reason for requiring an additional room.
The findings, which have been widely reported, studied and understood, show that, certainly in the first six months of the implementation of the regulations, only 4.5% of affected claimants were reported to have downsized to a smaller social sector property. The researchers found little evidence of claimants finding work, increasing their pay or taking in a lodger, as the Government anticipated when they introduced the regulations. That needs to be taken into account as well. Tenants affected were making cuts and incurring debts, with 57% of them reporting cutting back on what they deemed to be household essentials.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the interim evaluation proved everybody right in what they said about how exactly the regulations would work out? The only people who were wrong were the Government and the Liberal Democrats who supported them.
I urge the hon. Gentleman to study the voting record. The Bill proposes moderate and reasonable measures that should receive the support of all Members from all parties because they are based on the evidence. Perhaps some people had remarkable foresight about how the regulations would fare, as the hon. Gentleman suggests he had, and we can look at Members’ voting record. Labour introduced similar regulations concerning a bedroom tax in the private rented sector. We have to reflect on the evidence and consider the consequences, and the Bill is simply a moderate and reasonable measure introducing new regulations based on that evidence.
The hon. Gentleman said that this is a reasonable and moderate measure, but on his website he says:
“Naturally, if I succeed at Second Reading on Friday, I hope I can beef up the Bill with amendments at Committee Stage”.
So, in fact, this is not the whole story. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what he would really like to do with this Bill?
There is nothing on this issue that I have withheld from the public domain. Indeed, I have already said to the House that in its original form the Bill contained a wider range of measures, particularly in the clauses that I have mentioned, and I had a number of other proposals that I wanted to discuss with Members. The whole purpose of the Committee stage of a Bill is to consider whether there is further evidence that might advance the case. This is, in any case, a developing area of policy, and it develops on the basis of the evidence. I have long had a deep concern about it, and all I seek to do is ensure that the Government get it right.
The hon. Gentleman has been consistent on the subject of this Bill—let us be quite clear about that. Does he agree that the Government’s measures placed a burden on the needy and disabled in this country, and the chickens are now coming home to roost for the Government?
I assume that that remark is directed at those who sit on the Front Bench today.
I want to make a further point about the evidence from the interim evaluation. It is clear that total rent arrears held by landlords increased by 14% in the first six months, and the National Housing Federation says that two thirds—67%—of affected tenants are finding it difficult to afford to pay the rent, compared with less than a third of non-affected tenants. Affected tenants are four times more likely to say that they need to borrow money and therefore go into further debt than they were before 1 April 2013, when the measures were introduced. The evidence that is now available helps us, and I certainly hope that it helps the Government, to consider how best to respond to the issue. That is why I strongly urge all Members of the House to support the Second Reading of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted the House to make an informed decision, so I thought it would be helpful if I shared with hon. Members in all parts of the House the Government’s estimate of the costings of the Bill, whose drafting goes rather wider than the spare room subsidy. The Government estimate that the Bill would cost about £1 billion of public expenditure, so I would be grateful if he let the House know what spending cuts or tax increases he intends to put before it when it makes its decision.
That is most interesting because the Minister was not prepared to share that estimate—that speculative figure—with me before today’s debate. Looking at the consequences of the regulations, we see that if people had no other purpose in their life than simply to be the stimulus for the workings of the housing benefit system, and no say in how or where they lived, there would be no savings for the Government in any case. If the purpose of Government policy is to ensure the proper, efficient and effective use of the social housing resource with no under-occupation, so that every cubic centimetre of every social property is fully occupied, there will be no saving in housing benefit.
My point is that the policy is putting pressure on vulnerable people and they are expected to go into debt, and indeed the evidence shows that they are doing so as a consequence of the policy. That is the reasoning behind these modest and reasonable measures, which are based on the evidence. We can certainly debate the Minister’s speculative estimate of the cost. In any case, when the Government first proposed the measures, they said that they would make savings of £500 million, and they have had to revise that down again and again. We must take into account the number of tenants who have had to move into the private rented sector, where rents are higher, and the number of disabled people who have had to move, requiring adaptations to be made at taxpayers’ expense.
There are elements of the Government’s estimates that we have not seen properly, and I would like to scrutinise the evidence that the Minister believes he has for them. He simply stood up and spouted one figure without any evidence. Perhaps when he winds up the debate, we will hear more about that figure, and I hope that he will come and talk to me before the Bill goes into Committee.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Bill. He has much support from Labour Members. May I take him back to his remarks about the legislation introduced by the Labour Government on private sector housing and the subject of those who had desperately to look to the private sector for rented accommodation? Will he please correct the record, because that legislation was not retrospective? Moreover, everyone was included in it. There were no exceptions, so pensioner households were included as well. That legislation, which the previous Labour Government put through, made no exceptions for anyone, so it is fundamentally different.
I acknowledge that it is different. I do not wish to be taken down a cul-de-sac of an argument, but regulations that were not retrospective in a sector that is characterised by six-month shorthold tenancies were not going to be non-retrospective for very long.
There is not a person on the Government Benches who does not care as much as the hon. Gentleman for vulnerable people. There is no doubt that there are huge pressures on housing in Cornwall, but the evidence shows that Cornwall council is using its discretionary housing allowance to help the most vulnerable people in our society. In fact, it has not even spent all the money that is available to help the very same people whom he and I care about, so I really cannot accept that people with disabilities and people who absolutely need help are not able to get it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it gives me the opportunity to say that the discretionary housing payment allowance to local authorities is helpful, and it is clearly important given the way in which the Government introduced these regulations. However, the rules attached to it make it extremely difficult to apply it willy-nilly for anyone who says, “I don’t like this tax—could you please just cover it for me?” It does not apply in that way, and it is wrong to imply that it does.
Some Conservative Members are saying that they really care about this sector, so let us look back at the DNA of the Conservative party and the last time we had the opportunity to look at the state’s relationship to under-occupation of property. My hon. Friend will understand this from a Cornish perspective. She will remember that the last time the Conservatives held power on their own, they introduced a 50% council tax rate for second homes. That represented the state spending hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money every year to enable the wealthy to own second homes, when thousands of families in constituencies such as mine could not afford their first. There was not just under-occupation but un-occupation of properties that were essential to local communities. I hope that the Conservatives have moved on from that policy and, as a result of their association with the Liberal Democrats, have been prepared to moderate their line in relation to the application of public money and under-occupation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing a Bill that I hope will be the first step in getting rid of this pernicious tax. May I take him back to the Minister’s intervention on sharing the information about the so-called £1 billion cost of these proposals? If the hon. Gentleman is able to have discussions with his colleagues in the Government on the costs, will he make sure that he brings the National Audit Office and the Office for National Statistics into that debate, because we have to talk about the unintended costs in social, health and economic terms of what this tax has created? Those are the issues that we should be costing—not just the straightforward black-and-white costs, which I think the Minister is completely wrong about.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman has put his name down to speak, so I am sure we will be ready for that when it comes.
With regard to the changes in relation to disability, the clause is self-evident and I do not need to explain the reasoning for those measures. The provision about a reasonable offer of alternative accommodation is entirely reasonable. In a constituency such as mine, anyone engaging in the desperate weekend effort to try to find alternative accommodation through the Homechoice register would be very lucky, if they are seeking to downsize, to be able to move within a radius of 40 miles. If they live on the Isles of Scilly, there is no chance that they will be able to stay there. People who are seeking to downsize clearly cannot do so within their own local community, as would be reasonable. Therefore, as a result of moving, they will lose their ties with their school, their job, their social network, and their family. It is important and reasonable that we address these issues, and that is what the Bill does.
I am conscious of the time. I have taken a large number of interventions, so I will not take any more in order that I can bring my remarks to a conclusion as quickly as possible.
In the light of the evidence, we should try to steer away from implying that it is somehow the fault of the vulnerable that they are living in under-occupied accommodation. In fact, we need to look carefully at the approach of successive Governments in the past who have failed to build the right proportion and number of the right size of accommodation to ensure that we make sufficient decent properties available. We need to recognise the unintended consequences of this regulation, particularly for those living in expensively adapted disabled accommodation. Those costs will have to be paid all over again if we force them to move to alternative accommodation when there is a lack of reasonable alternatives. The mere fact that someone is poor does not mean they are any less entitled to a stable family home than if they were better-off.
When I was engaged in the sector before I came to this place, I used to make recommendations as a result of needs assessments. I tried to make sure that we developed in social housing ranges of property that met the future needs of the local community, not necessarily just immediate need, so I would always err on the side of three and four-bedroom properties. The marginal cost at the time of development is only 3% or 4%, and that provides flexibility in future, particularly in small communities. It is essential that we have that. The problem with the regulation as it stands is that it sends the wrong signals to social housing providers so they will build too many small properties, creating a legacy for future generations that continues to put pressure on families in social housing. Personally, I find that unacceptable.
I have said that I will not take any further interventions because of the time I have taken—I apologise.
Clause 3 relates to intermediate market housing. I am keen to make sure that we advance the case for intermediate market housing, which I think is self-evident. I hope that I can have discussions with Government about this measure. It is reasonable to undertake an evaluation of what is going on in that sector and to try to create tools to enable housing associations and community land trusts to construct a new lower rung on the housing ladder.
Having taken a large number of interventions to accommodate those who wished to make them, it only remains for me to say that I believe the measure is reasonable and based on the evidence—I took account of the evidence of the interim evaluation—and I urge all hon. Members from across all parties to support the Bill on Second Reading.
May I at the outset draw attention to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
I am very pleased to speak in support of the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on seizing the opportunity of his good fortune in being drawn in first place in the ballot to introduce a Bill that will have a significant impact on the living standards and housing prospects of a substantial number of our fellow citizens. The House should warmly welcome this serious Bill, and I applaud his decision to bring it in.
As the hon. Gentleman made clear, the Bill has two main purposes: first, to limit the circumstances in which social housing tenants are subject to deductions in their housing benefit or universal credit because of the impact of the bedroom tax; and secondly, to encourage the development and take-up of low-cost home ownership and other intermediate housing market options to assist people in need of housing who are unlikely to qualify for social tenancies but cannot afford the often prohibitive costs of housing for sale on the open market. I support both objectives, although in several respects I would like the provisions to go further. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman has made clear his own inclination to go beyond the specific measures, but the Bill as presented to the House is a good start in the right direction, and it deserves our support. I will take the two main objectives in turn.
I applaud the three proposed limitations on the impact of the bedroom tax, which is one of the harshest measures introduced by the present Government. The bedroom tax was misconceived from the outset, being promoted on a false—indeed, one might say fraudulent—premise that the objective was to encourage better use of the country’s social housing stock. It was misconceived in that there was no way that the measure could achieve its supposed objective of prompting tenants under-occupying social tenancies to move into smaller homes because the supply of smaller homes available to accommodate them was hopelessly inadequate. Social housing providers and local authorities presented such evidence to the Government time and again when they proposed the bedroom tax, but the Government ignored all the clear evidence that there was simply not a sufficient supply of smaller homes to make it possible for people who would be penalised to move into smaller accommodation.
On that point, I can give the example of the Ravenscroft Re-build Housing Co-operative in my constituency. At my surgery last week, two ladies told me that because of how it is funded, the rent for a two-bedroom property is £54.50 a week and the rent for a three-bedroom property is £56 a week, while there are no smaller properties within the co-operative and there is a waiting list of one. If they moved to social housing—say, a one-bedroom flat—the rent would be between £70 and £80 a week, which makes a complete nonsense of the purpose of the policy in the first place.
My right hon. Friend’s point is absolutely valid. The policy is based on extremely unproven and in many cases very suspect assumptions. The idea that people eligible for housing benefit will benefit either themselves or the public purse by moving out of accommodation costing £55 a week into accommodation costing £70 seems absurd. That, however, is the consequence of the bedroom tax as it is currently constituted. The Government have made it clear that they expect people to look for alternative options in the private rented sector, even though that sector is in general hugely more expensive than social housing. There are a whole series of contradictions at the heart of this policy.
Like my right hon. Friend, I absolutely welcome the Bill. Does he agree that from the start there has been a problem about the definition of under-occupation? If someone is disabled and needs a spare room, perhaps to keep their oxygen cylinders in, they are not under-occupying their property.
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. The definitional issues about what constitutes under-occupation have bedevilled the policy right from the outset. We all know of people who have medical needs that mean they require an extra room or spare bedroom, and of those who for a variety of disability reasons cannot share a bedroom with the partner with whom they are assumed to be able to share. We also know the basic human wish of individuals after a relationship breakdown to have a spare room so that their children can come to stay with them. The appalling way in which the Government have ignored these real human concerns and have imposed rules that have a harsh impact without taking account of such issues is one of the greatest condemnations of the whole policy.
I intend to make some progress, because many hon. Members want to speak. I may give way later, but for the moment I intend to make some progress.
I have made it clear that I regard the premise on which the policy was promoted as fraudulent because the Government’s real objective was to cut £500 million of public expenditure out of housing benefit. As the hon. Member for St Ives has clearly said, that could not be achieved if the policy’s ostensible objective—to encourage movement by tenants in social housing into smaller accommodation—was successful, because there would be no saving in public expenditure. The Government have been in the tortuous position of trying to justify the policy on the basis of making better use of the social housing stock when in practice they were after cuts in public expenditure that could not be delivered if the ostensible objective was met.
The right hon. Gentleman has made the point that some people in social housing provided by local councils want a spare room to enable their children or friends to stay. We all recognise that that is the case, but his Government changed the rules about that for the thousands and thousands of people in private accommodation in every constituency. Why should there be one rule for one lot of people and another rule for another lot? It is rank hypocrisy.
The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) very forcefully made the point that the policy introduced by the previous Labour Government was not retrospective and did not penalise people on the basis of their existing circumstances. Quite simply, given the higher cost—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman who asked the question would like to listen. He will know that private rented housing is generally very much more expensive than social housing. Social housing is allocated by landlords on the basis of how many bedrooms people need. If people who take private rented housing—they are not subject to allocation, but can choose their property—were able to select much more expensive properties that are larger than they need, that in itself would be reasonable grounds for a restriction. However, that applies only when people move into such housing, not retrospectively. Finally, I put it to him that if he and the Government were really concerned to make better and more efficient use of under-occupied social housing, they would not have exempted elderly people because it is predominantly that group whose properties are under-occupied. That point absolutely goes to the heart of the process: this is not about better use of the social housing stock; this is about trying to make cuts in public expenditure, which has been the Government’s objective from the outset. I now want to make some progress.
This whole ghastly process, which has caused anxiety, misery and hardship on a very large scale to hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, was based on a false premise, without any proper evidence to justify what was done. It was a truly dreadful example of the worst type of policy making. Ideally, the whole policy should be consigned to the dustbin immediately, and it will be if the Labour party forms the Government after the next general election.
In the meantime, the hon. Member for St Ives has given us an opportunity significantly to limit its negative impact by restricting its application in three specific ways. The first way is by excluding cases where significant adaptations have been made to a property to meet the needs of a disabled tenant or a close relative who lives in the house. Quite why the Government did not accept the need for such an amendment from the outset is difficult to understand. It is clearly wasteful of public expenditure to drive disabled people out of properties that have been adapted for their needs if, as a consequence, they move into unadapted properties that have to be adapted at considerable expense to make them fit for them to live in. That is yet another illustration of the perversity of the whole policy. The exemption is long overdue and will remedy one of the blatant injustices and endemic nonsenses that are inherent in the bedroom tax policy.
Secondly, an exemption is proposed for tenants and close relatives who are in receipt of disability living allowance or personal independence payments and who, because of their disability, are not able to share a bedroom with someone with whom, under the bedroom tax regulations, they would be expected to share a bedroom. Again, that is a sensible, humane exemption that ought to have been agreed from the outset. Instead, the Government argued that discretionary housing payment could be made in such cases, ignoring three principal objections.
First, not everyone who might qualify for discretionary housing payment will apply for it. The Government’s own review has demonstrated that that is the case. Secondly, not every local authority will approve DHP in all appropriate cases. Thirdly, the DHP regime is temporary. The Government have not confirmed that it will continue to be available beyond 2014-15, despite being pressed by the Work and Pensions Committee to give such a guarantee. It is far better to exempt those who are in receipt of DLA or PIP from the bedroom tax than to depend on the vagaries of DHP.
I do, however, have an anxiety about the precise wording of clause 2(1)(b). I have mentioned this point to the hon. Member for St Ives and I hope that, if necessary, the provision can be amended in Committee. As hon. Members will know, there are two levels of bedroom tax: it is 14% when the tenant is deemed to have one bedroom more than is strictly required and 25% when the tenant is deemed to be occupying two or more bedrooms more than they need. The exemption in the Bill is qualified by clause 2(1)(b)(v), so that it does not apply when the tenant has two or more bedrooms more than is strictly needed, even when the tenant has established that he or she cannot share a bedroom and so needs one bedroom more than their strict entitlement. The provision appears, therefore, to leave the tenant exposed to a 25% benefit reduction in such cases, rather than the more limited 14% reduction, which would appear to be fairer. I may be wrong in seeing that as a potential loophole that needs closing, and I would be delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman if that is the case. If not, I hope that he will consider an amendment in Committee.
I want to correct for the record a factual point that the right hon. Gentleman made about future funding. In the autumn statement in 2013, the Chancellor announced that an extra £40 million would be made available in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to ensure that discretionary housing payment for those affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy would be maintained. The right hon. Gentleman said that no such commitment had been made. I just wanted to ensure that the facts were put on the record.
I immediately withdraw my comment if that is the case. I was working from the Library briefing dated 3 September—so it is very recent—which indicates that no such commitment has been given. I apologise if that is not the case, but I was speaking in good faith on the basis of the latest available Library briefing.
Thirdly, we come to the last and most far-reaching exemption. Clause 2(1)(c) exempts tenants from liability to the bedroom tax when neither their landlord nor the local authority, in cases where they are not council tenants,
“has made a reasonable offer of alternative accommodation.”
That addresses the appalling unfairness by which tenants who cannot move into smaller accommodation because their landlord or the local authority does not have sufficient homes to provide that option still end up having their benefit cut.
The DWP’s own evaluation admits that in the first six months of the bedroom tax, only 4.5% of affected tenants were able to downsize. Even though the figure subsequently rose to 19%, the DWP still confirmed that social landlords
“had not yet been able to accommodate most of those who wanted to move to a smaller home”.
On those figures, we know that less than 10% of those who are affected and who want to move are able to do so because of a lack of alternative accommodation.
It is a common-sense amendment to stop penalising people who have no opportunity to move into smaller accommodation and so avoid the impact of the bedroom tax. It is a long overdue amendment and, once again, a far better safeguard than the hope of getting discretionary housing payment.
I am finding the right hon. Gentleman’s comments deeply offensive. The social landlords to whom I spoke this summer, when I was finding evidence of what is happening under this policy, treat their tenants with respect, dignity and compassion. The professional housing officers, who do such a difficult job so well, use discretionary housing allowance and the powers that they have to ensure that tenants are treated well. I urge the right hon. Gentleman not to be so offensive to hard-working housing officers up and down the country.
I have to say to the hon. Lady that the hundreds of thousands of people who are unfairly penalised by the bedroom tax find it an offensive policy. I in no way withdraw my remarks about the culpability of the Government she supports for introducing such an ill-conceived and, in many ways, fraudulent policy.
We come now to the second part of the Bill. Clause 3 addresses a very different but also very important housing need. We are all well aware of the huge constraints facing people who aspire to own a home, but who are squeezed out by the astronomical house prices in most parts of the country or by their inability to raise the necessary deposit to qualify for a mortgage. The option of shared ownership, shared equity or other discounted sub-market sale schemes has been an important, albeit not yet widely available, route into home ownership for people in such circumstances. Developing such options and parallel intermediate market rental schemes also has the merit of reducing the pressure on social housing waiting lists, which are, as we all know, under huge pressure because of the acute shortage of affordable housing in most parts of the country.
The irony of the current situation is that, despite the obvious logic of such low-cost home ownership and intermediate rented housing schemes, and the evidence from so many social housing providers and others that such options are popular and in high demand, they have not yet been developed on a sufficient scale to make an impact on housing needs. That is the background to clause 3, which requires the Secretary of State to carry out a review of the availability of such arrangements, the need for financial instruments to support them, the case for intermediate housing options and some of the obstacles and impediments to the expansion of the sector. It is only a report, but if it acts as a catalyst to stimulate increased activity in this section of the market, it will be worthwhile and should certainly be supported.
I know, from talking to the hon. Member for St Ives a month or so ago when he was framing the Bill, that he would have liked to go further. He was interested in promoting a new financial regime to help overcome some of the practical obstacles that cause difficulties when shared owners seek to sell their home and move on, as well as in helping the development of community land trusts. Those are worthwhile objectives and I hope that he will press for them, whether by tabling amendments in Committee or seeking assurances from Ministers. However, given the constraints facing private Members’ Bills, particularly in a Session that will end sooner than most because of the general election, I understand why he has taken the cautious path of limiting the provisions of the Bill.
In conclusion, this is a Bill that meets very real social and housing needs. It is a worthwhile Bill that addresses serious injustices and that deserves the support of the House on Second Reading.
It is always a genuine pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). We have both been Housing Ministers in our time, and I concede that he was always a genuine expert on housing and local government policy.
I will start by focusing on the cost of today’s Bill. Listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech and some of the interventions from Labour Members, I reminded myself—I thought I might have forgotten—that there was an agreement earlier this year to introduce a welfare cap. Such are the wonders of modern technology, that even I can now google “welfare cap” on my BlackBerry, and I am reminded by the BBC that on 26 March this year—
I am. I am quoting from the BBC. I can read. It states:
“MPs approve annual welfare cap in Commons vote.”
[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would rather I did not read this and remind the House of the reality, but I think we ought to share it:
“MPs have overwhelmingly backed plans to introduce an overall cap on the amount the UK spends on welfare each year. Welfare spending, excluding the state pension and some unemployment benefits, will be capped next year at £119.5 billion. The idea, put forward by Chancellor George Osborne in last week’s Budget, would in future see limits set at the beginning of each Parliament. With Labour supporting the idea, the measure was approved in the House of Commons by 520 to 22 votes…The cap will include spending on the vast majority of benefits, including pension credits, severe disablement allowance, incapacity benefits, child benefit, both maternity and paternity pay, universal credit and housing benefit…Under the proposed system, if a government wanted to spend more on one area of the welfare state it would have to compensate by making cuts elsewhere, to stay within the overall cap.”
Let me finish this point and then I will gladly give way to the hon. Lady.
My hon. Friend the Minister intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) to say that the Government and Department have costed this Bill at £1 billion. Could that calculation and the arithmetic that supports it be put in a written answer in Hansard, and the figures placed in the Library so that we can all see them? This is important because it follows a decision the whole House took overwhelmingly earlier this year that if this Bill for example, costs £1 billion, then £1 billion of cuts must be made elsewhere in the welfare budget.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can help us. The Government’s original estimate of the saving to the taxpayer of introducing the bedroom tax was £490 million. Today apparently, with a suspiciously round figure, the cost of getting rid of the bedroom tax would be £1 billion. How can that be possible?
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives sought to lull us all into a sense of reasonableness by asserting that this was just a Bill to tidy up and amend the spare room subsidy. It is clear, however, from the comments of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, that the real intention of those who support this Bill is to remove the spare room subsidy completely, so the purpose of the Bill is not what my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said; it has a completely different purpose.
My fundamental point is still valid. If this Bill costs £1 billion, then given the welfare cap—which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and pretty much all Labour Members voted for earlier this year—the consequences of enacting it will mean that £1 billion must be saved from somewhere else in the welfare budget.
I had not intended to intervene, but perhaps I can help to clear up the point. The cost of reversing the removal of the spare room subsidy is around £0.5 billion, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) confirmed. I spoke about the cost of the Bill because, whether the hon. Gentleman knows this or not, the Bill as drafted goes much wider than the removal of the spare room subsidy and fundamentally changes the way housing benefit is calculated—for example, it removes deductions for other people living in the household. That adds a further £500 million to the cost of the Bill. Members need to know that when they decide whether they will vote for it.
May I invite my hon. Friend to intervene on me one more time to clarify and confirm this important point? Am I right in thinking that as a consequence of the welfare cap, whatever this Bill costs, whether it be £0.5 billion or £1 billion, that money must be saved and found somewhere else in the welfare budget?
I heard one of the right hon. Gentleman’s colleagues on the radio this morning saying that there is no problem for disabled people and others affected by this because discretionary housing payments would cover it. Leaving aside the fact that I know full well that such payments do not cover everyone, if they did, it would balance out anyway. Why incur the additional administrative costs, as well as putting people through the anxiety of applying for discretionary housing benefits, if his colleagues think that the money is there anyway? Why not simply exempt those people and make it much simpler?
The right hon. Gentleman should not let the Minister escape the question he was asked: will he put those figures in the Library so that we can see how that calculation of £1 billion has been made? We will then see whether those figures are real. Labour did agree to a cap on the welfare bill, but there are many other ways of bringing that down, such as getting employers to pay proper wages, bringing down unemployment, and many other things.
Having been in the House for nearly a third of a century, I implicitly trust what those on the Treasury Bench say. If the Minister says that the cost of the Bill will be £1 billion, I am sure that it will be and that he will be able to demonstrate to the House how he has come to that figure. The fundamental point, which I think we are all agreed on, is that whatever the Bill costs, whether £0.5 billion or £1 billion, that sum must be found somewhere else in the welfare budget. We cannot simply come to the House and seek to spend taxpayers’ money without that having consequences. Given that everyone has pretty much signed up to the welfare cap, one consequence is having to make savings elsewhere in the welfare budget.
When I first saw the Bill, one of the policy conundrums for me was why the previous Labour Government introduced almost identical proposals for tenants in the private rented sector—[Interruption.] I will come on to this in some detail, don’t you worry! Why did they think that it was appropriate to treat tenants on housing benefit in social housing differently from tenants on housing benefit in the private rented sector? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda, who is probably one of the greatest chunterers in the House, says that it was not introduced retrospectively. Given the length of the average private rented tenancy, if his best point is that there is somehow a distinction because shorthold assured tenancies usually run for six months it is not a very good point.
I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman is talking utter Baldrydash. First, the truth of the matter is that the first measures on size criteria were introduced by a Conservative Government in 1989. Secondly, the Labour Government never introduced any retrospective measure. Thirdly, but far more important, the key point about social housing is that it is allocated on the basis of need. Our measure was completely different.
One thing I will miss when I eventually leave the House is the hon. Gentleman’s charm. I suspect I will not miss it for long, but I will miss it.
I looked back in detail at the local housing allowance legislation, which was introduced for new claimants living in the deregulated private sector from 7 April 2008. Following the Social Security Act 1986, the housing benefit scheme was introduced in April 1988. As the House knows, housing benefit is a means-tested benefit administered by local authorities. It is paid to eligible tenants who live in the social and private rented sectors. Entitlement to housing benefit is calculated by comparing the needs and resources of the household, taking the liability for rent payments into account in calculating household net income. Before local housing allowance was introduced, private sector tenants also claimed housing benefit.
On 17 October 2002, the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), my county colleague, who was then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, announced plans for a new form of housing benefit that could no longer be directly linked to rent. He described the plans as
“the biggest reform in Housing Benefit since the benefit began.”
One characteristic of housing benefit reforms is that Ministers always say that their reform is the biggest since the benefit began, but he did seek to make significant savings.
The new approach was introduced in nine pathfinder areas from November 2003 and was extended to a further nine areas from April 2005. At the time, this is how the Department for Work and Pensions described the aims and objectives of the local housing allowance:
“Local Housing Allowance…is the cornerstone of the Government’s Housing Benefit reform programme which aims to simplify Housing Benefit and ensure it supports the wider objectives for welfare reform.”
Most hon. Members are sufficiently savvy to recognise the phrase
“ensure it supports the wider objectives for welfare reform”
as Treasury-speak for making public sector savings. That is exactly what the Labour Government sought to do. The Department for Work and Pensions website at the time said:
“The fundamental aims of the LHA scheme are to promote…Fairness…LHA bases the maximum amount paid to tenants on the size, composition and location of the household. Benefit will no longer be based on actual rents but on median levels of rent within localities.”
I assume the right hon. Gentleman wants savings in the housing benefit bill. Rents are much higher in the private rented sector, yet that sector is growing, partly as a result of the bedroom tax. Does he accept that the bedroom tax pushes people who are in cheaper social housing into more expensive private housing, which results in a greater call on the housing benefit bill?
The hon. Lady is missing the point I seek to make, which is that the Labour Government, whom she supported, introduced almost identical provisions for tenants in the private rented sector, and there seems to be no reason why tenants in the private rented sector should be treated differently from social housing tenants.
My right hon. Friend makes a compelling case. Does he agree that the measures the Government are taking to stimulate housing supply, and the increase in the housing supply, will help to keep private rented sector rents in check, notwithstanding the fact that more people might seek smaller accommodation within the private rented sector?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I suspect other hon. Members will enlarge upon the fact that, under Governments of both parties, new social housing has tended to be a planning windfall gain from new house building. Under the Labour Government, very little new housing was built. In Banbury and Bicester and throughout my constituency, more new housing is going up—as a consequence, new social housing is going up—than for a very long time. He is correct that that leads to new social tenancies.
The right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that the average number of homes built per year during the lifetime of the Labour Government was 145,000. The lowest number in any one year was 124,000. The current Government have not completed 124,000 homes in any single year they have been in office, so it is simply not true that more housing is being built than was built under the previous Government.
The right hon. Gentleman is a little selective in his use of figures. The previous Government were in office for 13 years, and had they not built houses in all those years, we would have been in serious difficulty. As a consequence of the economic mess they got the country into, during their final years in office and during the early part of the recession—the hangover of the recession overlapped with our being elected—the construction industry was in dire straits. I am glad to say that, wherever I go in my patch, I see signs saying “Bricklayers wanted” outside building sites. The construction industry tells me that it finds it very difficult to get the people with the skills it needs because the building boom, with new housing going up, is running apace, thanks largely to the policies pursued by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in turning the economy around.
I should get back to the central point to which I wish to draw the House’s attention. The experience of the pathfinder areas of the local housing allowance led to the previous Government legislating for a national roll-out from 7 April 2008. The local housing allowance measure was contained in the Welfare Reform Act 2007 and associated regulations.
I am sure the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to make her own speech in her own time.
Local housing allowance was rolled out nationally for new claimants in the deregulated private sector from 7 April 2008. The Library note makes it clear that local housing allowance
“is paid at the standard rate to the tenant based on the size of the accommodation they are deemed to need, e.g. a couple with no children would receive the LHA based on a one-bedroom property.”
I suspect that that is exactly the same provision as now applies to tenants in social housing.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the other side of the coin of the spare room subsidy is that it addresses not only under-occupancy, but over-occupancy? It allows families previously overcrowded in unsuitable accommodation to move into larger properties vacated by families previously over-provided for.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point.
So much did the Labour Government think their policy would work that they were going to allow tenants to retain up to £15 a week in surplus benefit, if they could make sufficient savings on their rent. We might not remember it now, however, but as part of the 2009 Budget, they announced that the local housing allowance would be amended from April 2010 to remove that provision:
“The Local Housing Allowance…was introduced in April 2008, and costs have exceeded the planned expenditure for this policy. To bring the cost into line with what is affordable, whilst still ensuring all recipients can afford their rent, the Budget announces that from April 2010 there will no longer be scope for anyone to receive more LHA than they have to pay in rent. Existing claimants will move onto the new arrangements on the anniversary of their claim.”
That makes it absolutely clear that the last Labour Government introduced these changes in housing benefit for tenants in the private rented sector entirely, solely and totally to save money and reduce the housing benefit bill.
The effect of the proposal was summarised thus:
“All new customers claiming Housing Benefit in the deregulated private sector on or after 5 April 2010 would not be entitled to any excess benefit over their contractual rent…Existing customers, including those in the former LHA Pathfinder areas, who are currently entitled to an excess payment of up to £15, would see a reduction in their benefit when their claims are reviewed, usually on the anniversary date of their claim.”
Contrary to the blandishments of the hon. Member for Rhondda, that change was retrospective. A lot of people who thought they would be better off by £15 a week suddenly discovered, as a consequence of that Budget, that that money had been taken away from them.
The right hon. Gentleman described this system as almost identical to the local housing allowance, but as he himself pointed out, the LHA is a median figure. In Wigan, therefore, somebody moving out of a three-bedroom local authority property can find a three-bedroom, non-social housing, private rented property at the median rent, while still being paid £10 a week more and receiving housing benefit. They could move out of and leave vacant a three-bedroom social housing property, but still have a three-bedroom property even though they only have one child.
The hon. Lady and other Labour Members are refusing to acknowledge some fundamental points about the Bill. She voted for the welfare cap and the Minister has said that the Bill would cost the Treasury £1 billion. If it were passed, therefore, and if, by any mischance, a Labour Government were to be elected next spring, they would have to find £1 billion of savings elsewhere in the welfare budget. If Labour votes in support of the Bill, it will behove Labour Front-Bench team, given that the Labour party is governed by collective responsibility just as much as the Government are, to tell the House and the country exactly where they would find £1 billion of savings elsewhere in the welfare budget to compensate for the cost of the Bill.
For clarification, all the figures were adjudicated by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, not the Government. The Opposition and the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who is promoting the Bill, have said they want the figures checked, but the OBR is an independent body and therefore the figures stand and include all the costs and savings.
I am sure the whole House is grateful to my right hon. Friend for that clarification and confirmation.
I thought it would be interesting to go back and read the Committee proceedings of the Welfare Reform Bill in 2006. Hon. Members might not recall, but, interestingly, when the proposal for limiting housing benefit for those in the private rented sector was first mooted, the original consultation paper also consulted on a proposal to limit housing benefit for those in social housing on exactly the same basis. Nowhere on Second Reading or in Committee did the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), the then Minister, ever explain to the House or the Committee why the then Labour Government decided only to focus the housing benefit changes on the private rented sector and not to include social housing.
In Committee, various hon. Members sought to make exactly the same proposals and changes as are being proposed today. For example, Members were keen to know whether alterations could be made for under-25s in the private rented sector, and the Minister said that the changes were
“part of a package that is intended to make housing benefit more transparent and more understandable to people….I hark back to our short debate on Tuesday evening: the new local housing allowance applies only to those in the private rented sector.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 2 November 2006; c. 424-45.]
In other words, the changes were being introduced entirely because the last Government thought it necessary to save money.
Perhaps I can help my right hon. Friend. In 2004, my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) asked the then Minister, the late Malcolm Wicks,
“for what reasons the local housing allowance applies only to the de-regulated private sector.”
The then Minister replied:
“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.]
It is clear, despite all we hear from the Opposition, that the last Labour Government intended to do exactly the same thing.
It is clear they had exactly the same intentions.
In the final debate in Committee on the revisions of the local housing allowance, when asked to make amendments similar to those being invited in the Bill, the Minister said:
“I reassure the Committee that we already have powers to make different provisions for different classes of people…However… adding the qualification suggested by the amendment to the local housing allowance would undermine its main advantages of simplicity, transparency and fairness….As I said during a debate on a previous amendment, the discretionary housing payment scheme is also in place. That flexible system will enable the local authority to target help to those who most need it.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 2 November 2006; c. 434-5.]
May I suggest that this Government’s discretionary payment scheme for tenants in the social housing sector is exactly the same? Indeed, those comments could have been made by a Minister in this Government in exactly the same way as suggested by the amendments and reforms proposed for changing housing benefit for tenants in the social housing sector.
I conclude by saying that this Parliament has to be grown up about the issues. If the House introduces a cap by an overwhelming majority, we cannot gaily come along, turn up on a Friday in September and seek to spend £1 billion of public money without making it clear to the House and to the country where the consequential savings are to be made elsewhere in the welfare budget. This will happen whether it be under this Government or any other Government. It behoves the Labour party, Labour Front-Bench Members and the shadow Minister when he gets to the Dispatch Box to tell us in terms where he intends those savings to be made. If he cannot do that, it would be irresponsible to support the Bill in the Lobby today. There is no justification for a Labour party and a Labour Government who introduced reforms and changes to housing benefit for those in the private rented sector to think that tenants in the social housing sector should be treated any differently.
We are supposedly here today because of the impact of the interim evaluation reports. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) who proposed the Bill, there is lots of evidence to suggest that we would end up exactly where we have. Hon. Members need not take it from people like me, who are completely opposed to the proposal on ideological grounds; they can take it from people such as the Chartered Institute of Housing, which said in 2011:
“Tens of thousands of households will be hit hard in the pocket or even be completely priced out of the communities where they are currently living and working. And all this is without consideration of the overall effect these changes will have when combined with significant cuts and changes to funding”.
It went on to say what we could expect: movement of low-income tenants from more expensive rental market areas to cheaper ones; households struggling to access private rented accommodation; increased hardship; a concentration of tenants in receipt of LHA in cheaper, poorer-quality private rented housing; and greater demand on homelessness and housing services.
That was said in April 2011. In February 2012, a study by Cambridge university looked at four specific areas and reached these conclusions a year before the Bill became an Act. The study said that in Sunderland, for example, moving people on the scale suggested by the Government would take eight years—it would take that long to get all the one-bedroom houses re-let. It continued:
“Evidence…from groups of local residents and Housing Officers in these…case studies suggests that many households will be pushed into severe financial difficulties by the cuts.”
I am not sure how many of the colleagues of the hon. Member for St Ives who were listening to that were taken in by it. Perhaps they were taken in by the DWP’s own impact assessment of February 2011. It asked whether there would be an impact on health and well-being—no; will there be an impact on human rights—no. If that is what they believe, this report has clearly proved them wrong.
For months and years we have been lectured by the Deputy Prime Minister—he has stood at the Dispatch Box to defend this policy—who said that there were 1.8 million spare bedrooms in this country. It is as if he was talking like someone looking after racing pigeons. Pigeons are put in what are called “duckets” in my part of the world; that is where the pigeons go. There we have it—1.8 million bedrooms, let’s stick people in there. Is that really happening in this country? If that is not social cleansing, I do not know what is. We are treating as second-class citizens people who have lived a long time in their communities and they might have lived in the same house in the same area for 40 or 50 years. These are people in stable communities who have a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of security.
It was said earlier that the Englishman’s home is his castle. Most of these people will not be living in castles, but the same principle applies to them: they should be allowed to live in security in their own homes where they have lived for years. We all know what this is about: it is not about housing issues; it is about the failure of capitalism and who pays for the failed banking system. We know, too, who is not affected. It is not the fiddlers who fixed the LIBOR rate or the spivs selling mortgages to people who could not afford to pay them. It is the landlords who are the real gainers from housing benefit for decades, under both Governments, as they have been able to put up rents to whatever level they can get away with. When it is suggested that perhaps the one way to deal with this and keep the costs down is to apply rent controls, everyone waves their hands in the air to say, “Oh, no, we cannot interfere with the market.” Why not? It is the market that has got people into this situation in the first place, and the people who pay are the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the disabled and the dispossessed—the people without a voice. We in the House should obey that voice. We are trying to give them a little voice today, and some people are whispering when they should have been shouting while we Opposition Members have tried to help over the past few years, but the Government have ignored not just the voice of politicians, but the voice of people such as Citizens Advice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) intervened to try to explain the situation from her personal experience over many years of working in the real world with the people affected, but she was brushed aside. The Government have ignored people such as my hon. Friend, ignored the professionals who work in housing offices, ignored people working at the front line, people in local councils and in the trade unions who represent the workers, the Churches, the chartered institutes and especially the people who are living in and are affected by this situation. Some Members have ignored all those people; we are now trying to redeem the situation.
Is this debate really about putting things right? I would like to think it was, but the cynic inside me says that it is much more about some people trying to survive the next general election, or it might be about some people trying to write the headline for their next newsletter or about trying to rewrite history in the hope that people will forget what has happened here over the last four years. I shall support the Bill and anything we can do to alleviate the suffering that some people are going through, but I will not do that to give any succour to people who should have known better and did know better, but ignored the reality four and five years ago when they pushed these measures through this House.
I want to say a few words in support of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) and his Bill. He has proudly put forward not just a single-headed, but a double-headed proposal today. We are talking about not only how to tackle some of the injustices and unfairnesses surrounding the spare room subsidy, but about how to look to the creation of more affordable housing and provide greater levels of stock across the country.
It is important to recognise that over the last few years we have acknowledged and seen an explosion in the housing benefit bill. That happened for a variety of reasons, but principally because of the rise in the cost of housing. While the Opposition when in government introduced the abolition of the spare room subsidy for the private rented sector, the coalition parties did so for the social rented sector. We understand the reasoning behind it, but we recognise, too, that the burden has fallen on some of the people least able to cope with the cost. We have not collectively, as either a Parliament or a country, tackled the real problem, which is of course the fact that there are simply not enough social rented homes and not enough homes generally.
I am proud of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives for bringing this Bill forward, and I am proud of my party for pushing us all collectively to reflect on the proposals before us today. I would like to mention Vikki Slade and Julie Pörksen, who proposed at our conference a year ago that we look again at this policy. Frankly, Members of all parties would do well to admit that, on reflection, things could have been done better. Given that we were put in this economic crisis in the first place, it would be lovely to see from Opposition Members a change of heart and an admission that things did not go as well as they could have done.
Many people will be talking about the spare room subsidy today, and they are right to do so, but the second part of my hon. Friend’s Bill is equally important. The fact is that in 1981, the average deposit for a first-time buyer was 12% of the average income. Today, it is 83%, and nearly 3 million people aged between 18 and 30 are living with their parents, which is likely to go up by another 25% over the next five or six years. We have the lowest levels of home ownership in over a quarter of a century, and if we look at our social rented stock across the country, we see that it has been decimated over 30 years through the right to buy with no compulsion to replace the properties in any meaningful way.
Absolutely; it was truly shameful. Governments would have to try really hard—as the previous one did—to build fewer social rented properties than Baroness Thatcher. That is quite an achievement, and one they should be thoroughly ashamed of. The current Government have not built enough social rented houses. They are, however, the first Government in over 30 years to have seen any net rise in the number of social rented properties at all.
The key issue in this whole question is the supply of social housing. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that the real issue here is the Localism Act 2011, neighbourhood planning, the need to encourage local authorities to build the right kind of houses in the right places, and that social housing is obviously the priority?
Absolutely. The reality is homes need to be built from a variety of different sources. If we believe all the statistics—and I am convinced by the evidence put forward by Shelter, the National Housing Federation and others—that show we need something in the region of 300,000 new homes a year, the bulk of which need to be affordable, and if we realise that at the height of the property boom in the 1990s the private sector was building fewer than 200,000 a year, we realise that this is not just about allowing the market to provide that supply. That is absolutely part of the answer, but we need to allow housing associations and local authorities, as well as private developers, off the leash. We need to allow, for example, housing associations to borrow against the full value of their stock, so they have got access to proper equity, to give them the freedom to make use of all the Government finance initiatives, not just the ones covering existing schemes. If we do not do that, we will continue to have generation after generation that cannot afford to buy their own home.
Politicians, frankly, have been too spineless over the last two generations to build the homes that our people, particularly our younger people, need. This situation is not their fault: our younger people are working just as hard, if not harder, than they ever did before. However, they cannot afford a home, including in the rented sector very often, because of our collective failure to deliver the homes they deserve.
The top end of that renting generation is now well into their 40s. The notion that this is a non-voting, non-interested demographic has gone. Politicians have often been too spineless because of the demographic of people. Those who are comfortable are older, more settled and they were, by definition, more likely to vote. Those who are not in that position were by definition less likely to vote. That is changing, and that generation is crying out for people who will step up to the plate and argue their case. Britain’s future depends on being able to house our young people—all our people—in an affordable and decent way.
I commend the Bill of my right hon. Friend, or rather my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives to this House. [Interruption.] Indeed, and he would deserve it. I commend my hon. Friend’s proposals on the improvements to the spare room subsidy and his recommendations for tackling the critical lack of affordable housing in this country. I think of my constituency up in the lakes and the dales in south Cumbria where the average house price is 11 times higher than the average wage. We are losing a quarter of our young people, who move out of the area and never come back because they cannot afford to put down roots. My area is very like my hon. Friend’s and many other colleagues’ here today: how important it is that we make sure our communities remain multigenerational and we keep our talent and do not force our young people into another generation of poverty and housing need.
Housing supply is the issue, and it will not be tackled unless we allow housing associations to build the houses they can and they desperately want to, and unless we invest in garden cities, and unless we tackle—my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) referred to this—the critical lack of housing and building skills and labour necessary to build those houses. The Government’s apprenticeship programme is an important step in the right direction, but without the skills, we will not be able to build the houses.
What I want us to see in politics is the ambition that Government can change things. In the face of a critical crisis such as the housing crisis and the lack of supply, it should not be a case of washing our hands and letting the market deliver, or praying that it might; it should be about rolling up our sleeves and making sure it does. My hon. Friend’s Bill is an important step in that direction.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on bringing forward the Bill and on managing to get the Government to disband their collective responsibility. I agree with virtually everything he said in his speech, and, indeed, in the e-mail he sent all of us last week, which I shall refer to later. I also agree with everything the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, not least about access to the housing market and there being a generation of young people for whom it is almost impossible to conceive of buying a house or having access to private rented properties, which are considerably more expensive than those in the social housing sector. Incidentally, I also agree with what he said about the right to buy. Many people forget that the first council to introduce that was a Labour council in Newport in south Wales, but the key difference was that Newport was determined to match every house that was sold with a new one that was built. To my mind the great destruction of social housing over the last 35 years, introduced by Mrs Thatcher, was that when she introduced the right to buy, she refused to allow local authorities to rebuild, and that is one of the central problems that, in the end, this generation of politicians is having to deal with and the generation of politicians a decade ago had to deal with, too.
This Bill is supported across the parties, including by the very honourable Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), a near constituency neighbour of mine. Does that not show that this is not a partisan debate, and that feeling runs across the political spectrum against this unfair and discriminatory tax?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and it is always a pleasure to listen to his speeches, but in his criticism of Margaret Thatcher is he saying that he regrets the fact that millions of people were able to buy their own houses and be property owners, which is surely a great thing that the Conservatives achieved?
The hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to my speeches. I was always in favour of the right to buy scheme and enabling people to buy, and live in, their home—an Englishman’s home is his castle and all of that kind of stuff, and that applies equally to the Scots, Welsh and Irish—but local authorities were not allowed to replace that housing stock with social housing, and we set ourselves a long-term economic problem from which we have still to recover. If the hon. Gentleman wants to have another go and attack me by saying the Labour Government did not do enough when we were in power, he is absolutely right: we did not, and we acknowledge that, which is why one of our key commitments is to guarantee that by the end of a Labour Government in 2020—by that general election—we will be building 200,000 properties in the United Kingdom.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will make a little progress.
The bedroom tax was ill prepared and it has been very poorly implemented by the Government. It is riddled with logical inconsistencies—as we have heard several times already today—and it has a central injustice at its very heart: the poor and the vulnerable are being made to pay for a recession that was caused by irresponsible lending not by them but by the wealthy in the City of London and in other countries around the world.
Some Government policies introduced since 2010 have been incompetent, and others, I believe, have been unfair, but this one manages to combine unfairness and incompetence to a phenomenal degree—quite a feat—and I am delighted that not only the two hon. Members from the Liberal party who have already spoken will be joining us in supporting that conclusion today, but that, I hope, all the other Liberal Democrat Members will do so as well. What particularly galls me and many on the Opposition Benches is that this was not only predictable but was predicted by countless Members of this House and by countless organisations—the National Housing Federation, the Local Government Association, local authorities up and down the land, individuals coming forward to newspapers—yet all the warnings were completely ignored.
I am sure the Conservative Minister will tell us that the aim of the bedroom tax is solely to end overcrowding in the social housing sector—the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) was, I think, trying to suggest that earlier. The declared aim was to force the nation to use the social housing stock more efficiently. I am sorry, but I simply distrust Conservatives talking about the social housing sector. We now have the lowest number of social housing completions in 20 years. I have already talked about the way in which the right to buy was implemented. In 2010, one of the first things this Government did was to slash the affordable housing budget by 60%. How on earth can people make an argument in favour of social housing when they have just slashed its budget by 60%?
From the outset, the Government knew that the vast majority of people would not be able to move into smaller accommodation—not because they did not want to move, but simply because there were no other suitable properties. Indeed, such is the cynicism of this Government that that was factored into the original financial assumptions that they made. They did not presume that 75% of the people affected by the bedroom tax would move, or 50% or even 20%. Their working assumption was that fewer than one in 10 families affected would be able to move to a suitable property, yet they went ahead with their retrospective change to a benefit that goes to hundreds of thousands of people who are in work. That is another element that galls me. So often, the rhetoric—from Conservative Ministers in particular—has suggested that this is all about the workshy, but actually a great many people in receipt of housing benefit are in work. It is the matching of housing benefit and work that makes work pay and makes it possible for those people to work.
The Government’s own evaluation, published this July, makes really depressing reading on this very point. Just 4.5% of those affected by the bedroom tax moved within six months. In the areas with the fewest people affected, a higher percentage—some 16%—moved, but in some areas, the numbers were even lower. The Secretary of State seems to think that that represents a great success, but I disagree. It points to the real problem, which is that there simply are not enough suitable smaller properties to move into, and that the areas with the highest number of people affected have the fewest properties for them to move into. In other words, the poorest communities in this country are the worst hit, through absolutely no fault of their own. That means that, at a time of real financial hardship, money is being deliberately siphoned off from the poor at the rate of £14 or £22 a week.
The hon. Gentleman represents a community similar to mine. Is he aware that this policy has created a new form of housing blight, in which we have three-bedroom properties boarded up while people requiring one-bedroom and two-bedroom properties are on the waiting list?
Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s voting record in Committee, he is absolutely right on that point.
Another problem has arisen. For years, in order to tackle antisocial behaviour, local authorities and social landlords have often tried to limit the number of young families in a development. They can no longer make that judgment and the consequence has been a new rise in antisocial behaviour in areas where there are now too many young families, all because of the bedroom tax.
The National Housing Federation made it absolutely clear last year that there simply were not enough houses for people to move to. I do not know why Ministers and other Conservative Members do not understand that. In the north of England, families with a spare room outnumber overcrowded families by three to one. In other words, we would have to move thousands of families thousands of miles across the United Kingdom if the aim of using the housing stock more efficiently, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster suggested, were to be met by this policy.
Would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that people in work who are just above the threshold and therefore not entitled to any benefits have to choose to live in an area and a size of property that they can afford? Is it not only fair that people in receipt of taxpayer-funded benefit should have to make those same decisions?
That is true. Many people who are in that situation are in socially affordable housing, some of which is local authority or former local authority accommodation. However, I do not see how that militates against the fundamental problem that although there might be plenty of housing for people to move to in Conservative seats in some parts of the south-east, there simply is not enough in the areas where the greatest number of people are affected by the bedroom tax. So unless the hon. Lady wants to move thousands of people from the north of England into constituencies such as hers, there will continue to be a problem.
What are the wider effects of the policy? We already know that, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s original announcement that the disabled would not be affected by it, two thirds of those affected have a disability of some kind. Nurses, members of the armed forces and families with sons or daughters in the armed forces have also been affected.
There is also clear evidence that countless families are cutting back on household essentials or running up debts. The Government’s own evaluation—not an evaluation made up by anyone else—states that 50% of claimants reported cutting back on what they deemed to be household essentials in order to pay the bedroom tax. More than a quarter of claimants—26%—said that they had borrowed money to pay it, mostly from family and friends, while 3% had borrowed money on a credit card, 3% had taken out payday loans, 10% had used savings and 9% had been given money from other members of their family. That is a devastating record. It shows the poverty into which the Government seem deliberately to be pushing people.
Six out of 10 households affected by the bedroom tax are now in arrears. At the moment, social landlords have decided to hold off from evicting such tenants, but there will come a point at which they will have to make the difficult decision whether to allow the situation to continue or to remove those people.
There is also a knock-on effect, in that the increase in arrears leads to an increase in the cost of borrowing for social housing providers, and the composition of housing stock differs from area to area. In some areas where families were unwilling to move into blocks of flats, many of the flats remained empty. Single people were then encouraged to move into the empty flats, but following the introduction of this policy were told that they would have to pay extra money to stay there. They were encouraged to move into them, but then found themselves at a disadvantage.
Of course we voted for the overall benefits cap. I want to cut the cost of welfare in this country, but the best way of doing that is to ensure that the minimum wage and wages in general catch up with inflation. However, we have had inflation ahead of wages for every month except one since this Government came to power in 2010, which is making that a darn sight more difficult to achieve.
As usual, the hon. Gentleman is making a speech that is very rhetorical but rather short on facts. The rate for overall rent collection by housing associations is 98%. Rent arrears for housing associations have actually fallen, rather than gone up, for two quarters in a row between September last year and March this year. On the latest data, they are still lower than they were last September. They have not gone up, as was suggested. Homelessness is down, arrears are down and rent collection is at 98%, so what he is saying is simply not true.
To be honest, I am always a bit dubious about this particular Minister’s use of statistics. I remember the days when he boldly stood at the Dispatch Box as Immigration Minister and told us that we did not have to worry about net migration because it was falling dramatically, and that we would be able to see that when the figures were placed in the public domain. I think it was last Thursday when we were shown that net migration had risen by 38%. Admittedly, he had stopped being Immigration Minister by then, but—[Interruption.] The truth is that, according to the Government’s own evaluation, one in five people affected are in arrears because they have not yet been able to pay any of their bedroom tax, and that another 29% have not been able to pay all of it. So the honest truth is that one in four of the people in social housing are in arrears. That is a long-term problem that will undermine the whole of the social housing sector.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise to the House for my late arrival this morning, which was due to the west coast main line train service. He just mentioned arrears. I can guarantee that such arrears have increased in my constituency and many others, and that that is having a detrimental effect on the health of the people involved. Mental health issues in Walton have gone up exponentially. Does he agree that that is one of the unforeseen disgraces of this pernicious tax?
I would agree with my hon. Friend, except for his use of the word “unforeseen”, as this was completely foreseeable and indeed completely foreseen by every organisation in the land, apart from the Government. I sometimes think to myself that blindness is one thing but wilful blindness in politics is disgraceful beyond measure, and that is what has been shown on this.
I want to make a bit more progress, because I know that lots of people want to speak. I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
The Government will no doubt argue that they have made allowances for such instances of hardship as have been mentioned in the debate through the discretionary housing payments, but those have been fraught with problems. I gently suggest that the clue is in the word “discretionary”; one local authority may hold back, either at the beginning of the year or throughout the year, because they do not know what demand there will be, whereas another authority, possibly a neighbouring one, will open its hands far more swiftly. So two families divided by a local authority boundary will have had completely different results when they made claims, and that is for those who know about the right to make a claim. The situation has not been helped by the completely uneven allocation of cash. Redcar and Cleveland’s authority received £400,000 for 2,313 applications, which works out at £181 each, whereas Tory Wandsworth council—surprise, surprise—received £1.83 million to divvy up between fewer applications, just 1,629, which works out at £1,129 each. When the Government are being incompetent, they could at least be incompetent in a fair way.
Another element of discretion is involved in all this. The total funding made available for 2014-15 under the discretionary housing payments was £165 million, and the original allocation for 2013-14 was £155 million, which was then increased to £180 million. But local authorities are permitted to contribute two and a half times the Government contribution to this, so in 2013-14, 85 English local authorities, 15 Welsh local authorities and 27 Scottish local authorities felt that the problem was so severe in their area that they had to spend more than the contribution provided by the Department for Work and Pensions. That works out as a third of all local authorities across the United Kingdom, 55% of authorities in Wales and 84% of those in Scotland. So, yet again, the poorest local authorities in the land are forced to rob Peter to allow Paul to pay Iain. Local authorities have therefore had to close libraries and swimming pools, and cut services—those have all been slashed to pay for a Conservative ideology-driven policy.
The Government’s evaluation highlighted a range of other problems. It said:
“local authorities struggle to make long-term plans for this resource”.
It made criticisms, saying:
“There was some variation in who was assisted, even within a local authority”.
It also talked about:
“Uncertainties around both future demand and the size/availability of the fund”.
That did not help, not least because
“the 2014-15 allocation was only announced in January 2014”.
In addition, many have pointed out that disabled people in adapted homes have not always been awarded discretionary housing payments because disability benefits, which are intended to help with some of the extra costs of having a long-term disability or health condition, can cause them to fail means tests based on their income.
The hon. Gentleman rightly reminds us of the human side of all this. Sadly, I have to tell hon. Members that a severely disabled constituent of mine committed suicide having been turned down for her discretionary housing benefit. I believe we would have won the appeal, with everybody supporting it, but unfortunately that was the last straw in her life.
The right hon. Lady makes a very fair point, and I suspect that many Labour Members, if not Members around the House, can cite distressing cases where people, particularly those with mental health problems—they are expressly referred to in the Government’s evaluation—have not known how to make an original claim for discretionary housing payment, do not understand the rules and have been very much left out in the cold. Her constituent is not the only one who has taken their own life because of this.
Those are the kinds of issues we need to discuss in Committee. However, as I said earlier, I am profoundly distrustful about this, as one thing I have learnt in my time in the House is that when a Minister stands at the Dispatch Box when the debate is already going on and says that something is going to cost £1 billion, the figure has normally been invented the night before when someone was desperate to come up with something. The figure is suspiciously round.
If hon. Members do not mind, I am going to move on because I am sure they will want to make contributions of their own.
I have referred to some of the elements of the unfairness, but the incompetence in how the policy has been advanced has also angered many of us. I am talking not only about the dodgy statistics, but the fact that, as the hon. Member for St Ives said, the original savings figure of £490 million has been downgraded and downgraded. It has been questioned by the National Housing Federation, the National Audit Office and a range of different bodies, and in some areas it is pretty uncertain that any saving will be made at all. Of course there was also the loophole. So, again, when the Minister stands up to tell us a decided figure of £1 billion, I merely say to him that he does not even know how many people were affected by the loophole. He does not even know how much that has cost, and that has already come into operation. So I do not understand how he can make wild accusations about the cost of the Bill on the basis of a calculation done on the back of a fag packet.
Other elements of the incompetence of the policy have already been referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). Many people are being forced out of properties that have been specifically adapted for them in order to go to smaller properties, which end up being more expensive because they are in the private sector or more expensive in the social sector because the local authority has to re-adapt another property. Adaptations that were made specifically for one person are not necessarily right for another person, so we see a waste of time, energy and money.
I wholly agree with what my hon. Friend says. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in the previous Session which exactly highlighted the costs for domestic violence victims and the adaptations to their homes, and it simply does not make good financial sense not to have these exemptions.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The hon. Member for St Ives also made the point about people in work who are in receipt of housing benefit, because the number of hours does not add up for them. There is a real danger that if they are forced to move to properties that are not easily accessible from their work, are too far away or where no family support network is in place, they simply will not be able to stay in work. We, thus, end up shoving up the welfare bill rather than tackling the real problems in welfare. That is far from an invented problem; it is a very real problem, which I suspect many hon. Members will have encountered. Constituents, especially single parents, will have come to them saying, “I have a job. It is close to where I live. It means I can turn up when there is an emergency at school. All those problems are solved. But if I have to move to a property 5, 10 or 20 miles away, I simply will not be able to stay in work.” That is the kind of problem the Government are coming up against.
I am most grateful. I am very pleased to report that I have not had one complaint from a constituent with a disability who has been asked to move property, and I have great confidence in my local authority. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an adaptation to a property could range from a handrail going up to the front door for somebody who needs to get up some steps, which would not affect their need for a spare bedroom, to major adaptations such as having widened doorways to accommodate a wheelchair, hoists and stairlifts? For that reason, it is right that this should be a discretionary matter and not a statutory one.
I cannot explain why the hon. Lady has not had constituents come to her about the matter. Perhaps it is because of her voting record on the bedroom tax. Constituents may feel that they would not get as warm a hearing from her as they might from someone else. I am sure that she is a very good constituency MP. Perhaps it is because the needs in her constituency are rather different from those in other constituencies. But let me say gently to her that I know from talking to my Labour colleagues, a number of Liberal Democrats and Members of other minority parties that the number of people who have come to our constituency surgeries or who have got in touch by phone or e-mail about the bedroom tax and other issues is very high. Many of those are people who are disabled and who have adaptations. In fact, a large proportion involves people who have friends and family in the armed forces.
I am overcome by my hon. Friend’s generosity and tolerance. The previous intervention referred to handrails. My brother’s case is very different. He has a separate room that has been supplied with a different water supply for his dialysis. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the real cruelty of the discretionary regime is that it is precisely that—discretionary. It is not good enough to say that money has been allocated for the next financial year, because the principle remains in place. The anxiety of those people who live in adapted properties and who can only see that sword of Damocles hanging over their heads is one of the cruellest and most brutal aspects of this incompetent legislation.
I should have trusted my hon. Friend all along. He is absolutely right. I visited a man in Birmingham who was in a situation similar to that described by my hon. Friend. In my constituency, I have had several people who have required a second room for dialysis equipment. There is a wide range of situations out there. For example, one partner in a couple may have a disability which means that they are not able to sleep in the same bed and the same room. Those people on an annual basis have to go through the whole business of explaining again to their local authority, civil servants and council officials why they are not sleeping in the same room. That is degrading and unfair. It makes it seem as if this is an act of charity by Government, whereas in fact the way in which this legislation has been drafted is exactly the opposite of charity. As my hon. Friend said, the word “discretionary” is one of the cruellest elements of the whole thing.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Let me pick up on the point that he made. There is no automatic exclusion for people who have to sleep in separate bedrooms for medical reasons. I have had an ongoing correspondence with the Minister for welfare reform. He said that disabled adults are
“able to exercise a greater degree of choice”
than children, and can
“enter into living arrangements knowing that they may have to compromise their individual needs.”
I do not understand how it can possibly be the case that these sorts of couples either have to take in a tenant in the bedroom that is not spare or that they should separate in order to have their accommodation needs met. That is just absurd.
I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Lady, because she made a very fair point. In all honesty, if I were to take any single one of the Conservative Members of the House who will vote against this Bill today to meet any of the kind of constituents that we are talking about, their hearts would be changed. That is why I hope that, in the end, we will be able to get rid of the bedroom tax in its entirety. We will support the Bill today. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives on bringing it forward, but in the end I want to scrap the bedroom tax, and that is what a Labour Government will do if we are elected. If this Bill is allowed to go to Committee, I hope that the hon. Lady and others will support amendments that strengthen the move in that direction, rather than amendments that might pull us in a different direction.
I have already said that I will not give way again. The hon. Gentleman will get a whole speech—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State has made many allegations in his life. I have hardly ever heard him substantiate a single one. If there was ever an example of someone who is involved in policy-based evidence making, that person is sitting right there now. He is a man who has invented evidence to back up a policy without any facts to back it up, so I will not give way.
No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman gets to make a speech later.
In an e-mail to me, and I suspect to many others as well, the hon. Member for St Ives said:
“This is a compromise on what I had hoped to bring forward at this stage, which would have been to abolish the Bedroom Tax altogether.”
I am not sure with whom he is compromising. Obviously, it is not with the Conservatives: they are on a three-line Whip to vote him down. I suppose it must be with those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. Perhaps it is with the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury or the Pensions Minister, who was one of the stoutest defenders of the bedroom tax and saw off all amendments in Committee, including the amendments that will now be brought forward today.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for giving way. The compromise was in relation to the Bill that I had previously proposed, which included measures to put caps on second homes, but that was opposed by Labour. What I seek to do is to help people who are unfairly affected by this legislation. This is a reasonable measure on which the House can unite. Yes, it is a compromise, but that is because I want to get something through that helps people.
Given that the shadow Minister took an intervention from the hon. Member for St Ives, he should take one from me. I thank him for giving way. The shadow Minister made a serious allegation that somehow we cooked up the allocation of discretionary housing payments on some sort of party political basis—based on the control of local authorities. I just want to make it clear that the allocations in 2014-15 were based on local housing allowance, removal of the spare room subsidy, the benefit cap and the underlying £20 million a year that is not related to welfare reform. Each element is based on the affected caseload in each local authority area and on the average loss. The reason why there may be higher amounts in London is that London borough rents for social housing are higher on average, and the benefit cap losses are greater. That is the reason. It is nothing to do with the party political control of the local authority, and I hope that he withdraws that appalling allegation.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have heard it all before.
Let us go back to the Liberal Democrats. There is of course more rejoicing in heaven when one sinner, or one party, repenteth—[Interruption.] I am not talking about the hon. Members for St Ives or for Westmorland and Lonsdale because they are slightly saintly in this regard. I hope that we will see an act of mass repentance led by the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip today, including the Pensions Minister, who declared in Committee that all the exemptions we are considering today were “absurd”, the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott), who is now a Whip, the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) who, despite making charming speeches in Committee, voted against the exemptions, and the whole bang shoot of them who voted for the tax, voted against amendments and voted against our Opposition day motions on 13 November 2013 in this House and in the Lords. I love them all and I am delighted to hope that they will all vote with us—or rather that we will vote with them—en masse later.
The bedroom tax has pushed the poor further into poverty. I believe that it is at the heart of the malaise of Tory Britain, with millions in arrears, millions relying on food banks, millions having to choose between heating and eating, millions on low wages that have never caught up with inflation and millions on zero-hours contracts desperate to work more hours—two nations if ever there was such a thing. That is why we should scrap the bedroom tax. We will vote for this Bill today and we will try to amend it in Committee. If that fails, we, the Labour Government, next year, in May 2015, will scrap the tax.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am particularly grateful to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for reminding the House of the great divide between our respective parties on welfare. It was certainly a big issue at the last general election and there were strong feelings in my constituency that the previous Labour Government had allowed spending on welfare to get out of control. The job of this Government has been to try to control it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on coming top in this year’s private Members’ Bills ballot. Of course, although I say that he came top he was not first—he was, in fact, 20th. The first Member whose name was drawn out of the hat at the ballot was my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) so, either way, with the first two Bills in the listing and five out of the first 20 Bills, the party of the hon. Member for St Ives did very well in this year’s ballot. The hon. Gentleman said on his website:
“Coming top in the Private Members’ Bill ballot is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create new legislation”,
but I am afraid that I must gently remind him that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) came top in the ballot twice running earlier in this Parliament, so it can happen. Nevertheless, it is a great opportunity.
The hon. Member for St Ives came up with a rather novel method of determining which measure to introduce. Rather than going with his initial instincts or listening to numerous calls from the various pressure groups that were, I am sure, badgering him to adopt their pet legislative proposals, he effectively sub-contracted the decision to his constituents. On the face of it, that would seem a wise and sensible idea, and I always believe in trusting the people. Unfortunately, I think that in this case he might have drawn the wrong conclusion from his research. As I understand it, he put forward three proposals for consideration: one on health care standards, one—apparently starting a campaign for Cornish independence—for the establishment of an assembly for Cornwall, and the Bill we are considering today. Apparently, 2,000 people commented and indicated their support for one of those three proposals. On 26 June, the hon. Gentleman said on his website:
“By a short margin it has become clear that the proposal for an Affordable Homes Bill was the most popular choice amongst constituents.”
What is not clear from that statement is whether the proposal for an Affordable Homes Bill gained the approval of more than half of the respondents. By virtue of the phrase “a short margin”, I think it is fair to assume that most actually preferred one of the other two ideas so only a minority of the 2,000 were in favour of this Bill. Either way, there can be no doubt that as at the last election there were about 67,000 electors in the St Ives constituency, 65,000 of them did not bother to comment at all or give any opinion on the three proposals.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and allowing me to interrupt him at an early stage in his remarks. Does it occur to him, as it does to me, that those constituents who went through the consultation process and asked for a Bill on affordable housing would not have thought that a Bill on affordable housing would merely get them a review? That does not seem to be a very active Bill.
My hon. Friend suggested earlier that the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) might have misjudged the mood of his constituents. The hon. Gentleman may also have misjudged the mood of the nation. He obviously had not read the Ipsos MORI opinion poll on this policy, which asked:
“In principle, do you support or oppose the reduction in the amount of Housing Benefit for those of working age and living in social housing…if they have more bedrooms than the Government thinks they need?”
Of the responses, “strongly support” and “tend to support” made up 49%, and “tend to oppose” and “strongly oppose” made up only 33%, so it appears that he has misjudged the mood of the nation as well as the mood of Cornwall.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution, which reflects the messages that I was getting in my constituency, in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington, before the most recent general election.
To go back to the consultation that the hon. Member for St Ives carried out, we know that 65,000 people did not bother to comment at all, or give an opinion either way. In my view, those who did indicate their support for this Affordable Homes Bill will be very disappointed, to say the least, with its content. The Bill appears to be a mere shadow of the one that the hon. Gentleman put forward for consultation to his constituents. That Bill contained an extension of the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, a proposal to create an affordable homes investment bank—there is no mention of such an institution in the Bill before us—and a proposal to create a new planning use class for non-permanent residential use, in other words, for second homes. That would have given local planning authorities power to control the number of second homes in their area. There is no mention of that in this Bill.
The Bill that the hon. Gentleman asked his constituents to comment on was also scheduled to give local authorities immense powers of compulsory purchase where developers held back land for development, or where they failed to develop sites for which planning permission had been granted but on which no development had yet begun. Well, surprise, surprise: there is no mention of that measure either.
I completely and 100% agree with my hon. Friend. I for one am extremely grateful that those measures are not in the Bill, but I am worried, as I shall explain in a moment, that the Bill may be just an opening salvo for the introduction of those measures at a later stage. Although what is left is a proposal to change the eligibility for housing benefit and a proposal to require the Secretary of State to carry out a review of the availability of affordable homes and intermediate housing, that is it; there is no mention of any affordable homes investment bank, no mention of any change to planning use classes and no mention of any enhanced powers for local councils. We must ask ourselves why that is so. On one level, I would like to think it is because the hon. Member for St Ives has seen the light and realised that his proposal for Government interference in the free market—as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) identified it—would not have had the effect he hoped for. However, the truth is, I believe, rather more worrying.
As I mentioned in an intervention at the outset, the hon. Member for St Ives perhaps gave an explanation of why there is so little in the Bill on his website last week:
“If I succeed at Second Reading…I hope I can beef up the Bill with amendments at Committee Stage.”
There we have it: this skeleton of a Bill is actually a Trojan horse Bill. If it is granted a Second Reading today, the hon. Gentleman admits that he will use it to try to introduce those other measures later in its parliamentary proceedings.
I have not inquired of the Clerks whether that would be correct parliamentary procedure. It is certainly unusual for a Bill’s promoter to admit at the outset that the measure being proposed is not the measure they want agreed on Third Reading and that they intend to table amendments in Committee. It is usual for the rest of the House, not the promoter, to want to amend a Bill.
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for following this process very closely. I am sure that my constituents will be interested in his remarks. As well as those who responded, many other people certainly commented to me, but the hon. Gentleman needs to understand that arriving at the published Bill is, of course, a process of considering what is likely to succeed and that I or, indeed, anyone else who tables amendments, would take into account what is and is not orderly to propose in Committee. That is self-evident.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to clarify matters. I am not sure whether I am any clearer about why, if he thinks it is a good idea to include other matters, they are not in the Bill this morning. It is not clear to me that there is any reason other than that he thinks that a slimmed-down Bill stands a better chance of getting a Second Reading. On that basis, it is fair for hon. Members, in reaching a decision this morning, to have in the back of our minds the fact that the Bill is a Trojan horse.
Given that the Bill’s promoter is saying that this is not the Bill he would have wanted and that it should be a lot better, and given that Labour Members have said, “This Bill isn’t really much good, but it’ll do as a starter,” which means that no one is particularly keen on the Bill, does my hon. Friend not wonder why on earth the battalions have come here today to support it? Does he think that, rather than supporting the merit of the Bill, they are merely trying to get any old Bill into Committee so that they can achieve their real objective: to stop an EU referendum Bill going through the House?
My hon. Friend goes to the nub of the matter. That may well be what is happening today, and the fact is that those who want to stop the people of this country having a say on Europe think that the best way to do so is by getting a slimmed-down version of the draft Bill into Committee.
I am slightly confused about why the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Bill is a Trojan horse because it might be amended in Committee. Is that different from any other Bill? How many amendments did the Government table to the Care Bill, for example? Hundreds and hundreds, but has anyone ever described that as a Trojan horse?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to expand and clarify that point, because there is a fundamental difference: when the Government or anyone else table amendments, they do so in response to comments made as the Bill goes through the legislative procedure. In my experience, it is very unusual for the Member introducing a Bill to openly admit and declare at the outset, on Second Reading, that the Bill is not actually what they want.
To be clear, and to help the hon. Gentleman, I point out that in its early stages the Bill proposed a range of measures. He has read my words and, yes, of course I would like to beef up the Bill, in particular the purpose of certain clauses and the subject matter that they cover, on the basis of evidence. There is a clear need in constituencies such as mine to place a cap on the number of second homes, which is clearly opposed by the Conservatives, and although there is no chance of achieving that in this Bill, we are able to advance the proposal through the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. South Lakeland council proposes a new measure that the Government will have to consider. That measure is supported by my constituents, and the 2007 Act is the legislative route for it.
I rise only to put the hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest. I have had an inordinate amount of correspondence from my constituents asking me to come and support this private Member’s Bill. I have not had a single item of correspondence asking me to come and stifle a European referendum bill. I am here for the bedroom tax Bill.
I am not trying to suggest that every Member in the House today has ulterior motives and is not here entirely because of the content of the Bill. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s motives are entirely honourable and that he is purely concerned about the content of the Bill before us.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have not heard much this morning about the second part of the Bill. One or two Members have touched on it, but we have heard little about the part that deals with the review of affordable housing. I shall certainly be touching on it, after I have dealt with the first part of the Bill, which contains the proposed changes to housing benefit.
I accept, as does anyone who has looked at the issue, that the changes to housing benefit resulting from the removal of the spare room subsidy have been controversial. There is no doubt about that. We have to ask ourselves why the Government had to take tough, difficult decisions to try to control the level of public spending. The answer is quite simple. We as a country simply could not continue spending money that we did not have. The coalition Government inherited a situation in which £1 in every £4 had to be borrowed. In other words, the books were not being balanced. The scale of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that, even now, after four years of a Government who have been doing all they can to try to rein in public spending, we as a country are still years from having completely dealt with the deficit and being in a position to balance the books. That position required the Government to look at areas of expenditure like the welfare budget.
On the question whether this is about extra money being spent, there was a court case this year, number EWCA Civ 13, in which the Secretary of State, when challenged on the lawfulness of the discriminatory elements in the regulations relating to disabled people, said that he would continue to closely monitor and adjust the implementation of the policy
“to ensure that the needs of these groups are effectively addressed in the longer term”.
The Bill is, in essence, about moving from discretionary housing payments to exemptions. It is not about additional cost to the public purse.
I am grateful for that point, which I will deal with in more detail later. We do not want to get bogged down in arguments about this, that or the other. The fundamental point is that the coalition Government had to make savings in the welfare budget, and this policy has reduced the welfare budget, as I will explain. I think that deals with my hon. Friend’s point.
The widespread view before the last election was that the previous Labour Government had allowed the welfare budget to spiral out of control. The housing benefit budget typified this, as its cost had increased from £11.2 billion in 1997-98 to £20 billion in 2009-10. This meant that every household in my constituency, where hard-working taxpayers were themselves struggling to make ends meet, were paying £900 a year towards a benefit that, in some cases, was enabling others to live in accommodation that they could not afford to live in. That is the key point.
My hon. Friend has talked about the importance of the availability of affordable housing and the fact that this Bill does very little to address that. Does he agree that one of the greatest problems with the failure of the Labour Government to deliver affordable housing was that so many working people were squeezed out of the socially rented sector? Council housing was originally designed for working people, but there are now very few areas of council housing that are available to them. Constituents come to see me about this in Worcester and say they think it is appalling that as working people they cannot access the social rented estate. Does he agree that Labour’s failure to deliver housing left us with a real problem in this country?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes the right point. Many people who are priced out of the private rented sector would like to get into the social rented sector but are unable to do so. That boils down to the supply of affordable housing—there is no doubt about that.
To be fair, even the Labour Government realised that something had to be done about this increase in the cost of housing benefit. They introduced rules, which we have heard a little about this morning, that restricted the amount of housing benefit depending on the number of bedrooms a claimant needed. What is more, as the Minister said earlier, they also knew that it would be necessary to extend the plans to the social rented sector. When my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the previous Labour Government
“for what reasons the local housing allowance applies only to the de-regulated private sector”,
the Secretary of State replied:
“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.]
Thousands of my constituents regard it as perfectly reasonable for tenants in the social rented sector to be treated in the same way as those in the private rented sector. It cannot be right for taxpayers in my constituency, who might love to live in accommodation with a spare bedroom, to be required to pay tax so that others in receipt of housing benefit can live in a property that they could not afford to live in.
Does my hon. Friend not accept that the debate today is not about the principle of the spare room subsidy, spare room rent subsidy, bedroom tax or whatever we wish to call it, but about whether the exceptions set out in guidance—in effect, there are legitimate expectations about those exceptions, subject to judicial review—should be transferred into legislation to give people greater certainty?
That is indeed what clause 2 proposes. I take the view that what one might call cases outside the normal set of exemptions, which I will come on to, are best dealt with through the current system of discretionary housing payments.
The present size criteria allow one bedroom for each person or couple living as part of a household, with children under 16 of the same gender expected to share and all children under 10 expected to share. Tenants’ housing benefit is reduced by 14% for those with one bedroom more than that formula allows, and by 25% for those with two or more spare bedrooms.
With estimates putting the total number of spare bedrooms at approaching 1 million, it is absolutely no wonder that Ministers should look at that matter. Considering that, according to the Office for National Statistics, 360,000 households live in crowded accommodation in the social rented sector in England, all of whom would I am sure dearly love to move into bigger accommodation, Ministers had to take action. With nearly 2 million families on social housing waiting lists in England, it makes absolute sense for the nation’s social housing stock to be utilised as efficiently as possible.
Is not the nub of the issue that housing associations basically built houses that were far too big for what the population needed? They knew full well that they could build as many three-bedroom houses as they liked, because the Government would pay them for a three-bedroom house even if only one person was put in it, and they got £500 million a year in subsidy for unnecessary places. Labour Members go on about the cost of living, but they in effect made people heat a three-bedroom house when they only needed a one-bedroom property. If they really cared about the cost of living, they would want people to be in accommodation of an appropriate size to bring down their bills.
We have heard a great deal about under-occupation, but what about the 360,000 families living in houses that are far too small for growing families? Does my hon. Friend agree that we have not heard enough in this debate about that particular group, which will benefit from the changes?
I want to ask about the downsizing and housing allocation point. The hon. Gentleman and I represent relatively similar constituencies, which are both parts of Greater Manchester. In my area, 1,636 people were affected by the bedroom tax in March 2013. A year later, the figure was 300 less, but only 59 of those 300 people have been able to downsize. That suggests that it is simply not possible for downsizing to happen in the real world in the way that Conservative MPs believe it will. What is the figure for Bury? If it is a similar figure, surely that should ring alarm bells for the hon. Gentleman about the policy not working as he believes it should.
I do not have that set of figures in front of me, but the hon. Gentleman probably has them. The point is that in all parts of the country, the people who are affected by this measure are dealing with it in different ways. Many of them are finding smaller accommodation to live in. Some of them are choosing to continue living in the accommodation that they are in and to make up the shortfall caused by the deduction from their housing benefit from other resources.
Does what my hon. Friend is saying not emphasise the point of the Bill? The Bill does not say that the spare room subsidy is wrong, but that we should protect people from the system if it means that they cannot move out to an appropriate-sized building. The Bill does not say that the spare room subsidy is wrong, but that it needs adjustment to ensure that it is fair. Surely that is the most sensible way forward.
The removal of the spare room subsidy encourages housing providers to build more of the accommodation that people want. That is the key point.
I want to make progress with my remarks. As I mentioned earlier, 360,000 households in the social rented sector are living in crowded accommodation, all of which would love to move into bigger accommodation. With nearly 2 million families on social housing waiting lists in England, it makes sense for the stock of our nation’s social housing to be utilised as efficiently as possible. Tenants in the sector are moving to accommodation that is more suited to their needs. In the seven months to December 2013, nearly 19,000 households that were affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy downsized into more appropriate accommodation.
My hon. Friend is getting to the nub of the problem, which is overcrowding. We must bear it in mind that the policy was forecast for about two years, so councils had an opportunity to build the right social housing properties. South Derbyshire district council brought forward another 170 one or two-bedroom units because it knew that it would need them. I wonder why other councils did not do that sort of thing.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am sure that other councils have a lot to learn from South Derbyshire district council.
To put my point about the 19,000 households that downsized because of the removal of the spare room subsidy another way, the other side of the coin is that 19,000 households that were living in cramped and overcrowded conditions were given the opportunity to improve their living conditions.
The Government proposals will bring a total saving of some £2 billion. Over the course of this Parliament, the bill for housing benefit was forecast to rise from £21 billion to £26 billion. Because of the various reforms to housing benefit that have been introduced, it will increase only to £24 billion.
The Government have put in place an array of measures to ensure that the new criteria are introduced in such a way as to protect those who have a genuine need for additional space. For example, disabled tenants who need overnight carers are exempt, all pensioners are exempt and, at the discretion of local authorities, families who have a child whose disability means that they cannot share a bedroom can be allowed an extra bedroom.
Order. Mr Nuttall, you have been speaking for 35 minutes and you have said on numerous occasions how important it is to make progress through your speech. You are being incredibly generous in taking interventions, but perhaps you could be a little more selfish and get on with making your speech so that other Members can speak. Taking fewer interventions might help.
I will be more selfish with the interventions I accept, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) was not one I have in my speech, so I am grateful to him for making it.
The Government trebled support for discretionary housing payments so that funding for this year is £165 million. In 2013-14, £21 million of central Government funding was unspent by the end of the year. Almost two thirds—63%—of local authorities paid out less than their total discretionary housing payment allocation, and fewer than a quarter applied for a share of the £20 million that the Department for Work and Pensions held back in reserve. Discretionary housing payments exist to provide a safety net for vulnerable tenants, and they offer the best mechanism for local authorities to provide additional support as welfare payments are reformed, enabling them to respond on a case-by-case basis to those who need more assistance.
I appreciate that the hon. Member for St Ives ideally wants the spare room subsidy to be removed. He would like a return to the time before the measure was introduced, when taxpayers in my constituency had to contribute towards those living on benefits and enjoying accommodation that they themselves could only dream about. Clause 1 is seen by those who want to return to those days as a mere stepping stone towards the day when tenants can once more have the benefit of spare rooms at the expense of other hard-working taxpayers. We must strike a balance between the interests of taxpayers and the legitimate needs of welfare claimants, and I do not see the need to introduce the measures in clause 1 to achieve that balance.
Let me turn to clause 3, which has not received the attention it needs so far. Subsection (1) requires the Secretary of State to
“carry out a review of the availability of affordable homes and intermediate housing and produce and lay before Parliament a report which must set out the conclusions of the review.”
within 12 months of the Bill being enacted. We know from clause 7(2) that the Act would come into force
“at the end of the period of 3 months beginning with the day on which it is passed.”
Anyone reading clause 3 would assume that there must be an urgent need for a review, and that for some reason no information is available about the housing stock in this country, and certainly nothing on affordable housing. However, even the most cursory investigation of the subject reveals that our library shelves are simply groaning under the weight of reports and statistics on this matter. In fact, there are so many that—you will be pleased to know this, Madam Deputy Speaker—I will not even begin to list them, never mind quote from them all.
Order. I am sure that the House can contain its disappointment and anxiety to progress this debate. I hope, Mr Nuttall, that you are making reasonable progress, and taking your own advice about making the remaining points in your speech so that others can participate in the debate.
I will, indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, restrict my comments.
The Department for Communities and Local Government publication “Affordable Housing Supply: April 2012 to March 2013”, issued on 21 November 2013, contains a wealth of statistics and information about the availability of affordable homes in England. It contains that much material that it is difficult to imagine what more could be wanted on the subject.
The principal body for delivery in the field is the Homes and Communities Agency. We are fortunate indeed that, only on Tuesday of this week, it issued its latest update—a statistical analysis with a wealth of facts and figures on affordable housing. Jonathan Walters, the HCA deputy director of strategy and performance, has said:
“The Statistical Data Return plays an important role in the HCA’s work as regulator, helping to identify the key issues for the sector and individual providers and to prioritise our regulatory engagement. The 2014 return shows that the sector has continued to grow, and sheds light on some important trends in a changing operating environment, including the growth of Affordable Rent”.
That is just a couple of the reports available on the topic—there are loads of others from charities, academics and pressure groups throughout the country—and I find it difficult to believe that there is any need whatever to carry out another piece of research.
I accept that the hon. Member for St Ives is entirely well meaning. No one would deny that his aims are entirely honourable. No one wants disabled people to be disadvantaged by legislation, but as I hope I have demonstrated, the Government have put in place the means to ensure that those most affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy are properly protected. I see no reason for a further report on affordable homes—there is no shortage of reports or statistics on the subject. The Government provide a wide array of schemes to help to stimulate the housing market. It is difficult to see what could come out of such a review, other than yet more schemes. For all those reasons, I oppose the Bill, and urge the House to vote against it on Second Reading.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on introducing the Bill and making the case for it. He is sincere in his personal opposition to the bedroom tax. I am therefore pleased to support him in trying to do something about it.
Like the hon. Gentleman, and like all hon. Members—I am sure this applies not only to Opposition Members—many dozens of constituents have come to see me or have written to me about the policy. That is hardly surprising. Gentoo, the largest social housing provider in Sunderland, tells me that more than 4,000 households across the city’s three parliamentary seats are affected by it. I do not know what supporters of the bedroom tax among Government Members tell their constituents who come to their surgery or who write to them, distraught about the impact the measure is having on their already stretched and limited incomes. Perhaps supporters of the bedroom tax do not see those people. Perhaps they ignore the letters and e-mails. That must be the explanation—it is the only one I can think of for why Government Members stand up and speak in support of a policy that is causing their constituents such hardship. Which of those Government Members’ constituents are most likely to be affected? According to their own impact assessment, it is overwhelmingly disabled constituents—people for whom an extra room is often not a luxury, as we have heard, but a necessity. It is not a spare room; it is a room for their partner to sleep in because their disability means it is impossible for them to sleep together any more; a place for their carer to sleep in; a storeroom for the equipment they need to manage their condition; or, in the case of one of my constituents, a sensory room for a disabled child.
What do Conservative Members say to constituents who tell them these stories or to those who could do without the extra room, but for whom no suitable smaller properties are available? Yes, the Government have had to introduce the discretionary housing payments to avoid mass evictions across the country, but they are limited not just by a budget, but by strict criteria, as we have heard, that have led to cases such as the terrible tragedy mentioned by the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) of a disabled person committing suicide. There have been numbers of such cases across the country and it is an absolute disgrace.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that although when one writes to a Minister one is told that discretionary housing payments are the solution, disabled adults have to apply every three months on forms that are dozens of pages long? Is this not a demeaning process?