House of Commons
Monday 2 November 2015
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in the present Parliament for the Borough Constituency of Oldham West and Royton, in the room of the Right Honourable Michael Hugh Meacher, deceased.—(Ms Winterton.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Department itself does not give advice. Regulated financial advice can be given only by a Financial Conduct Authority-authorised adviser. Pension Wise, set up by the Government, offers free, impartial guidance to people aged over 50 with defined contribution pensions. So far, over 20,000 people have received a guidance appointment since April 2015.
Twenty thousand is a drop in the ocean, considering the enormity of the changes. How will the Government ensure that pensioners are getting good, sound advice—and quantify that they are—in order that pensioners are not ripped off by people advising them badly and therefore lose out in future years?
May I bring the hon. Gentleman into the 21st century? There have been over 1.5 million visits to the Pension Wise website. We are confident we will make sure that the public are aware of what Pension Wise has to say, and that people can access the website or have face-to-face, telephone or online interviews.
I am getting a growing number of inquiries from women in their early 60s who seem to be unaware of the changes to the retirement age. I am worried that these ladies have not been contacted by the relevant Department and seem to be unaware that their retirement date will be rather later than they had imagined. What can be done to help them?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. May I put on the record the facts and circumstances? Between April 2009 and March 2011, the Department proactively mailed all women born between 6 April 1950 and 5 April 1953, informing them of their state pension age under the Pensions Act 1995. Following the 2011 changes, the Department wrote to all individuals directly affected to inform them of the change to their state pension age. Sending mail to those individuals, who are due to reach state pension age between 2016 and 2026, was completed between January 2012 and November 2013.
Ministers will be aware of the recent Work and Pensions Committee report, which contained stark warnings about pension scams since the advent of pensions freedoms and about the risk of people being conned out of their life savings. I am sure that Ministers are also aware of the recent survey showing that one in seven over-55s—about 1 million people—have been targeted by pension scams since April, when the pensions freedoms were introduced. Will the Minister reassure the House that he takes the Work and Pensions Committee report and the findings of the survey very seriously, and will he outline what the Government intend to do to protect people from fraudsters?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do take this issue very seriously. That is why we set up Pension Wise. Let me make it absolutely clear: the Government are not complacent about scams. We are making sure that the public are aware of how to detect a scam, how to deal with it and how to report it. The two regulators are also working with us. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will find that the Pension Wise website and those giving guidance do advise people on how to deal with scams.
I was about to ask the same question as the Minister just answered. May I take this opportunity to say to him that a large number of my constituents are being badly affected by scams, particularly over the internet? This is a matter of great concern. I am delighted that the Government have taken such strides to deal with it.
As it is one of the best places in the UK to retire, many people in Torbay welcome the freedoms that are being created, but they do need to be protected from scams, as has been mentioned. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that pensioners can access the advice they need before making a crucial decision about their future?
Pension Wise is there to give impartial and free advice. When necessary, it will direct people towards professional advisers. The Money Advice Service has on its books a directory of some 2,300 firms throughout the country. In Scotland, there are 162 firms. The total number of advisers is more than 6,000. We are trying to make sure that the public have proper access whenever advice is required.
15. If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of benefit sanctions on claimants’ mental health. (901937)
Many factors affect an individual’s mental health. To assess the effect of sanctions in isolation of all other factors would be misleading. A number of checks are built into the system to support all claimants, including those with mental health concerns.
That answer is disappointing. Opposition Members are concerned about the terrible damage that the ideological cuts being made by the Government are doing to the most vulnerable in our society. For the last two weeks at Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has asked the Prime Minister about suicides following benefit reductions. Will the Minister publish the details of the investigations forthwith?
The Department carries out reviews to identify whether any lessons can be learned. I should emphasise that the Information Commissioner has considered this issue and upheld the Department’s decision not to publish the details because of the level of personal information they contain. For that reason, it would be unlawful to release this information.
In 2014, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, Scotland’s leading mental health charity, published research that found that 98% of its service users said that their mental health had deteriorated as a direct result of welfare reform. Further research this year by the same charity at the facility it runs in my constituency at Redhall walled garden confirmed that benefit sanctions had been detrimental to the mental health of service users there. What steps will the Government take to address the adverse effects of benefit sanctions on those with mental health problems?
Sanctions play an important part in the labour market by encouraging and supporting people to go back to work. Jobcentre Plus staff are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions during their job search and such individuals have access to more expert advice, should it be needed.
Is the Minister aware that her disastrous and failing sanctions regime is not only causing untold misery to the people who are sanctioned, impacting on their wellbeing and mental health, but having a devastating impact on their families? A recent Citizens Advice Scotland report highlighted the fact that children are indirectly punished by sanctions. In the light of those alarming findings, will she reassess the impact of sanctions on the wellbeing of the family? Do they pass the Prime Minister’s family test?
Our sanctions system is robust and there is clear evidence that it works. The hon. Gentleman mentions support for the family. It is this Government who are supporting the family through our new life chances measure and, importantly, ensuring that work pays, which is how families get out of poverty and how the life chances of children and families improve.
Will the Minister confirm that the number of cases that result in sanctions is falling? Does that not show that jobcentre staff are working with claimants to help them engage with their search for employment, and that most people who are unemployed want to work?
My hon. Friend is right. Jobseeker’s allowance sanctions have decreased by more than 40% over the last year. Importantly, the principle behind the sanctions system is that it helps individual jobseekers to comply with the reasonable requirements that they develop and agree in discussion with their work coaches to help them prepare for and move into work.
People with mental health problems face particular barriers in getting them back into the labour market and productive work. Does the Minister agree that the Government should take all steps necessary to make sure that people with mental health problems are not sanctioned unnecessarily and that we show flexibility in making sure that they get back into the labour market?
My hon. Friend raises some fundamental points. Our staff are trained not only to support claimants with mental health conditions during their job search but, importantly, to provide more expert advice and support should they need it. To return to my earlier point, claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements, taking into account their circumstances and capabilities and, of course, their mental health conditions.
I welcome the Department’s recent decision to trial a yellow card system for 14 days for those being sanctioned in various places. I also welcome the Department’s decision to place advisers at several food banks, to trial whether that would also help with some of the benefits transition problems. When does my right hon. Friend expect the Department to have enough evidence to share with us the outcomes of the trials?
May I also thank the Government for accepting the “Feeding Britain” report’s call for a yellow card system? Before they report to the House on a good warning system for people about the impact of sanctions coming down the road, they will need to begin the trials. Is there any chance of the Minister being able to tell us when the trials will begin and when they will be completed?
The so-called yellow card pilot scheme is an admission by the Government that the sanctions regime is not working and that, in particular, it is badly failing people with serious mental illnesses. Why are the Government waiting until next year to introduce the pilot scheme? In the meantime, will they please just stop sanctioning people who are seriously ill?
I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady. Claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements, taking into account their circumstances. As the pilots get under way, I think she will find that this is about how we can integrate support for claimants and, importantly, provide them with the support and guidance to help them get back to work.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s response, but the reality is that people with mental health problems are being disproportionately sanctioned, and that has been evident for some time. Why will the Government not listen to voices across the House, including those on the Work and Pensions Committee, and subject the sanctions regime to a full independent review?
I would make a few points to the hon. Lady. For a start, the Government have been listening and we have responded to the Work and Pensions Committee, which is why we will be trialling and piloting the new scheme. I reiterate my earlier comment: our staff are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions and there is no evidence to suggest that such claimants are being sanctioned more than anybody else. We provide the support through our jobcentres and our claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements.
The Minister may have inadvertently slipped up there. There is clear evidence from last year that 58%—more than half—of people with mental health conditions on the employment and support allowance work-related activity group were sanctioned. That is equivalent to 105,000 people. According to a Mind survey, 83% say that their health condition was made worse as a result. The Government’s own evaluation of their Work programme has shown not only how ineffective it is, with 8% of people with mental health conditions getting into sustained work, but that their punitive sanctions regime just does not work, so why will the Government not commit to undertaking an independent review of sanctions?
Labour has clearly now changed its policy on sanctions, which of course it used to support. The sanctions system is kept under constant review, and we are trialling an early-warning system, as recommended by the Work and Pensions Committee. I would have thought she welcomed that. Sanctions play an important part in the labour market by supporting people, particularly those with health conditions, into work. [Interruption.] Labour Members have conveniently forgotten that ESA sanctions and ESA were put in place by a Labour Government. The sanctions system is clear, fair and effective in promoting positive behaviours to help claimants back into work.
Private Sector Pensions
Since the gradual introduction of automatic enrolment began in 2012, participation in workplace pension saving in the private sector has increased by 21 percentage points, from 42%, or 5.9 million workers, in 2012, to 63%, or 9.2 million workers, in 2014.
I am happy to congratulate B&CE on its people’s pension product and the work it does. It is important that the roll-out of automatic enrolment receives as much support as possible so that people can make choices that are right for them. I also commend my hon. Friend for his excellent work, which was evident when I visited his constituency.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her efforts in helping to spread the important message about this groundbreaking reform. I agree that small businesses need to advise their employees of the changes, which is why the Government have launched a new national communications campaign for small and micro-employers, as well as for individuals.
Would it not be much more sensible, financially secure and efficient and beneficial to pensioners to establish a compulsory state earnings-related pensions scheme for all, with defined benefits, in place of the Government’s auto-enrolment scheme?
It is important that we get people to recognise they need to think about the future. Some 10 million eligible people will qualify for auto-enrolment, of whom 9 million will be saving more or saving for the first time. I am also happy to say that 3 million to 4 million of them are women.
We on the SNP Benches are happy to support the Government’s policy of auto-enrolment, as we think it important that people save for the longer-term. Last week, however, Australia announced it would be stepping back from its policy of pensions freedom after many over-70s ran out of cash. Will the Government reconsider giving guidance to pensioners advising them to secure an income in retirement?
As hon. Members will be aware, the administration of temporary accommodation is a matter for local authorities, but I hope they will agree that the best route out of poverty is to support people into employment, and I am proud that we have achieved an employment rate of 73.6%, the highest since records began in 1971.
Official figures show that in England the total number of homeless households in temporary accommodation has risen by an alarming 26% over the last five years. In my local area, it has risen by 55% in the last 18 months. The Minister will know that being placed in temporary accommodation is not only traumatic for the families but incredibly costly. Given that his Department’s policies have been a key driver in this increase, what is he doing, in conjunction with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, to come up with an urgent solution to the problem?
Today, the number of households in temporary accommodation is 66,890, and the all-time high in September 2004 was 50% higher than that. The average time that households spend in temporary accommodation is now seven months less than when we came into office in 2010. Working with DCLG, we are introducing measures to build more houses. Over this Parliament, we expect a further 275,000 affordable houses to be built, which is the fastest rate in 20 years.
Discretionary housing payments were intended to mitigate some of the effects of welfare cuts—housing benefit and the benefit cap—and to prevent homelessness. In my local authority, however, half of expenditure is going to support house- holds that are already homeless and in temporary accommodation. Will the Minister tell us what proportion of expenditure nationally is going on paying for existing temporary accommodation? Does he think that is the point of discretionary housing payments?
We are making available £800 million for discretionary housing payments over this Parliament, which is an increase of 40%. The key is that it is discretionary for each local authority. In addition, to recognise the additional costs within London, £60 per household is provided per week to the local authority.
Petrus Community, a homeless charity in Rochdale has told me that there has been a significant increase in the number of people requiring temporary accommodation. The figures show that it has nearly doubled over the last five years of this Government. The charity blames these results on the bedroom tax, benefit sanctions, and employment and support allowance claimants being wrongly declared fit for work. What will the Government do about the situation in Rochdale?
The key is providing more houses. A further 800,000 new homes have been built since 2009, housing starts are at their highest level since 2007, and a further 275,000 affordable houses will be built during this Parliament. Through the new homes bonus, we are offering additional incentives to build further affordable houses.
Enfield is significantly affected by increases in temporary accommodation and by child poverty. Does the Minister agree that family breakdown is the key factor that needs to be taken into account when assessing and tackling the root causes of child poverty?
Further to the question about those living in temporary accommodation, does the Minister agree that, in order to get to the root causes of poverty, it is important to tackle not just family breakdown but workless households?
The Tory-Liberal Democrat Government tried to cut housing benefit some nine times. Since May, the Government have been trying again. All this has achieved is a massive increase in the number of homeless families in temporary accommodation, the largest housing benefit bill we have ever seen, and huge amounts of discretionary housing payments being given to local authorities. I am sure that it has occurred to the Minister—he is an intelligent man—that the answer is to build more real affordable housing. Would he like to have a quiet word with the Department responsible and ask it to pull the Housing and Planning Bill, because it will simply result in the sell-off of more and more affordable social housing?
The right-to-buy policy is a deal that we have secured with housing associations to give tenants the right to buy. The homes will be sold on a one-for-one basis, which creates new, modern stock and additional jobs. People who work hard should not be blocked from a chance to own their home, which I very much support.
Employment Support: Young People
Tackling youth unemployment is a priority for this Government. We are determined that young people should not slip into a life on benefits. That is why our Department provides a broad range of support for young people, in addition to the standard Jobcentre Plus offer.
Having experienced periods of unemployment in my youth, I am acutely aware of how tough it can be on individuals. Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that youth unemployment in my Pudsey constituency has fallen by 49% in the last month? Is that not proof that the economic plan is delivering the jobs and apprenticeships needed to give job security for our young people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That fall in unemployment is due to the fact that the economic plan is working and the economy is growing. However, we also recognise that young people need tailored support so that they can secure employment opportunities, and we have therefore introduced adviser time in jobcentres, work experience placements, the Work programme, Help to Work and the innovation fund.
The tax credit system has undoubtedly played a major role in encouraging people to take up employment by making work pay, and has made a massive contribution to the employment figures that Ministers frequently cite. Are the Government aware that if they proceed with their tax credit cuts, some people will pay a huge effective tax rate—perhaps as high as 93%—and that that will be a massive disincentive for those who actually do go out to work?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. By making changes in both the welfare system and the tax system, we are ensuring that work pays. The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that next April we will introduce a new national living wage, which will boost the incomes of people receiving low pay, and will be supplemented by childcare measures. Those will serve as pure incentives that will support them and help them into work. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) says, “Give us the evidence.” Where is the evidence and where are the facts that she and her team are providing? [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady has data to prove her case, she is welcome to share them with me, but the Government know for a fact that more people will be better off as a result of the new national living wage and free childcare, and because it will pay to be in work rather than depending on welfare, which is the policy that the Opposition are offering.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the National Apprenticeship Service, South Staffordshire College, Staffordshire University and those running advanced people management courses, all of whom will join me this month at an apprenticeship seminar that I am holding to help create new career opportunities for young people seeking work in Cannock Chase?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Apprenticeship fairs and engagement with employers are the right way to encourage young people not just to train and acquire new skills, but to secure new career opportunities through apprenticeships. I commend her for the work that she is doing in her constituency, and wish her well with her apprenticeship fair.
The Minister seems to have forgotten that not only are people under the age of 25 losing their tax credits, but they will not receive the higher minimum wage when it is introduced next year. Does not the tax credit cut mean that the Tories really are not the party for workers, and does that not apply doubly to young people?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last Labour Government introduced a minimum wage at a differential rate for young people, so we will take no lectures or lessons from his party. Let me also emphasise that when it comes to supporting young people, this Government are focusing on developing the skills and work experience of our young people through the youth obligation. That, too, is something that his party completely neglected when it was in government.
Benefits: EU Nationals
Since the start of last year we have been taking action through a range of measures to restrict access to benefits for EU migrants looking for work in the UK, because the last Labour Government left us an open door. That will ensure that advantage is not taken of our welfare system, and that the system is also fair to those who pay into it. It is estimated that changes made by my Department and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will save more than half a billion pounds over the next few years.
My hon. Friend started so well. However, I will avoid his blandishment to take myself even further than I might have.
I remind my hon. Friend—who is doing much to promote himself to a job in the Government—that no one who is unemployed and not a British citizen will be able to receive universal credit at all, which is a huge step towards the arrangement that he is after.
I commend the Secretary of State for all the efforts that he is making to restrict benefits for European citizens within the framework of the law, but does he agree that the only way in which the country will ever gain complete control over benefits policy for EU citizens is by leaving the European Union?
The Prime Minister has given the country a referendum on that matter, which is a huge step forward for the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and everyone else—they will all have a vote. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) will, at that moment, be able to make that powerful argument. I am sure, with his rhetoric, he may yet carry the day.
Work is, as my hon. Friends have said, the best route out of poverty, and that is why we are focused on getting people into employment. We have made significant progress and have the highest employment rate on record with over 2 million more people in work since 2010. The number of people in in-work poverty is 200,000 lower than at its peak under Labour in 2008-09.
As always, the Secretary of State refers back to statistics relating to the previous Labour Government, but the way to solve in-work poverty is not to cut tax credits. Is he aware of analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting that for the 8.4 million working households currently eligible for benefits or tax credits, the new proposed increase in the minimum wage will, on average, offset the cuts by only 26%? That will lead to an increase in in-work poverty. What will he do about that?
Let me pick the hon. Gentleman up on a couple of points. First, since the Government came to power, the number of people living in working families and not in poverty is up by about 1.7 million, compared with 2009-10. The number of people in in-work poverty peaked in 2008-09 and the latest figures are 200,000 lower than that peak. On the IFS, it is worth reminding him that in a recent interview on tax credits its director said that the Chancellor had taken the decisions to protect some of the poorest people on tax credits. That is where we are. The Chancellor is clearly looking at the last vote and he will come forward with further measures.
In trying to deal with in-work poverty, the Living Wage Foundation today unveiled its new, very carefully calculated rates of £9.40 for London and £8.25 outside the capital. They are designed to reflect the realistic costs of living and average wages. Will the Secretary of State tell us why, therefore, he and his Government continue to describe their new rate, the minimum rate for the over-25s of £7.20, as a national living wage?
I made the decision for my Department to pay the London living wage to all the cleaners and everybody else who works on contract. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor came forward with a very generous position in the Budget to raise the national wage to £9 by 2020. That is a huge increase. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell me why, throughout the 13 years of the previous Labour Government, they never engaged with raising it to the national living wage either.
The Labour Government introduced the minimum wage in the teeth of opposition from the Conservative party. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State pays, in his Department, the London living wage, but continuing to describe the national living wage as just that undermines both the campaign and the concept of a real living wage that people can genuinely afford to live on. The under-25s, as we have heard, will not benefit from this. Is the reason for that, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) has told us, that young people are viewed by this Government as unproductive and therefore worth less money?
For a moment, I forgot myself. I have been rather churlish. I did not welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. I welcome him now to his post without reservation. [Interruption.] Well, that is not what he said on Second Reading of the welfare Bill, when he abstained, having decided since that he is really opposed to it. But never mind, the road to Damascus has a new route—I think it is called a career.
Moving on, it is this Government who increased the minimum wage to £6.70 and the living wage to £9 by 2020. Universal credit improves work incentives and supports childcare, with up to 85% of childcare costs covered. The lowest paid and the poorest will be best protected by what we are proposing, and not by leaving the minimum wage where it was under the previous Labour Government.
The benefit cap is having a long-term and positive effect on those who are trying to find work, and on people’s lives generally. More than 60,000 households have been capped since April 2013, and as of May 2015, more than 40,000 households were no longer subject to the benefit cap. Of those, 16,300 households have moved into work.
I have good news from North West Leicestershire, where two thirds of the households to which a benefit cap applied are no longer subject to that cap. Does that show that the Government are successfully targeting taxpayers’ money in a way that encourages benefit recipients to seek work and reorder their finances, in exactly the same way as those in work do?
Yes. The benefit cap is introducing fairness, and the claimant count in my hon. Friend’s constituency is down by 54% since 2010, and the youth claimant count by 64%. We want even more people to benefit from the financial and wider rewards of employment, and that is why we are reforming welfare and getting on with the job.
Since the introduction of the benefit cap, some three quarters of households affected by it in South Derbyshire have taken steps so that they are no longer affected, and that is testimony to those who work tirelessly to help families improve their lot. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming that, and assure me that efforts will continue to help people turn their lives around, and away from dependency and into work?
I absolutely agree, and as I have said, the benefit cap is working. We are changing the levels at which that cap is set to improve it and to make it work further around the country. In my hon. Friend’s area, the east midlands, the number of workless households has fallen by 68,000 under this Government—households that are now benefiting from that return to work.
Family stability is at the heart of this Government because it creates better outcomes for children and society. We have taken a number of steps to promote family stability, including the family test, investing more than £8 million in relationship support, introducing the marriage tax allowance, and increasing childcare support to promote work as the best foundation for family stability.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s answer. The cost of relationship and family breakdown has been estimated at some £47 billion a year. I welcome the support for relationship advice, but I ask the Secretary of State to do more on that and to help turn around the lives of troubled families.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He has made support for families an important issue, and I have talked to him on a number of occasions. I believe that the troubled families programme is critical in supporting families with multiple and often highly complex problems to turn their lives around. Between 2013 and 2015, the DWP created 150 troubled families employment advisers to support people, and 116,000 families have been turned around with nearly 12,000 adults moved into continuous employment. I hope that helps my hon. Friend to understand that the Government are serious about this issue.
Poverty is a destructive element for family stability. Has the Secretary of State read the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, “Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Wales 2015”? It points out that working families and young people in Wales are at greater risk of poverty now than they were a decade ago, that 45% of all part-time jobs are classified as low paid, and that for those who work part time or are self-employed, the number of families living in poverty has increased by 100,000 in the past decade. It states that changes in the Welfare Bill will be damaging for families in Wales. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that?
I acknowledge that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has written its report, and it has said many things in the past about what we have been doing. As I said earlier, the number of families that have risen out of poverty directly as a result of our changes has been dramatic. As the hon. Lady well knows, Wales had a difficult time in the recession, but unemployment is now falling dramatically and employment is rising. I believe that the best way to get people out of poverty is to get them into work, and eventually into full-time work. That is happening right now.
This Government recognise the need to protect and support the most vulnerable in society including pensioners, those with disabilities and their carers. Stronger rights for carers have been introduced through the Care Act 2014. Since 2010, carer’s allowance has increased from £53.90 to £62.10 a week, and in April 2015 the earnings limit for carers was increased by 8% to £110 a week.
Indeed, but now there is a real threat, because around 700,000 family carers on carer’s allowance who work 16 hours a week at the minimum wage and can therefore claim working tax credit are going to be hit by the Government’s proposed tax credit cuts. The exact number is not known, but it is probably quite a lot of that group. Most of those carers cannot increase their working hours because they have such a big caring workload. They deserve, in my view, to be exempt from the Government’s tax credit cuts, so are DWP Ministers and the care Minister arguing now for this group of carers to be protected from the cuts?
The Chancellor said he will set out in the autumn statement what he will do to address the concerns some have raised about the transition from a high welfare, low wage economy to a low welfare, higher wage economy. As it stands today, we spend over £2 billion—a record amount—on supporting the valuable work carers provide in society, and the inter-ministerial meeting this Thursday, in which I will actively participate, will look at further ways in which we can support carers.
I applaud the Government’s current work in reducing the number of people in long-term unemployment, which is really impressive. May I particularly welcome the commitment to halve the disability employment gap? Does the Minister realise, however, that only 15% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment? What progress will she make to address the gap in this specific disability and provide autistic people with the opportunities they deserve?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is more to do in this space. We have over 200,000 more people with disabilities in work than this time last year. We will build on that and continue to secure opportunities for autistic adults to get a job and remain in employment.
21. Is my hon. Friend aware of the dramatic fall in long-term unemployment in Southend West of 49%? Please will she reassure me that the Government will continue to pursue the economic policies that have made this happen so that we reach the happy position where there is a job available for everyone who wishes to work? (901944)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the record levels of employment in his wonderful constituency and across Essex, which is booming when it comes to private sector jobs. We can never be complacent. The claimant count has nearly halved since 2010, and it is encouraging that we see through our long-term economic plan, with more and more people in private sector employment than ever before.
Today the Legatum Institute is publishing is global prosperity index. I raise it because it ranks countries on a number of measures, including the economy and levels of opportunity, with the UK rising nine places in the economic index, which is the latest evidence showing the positive impact of our reforms. As today’s report shows, thanks to our welfare reforms and economic reforms more people than ever have the opportunity to benefit from the dignity and sense of purpose that comes from having a job.
I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have been in receipt of a Motability vehicle and have appealed against a PIP assessment. They tell me that it can take months for their appeal to be heard, during which their entitlement to the vehicle, to which expensive adaptations have sometimes been made, is withdrawn. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that those rightly in receipt of a Motability vehicle retain it?
We are working closely with Motability to put in place a package of support for those who lose their eligibility. Claimants will be able to keep their vehicles for almost two months and most claimants receive a one-off payment of up to £2,000 to maintain their mobility. In addition, we have reformed the DWP appeals process with the introduction of the mandatory reconsideration. This enables disputes to be addressed more quickly. Finally, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service continues to focus on reducing waiting times, and I would be happy to work with my hon. Friend further to see what progress can be made.
Given the considerable disquiet in the country about cuts to tax credits, not to mention the alarm on the Secretary of State’s side of the House, where 20 of his own MPs have said that the Government are in danger of cutting a lifeline to working families, does he now regret describing tax credits as a “bribe”?
The hon. Lady should remember exactly how the money was spent. If she looks back, she will find that in the run-up to the 2005 general election, the then Chancellor raised the spending on tax credits, strangely, by 71%. After that the rate stayed pretty flat, but before the 2010 election it was suddenly raised again by nearly 23%. I simply say to the hon. Lady that if she does the maths, she might wonder why Labour lost the 2010 election.
T4. Will the introduction of universal credit, and all the associated data that that entails, enable the Government and the Department to help young people on low incomes to find new opportunities to progress into higher-paid jobs? (901915)
Yes. What happens now when someone on jobseeker’s allowance gets a job is that they disappear and nobody sees them. Under universal credit they will stay with their adviser, who will help them with any subsidiary training, help them to find extra hours if they want them, and help them to sort out any problems at work. That is a remarkable change, and it will give us the opportunity really to help people to progress in work.
T2. According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly one in four jobs in my city of Sheffield pays less than the real living wage. On the day that the living wage is being increased to £8.25 an hour, will the Secretary of State congratulate the Living Wage Foundation on its work and outline what he will do to ensure that more people are paid the real living wage, which is now over £1 an hour more than the Government’s bogus national living wage? (901913)
This Government are very clear that it is through our welfare policies that we are ensuring that work pays. As the hon. Gentleman heard me say earlier, we are introducing a national living wage next April which will ensure that work always pays and that people in the country are given a pay rise.
T5. What actions is the Department taking to support the small businesses in Romford and the London borough of Havering that are seeking to provide support and training to adults so that they can develop skills for successful employment? (901916)
I know that small businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency are flourishing and expanding at an impressive rate. Jobcentre Plus works with a range of providers to make specialist courses available, covering information and communications technology as well as many construction courses. In particular, we are working with businesses to ensure that the local labour market is growing in the right way and that people are getting access to the skills they need.
T3. With one in four workers in Erdington earning less than the living wage, 82% of children are being brought up in families that are dependent on tax credits. Does the Secretary of State not accept that this is the worst possible time to cut tax credits, and that those families will not be compensated by his phoney living wage? Will he join me in welcoming the initiative taken today by the Labour-led Birmingham City Council to declare that no Brummie in the city should earn less than the real living wage? (901914)
Despite all the other arguments, the Labour Government had 13 years in power and they let the national minimum wage fall further behind than ever before. It is this Government who have increased the minimum wage and who are now proposing a real living wage of £9 at the end of this Parliament.
T6. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to introducing a yellow card system for sanctions, but does he agree that we also need to ensure that claimants with mental health problems are placed in the right group in the first place? Will he reaffirm the commitment that I received from his predecessor, following a tragic constituency case, to improve mental health training for assessors and decision makers? (901917)
This is an important area, in which the Government have rightly invested an extra £1.25 billion in the March 2015 Budget. We have rolled out a £43 million series of pilots to provide face-to-face, group, online and telephone support. We also have mental health and wellbeing partnership managers and disability employment advisers right across the jobcentre network. We will continue to push further training, as this is an important issue.
T8. Over the previous Parliament, the number of working families in London claiming housing benefit increased by 84%. Over the past three years, London councils have been able to replace only one in seven of the council homes they have sold. Does the Minister see any connection between those two figures? (901919)
What the hon. Gentleman failed to remind us all is that under the last Government the number of people claiming housing benefit, both out of work and in work, rose dramatically, whereas under this Government the number of those claiming housing benefit out of work has fallen dramatically.
T7. I welcome the reforms to welfare, which have helped 609 people in my constituency back into work since 2010. Moving from benefits into work can cause cashflow difficulties, so I additionally welcome the initiative to put Jobcentre Plus advisers into food banks to make sure those delays do not occur. What progress are we making on speeding up benefit claims to make sure those situations do not occur? (901918)
We want to ensure that anybody who goes to a location such as a food bank has the ability to check whether there is a problem—if there is, let us deal with it there. We have also advertised hugely across all the jobcentres, telling everybody they can get benefit advances, hardship loans and so on. We are now beginning to find that when they go to the food banks, they are also being helped to get back into work, which is an added bonus.
T9. On the administration of the benefit sanctions regime, yesterday’s Sunday Herald reported new figures showing that in nearly 300,000 cases benefit claimants had been penalised with sanctions without being officially notified—that includes an estimated 28,000 cases in Scotland alone. Will the Minister apologise to all those who have faced destitution without proper notice? Will he finally commission an independent review of this badly intentioned and poorly administered system? (901920)
Well, she asked the question and if she does not want the answer, that is fine by me. What I am saying to her is that the last Labour Government moved to a clerical system. We have reviewed that approach over the past year and decided that, under the changes we want, going back to an automatic system is much better. The recent statistics released last week show that the rate of appeal was slightly higher among those who did not receive the initial letter appeal than among those who did; we therefore do not think there is a difference. We will be writing to people to remind them that they still have rights to appeal if they wish to do so.
A substantial benefit of the issues relating to tax credits is that more companies are encouraged to pay the national living wage—£9 an hour—now. What conversations has my right hon. Friend had with the Chancellor about incentives that we could provide to companies to pay £9 an hour?
Yes, the No. 1 reality is that companies that believe the economy is well run will invest in their workforce and give them a better salary. The problem was that the last Labour Government set up a system that encouraged companies to pay low wages and leave them static. The change now is this: universal credit is making them move on; higher salaries; a better wage packet. Many companies are already paying the higher level—they have come and said they will.
I was pleased to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People to discuss children with Batten disease who were having to re-apply for disability living allowance, but we were disappointed to be told that we would not get a formal response. Will the Minister ensure that the Batten Disease Family Association gets a formal response about how the Department will take the recommendations forward?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I am very disappointed to hear what he says and I will make sure that a formal response is sent. I was very grateful to both the hon. Gentleman and the Batten Disease Family Association UK for taking the time to help proactively support the changes that we needed to make.
We are liaising with companies and individuals and also ensuring that people take some individual responsibility, by looking at their statements and contributions and thinking ahead. We are also encouraging companies to be proactive and to ensure that their workers take part in the auto-enrolment process and that those workers are protected.
We have already had cross-departmental meetings to look at how we can further promote the National Citizen Service. As an MP, I can say that it is one of the schemes that was introduced in the previous Parliament of which I am proudest. It absolutely transforms children into young very employable adults; it is a brilliant scheme.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Health about passporting on to the new disability benefits, without the need for further assessment, those people who received contaminated blood from the NHS and contracted HIV and hepatitis C? That is causing such concern to those who are affected.
Given the Government’s ambition to have all benefit claims online by the end of this Parliament, will the Minister update the House on what discussions he has had with internet service providers to ensure that those on low incomes can get online?
The ambition is to get as many claims online as we can, but there will be some people who cannot get online. Under universal credit, we are keen to ensure that people can, if necessary, continue to make paper submissions, and that they will be treated inside jobcentres, but we will get as many online as we can. We have been talking constantly to the providers about how best to do this, and also about matters of security.
For clarification, is the Secretary of State pleased that, as a result of sustained parliamentary and public pressure, the Chancellor has been forced to reconsider the proposals on tax credits? Is that a matter that meets with his approval?
The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), said earlier that letters were sent to all women born in the 1950s to inform them of changes to the state pension age. I have to say to him that the campaigning group, Women Against State Pension Inequality, disagrees with him. I have constituents who were not informed of the changes, and they suddenly discovered that they were not going to retire soon and that they had many years to retirement. Will the Minister look again at that issue and reconsider whether that group of women affected—there are many hundreds of thousands of them—can now have transitional protection?
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I note that, on the Order Paper today, we have the first instance of English votes for English laws certification from you. I also note that on the notes to the Bill, it states specifically on page 60 that clauses 108 to 110 relate to Scotland, while in the certification they are said to relate to England only. May I request clarification of that apparent anomaly?
I commend the hon. Lady for the predictable application of her beady eye to these important matters, but she should rest content in my own certification decisions. In other words, if there appears to be any conflict between my certificate and what happens to appear in the explanatory notes, she should be content with the former as the definitive guide. Perhaps we can leave it there for now.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that Bills are to be certified at this stage in proceedings, what thought has been given to intimate to Members who may be affected by such certification when there is a difference between what is in the notes and what is in the Bill and the certification, as Members might wish to make representations to you on those matters?
Decisions on certification are what matters. I do not want to anticipate what might be seen to be, or indeed be, contrary elements. The hon. Lady is now well familiar with the geography of the Palace of Westminster. She knows exactly where the Table Office is and, to judge by her general high level of activity in this Chamber, I rather suspect that she makes frequent visits to it. She knows how to go to the Table Office, how to consult the Clerks, and how to consult me. At any rate she can be untroubled on this matter for today and, I hope, in the future. She might not always like the certification decisions, but she need not be in any doubt what they are.
Before the hon. Gentleman, in a state of uncontrollable excitement, rises to his feet to raise a further point of order, may I politely suggest to colleagues— I think the hon. Lady had in some sense anticipated this—that I say what I was going to say in any case on certification now, appertaining to today? If after that the appetite of hon. Members to raise further points of order remains, doubtless I will be the first to hear it.
I remind the House that I have certified some provisions of the Housing and Planning Bill under Standing Order No. 83J in relation to England, and some in relation to England and Wales. I further remind the House that this does not affect proceedings in the debate on Second Reading, or indeed in Committee or on Report. After Report stage, I will consider the Bill again for certification and, if required, the Legislative Grand Committee will be asked to consent to certified provisions. I hope that is clear.
Your clarification was helpful, Mr Speaker, but not pertinent to my point. Will you clarify the extent to which possible Barnett consequential effects are taken into account in the certification process, such as those in the Bill we are about to consider, which proposes the extension of national infrastructure projects to encompass housing?
The short answer to that question is no, because it is incumbent on me to make decisions on certification without explanation. That might seem not readily obvious to new entrants to the House, and I do not mean that discourteously, but it is very much in conformity with the usual practice of what is expected of the Speaker. If I may try to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, the analogy is with the decision on an urgent question. The Speaker makes a decision on urgent questions that is not then subject to debate or a requirement to explain it in the Chamber. The decision is made, it is communicated and that, for the Chamber, is the end of it. I hope that is helpful—but, whether it is or not, that is what I have to say.
Housing and Planning Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Every Parliament that is elected has a responsibility to the future and to do all that it can to ensure that the lives of the next generation are better than those of past generations. Nowhere is that more important than in ensuring that the next generation have the homes they need. Indeed, it is not just about the next generation. The impact of much of the public policy that we debate is on the here and now or the next few years ahead. If we look around any city, town or village in Britain, it is obvious that housing endures for many decades and, in some cases, for hundreds of years. Every home that is built is much more than a pile of bricks and mortar or concrete and glass. The homes that we build shape the lives, for better or for worse, of generation after generation of people who live in them.
As Churchill said:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.]
Providing the homes that we need is a responsibility that unites us all in this House. For many years now, we have not built enough homes in this country. That is true of successive Governments and has been true for many decades. New households have been forming in Britain at a rate of about 200,000 a year, yet the last year in which we built 200,000 homes was 1988.
As I hope the right hon. Lady will recognise from my remarks, our purpose and intent in this Bill is to increase the number of homes—that is our absolute objective—so that those children have the prospect of a roof over their heads in the years to come.
I was reflecting on how it has been many years—more than a generation—since this country built the number of homes that we need. During the financial crash, house building in Britain suffered what might be called a cardiac arrest, because in the third quarter of 2008 we were fewer than 20,000 homes away from stopping building altogether—the lowest rate of peacetime house building since the 1920s. It was not just that the banks would not lend, though they would not; it was a reckoning for a decade in which we had a top-down planning system, which the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), when he was Planning Minister, was magnanimous enough to concede had few friends. When that was imposed, it built bureaucracy and resentment but not many homes. It followed a decade in which the number of affordable homes fell by nearly half a million, and in which fewer than 200 council houses a year were built in the whole of England. It was a lost decade in which the rising level of home ownership fell into reverse in 2003 for the first time since the 1960s.
Will the Secretary of State explain how selling housing association properties, subsidising that sale by selling council properties—half the stock, in the case of my local authority—reducing local authority incomes to build properties by reducing rent, and allowing developers to get away without building any social homes helps the thousands of people in housing need in my constituency?
I will come on to address those points, but I say now that the reason it helps is that we are requiring a new home to be built for every home that is sold to council tenants, and that will improve the housing stock in London.
We had a decade when the housing market almost ground to a complete halt and home ownership fell for the first time since the 1960s. It was a period in which the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who is in his place, said, reflecting the shared view, that the Government whom he had supported for 13 years did not build enough homes. Other Labour Members, including Front Benchers such as the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), agreed, concluding that Labour did not do enough when in government. We agree. As is obvious from what I have said, Governments of different parties did not do enough over the years.
During the previous Parliament, home building revived and we got Britain building again. We scrapped the regional spatial strategies and we reformed planning policy. That was fiercely resisted at the time. Some of us, including the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), who I believe is to wind up for the Opposition, will remember those debates, in which Members were very critical of our proposals. Now, three years on, nearly 250,000 homes a year are receiving planning permission—up by nearly 60% since 2010.
Will the Secretary of State send a very clear message to councils that there is a huge demand from people who want to be homeowners for affordable homes that they can purchase, and that councils can hit their affordable home targets by bringing those forward?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we reflect on years past, we see that when 86% of people aspire to become homeowners it is not just homes for rent that are needed, but affordable homes for purchase. We are correcting what has been a historical anomaly.
The Secretary of State quoted what I said in a debate during the previous Parliament, when I did accept that the Government whom I supported for 13 years did not build enough homes, but if he looked at the remainder of the quotation, he would see that I said that the problem was that the coalition Government built even fewer.
The hon. Gentleman knows very well that since the previous Government the number of homes being built has increased substantially. In fact, it has increased by over 50% since we came to office. Planning permissions, as I mentioned, are now running at almost 250,000 a year, for the first time in many years getting to the level we need to provide homes for the population as it rises.
Given that the Bill fails to include any legal commitment to replace social homes that are sold under right to buy on a one-to-one basis, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that selling off valuable council homes to fund the extension of right to buy means that we are losing two social homes to rent in return for just one social home to buy? That is an overall loss.
The hon. Lady will find that the rate of additional stock that is being provided in response to the reinvigorated council right to buy is running at over one for one, and the agreement that we have been able to reach with the housing associations—if she has not had a copy of it, I will make sure that she gets one—makes it very clear that these homes will be replaced on at least a one-for-one basis. I should not say “replaced”, because the homes continue to be occupied; they trigger an additional home that is being built.
I shall make some progress, then I shall give way. I am coming on to talk about London, and the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt have something to say then.
We scrapped the regional spatial strategies and we saw planning permissions increase as a result of those reforms. We have allowed local communities to have more of a say through neighbourhood planning, and now over 1,600 neighbourhood plans have been adopted or are in production. We built 260,000 affordable homes, nearly a third of them in London, and in the next five years we will build 275,000 more, the most for 20 years. We have helped hundreds of thousands of people achieve their dream of home ownership, with Government schemes such as Help to Buy doubling the number of first-time buyers in the previous Parliament.
On affordable homes, when a council insists on a certain percentage of any project having to be affordable, the consequence is that the developer has to pay for them in cross-subsidy by building an extra number of larger homes. The effect then is to squeeze out the smaller two-bedroom and three-bedroom homes, thus cutting away the middle of the housing ladder. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he has considered this consequence and has addressed it, both in his policy and in the Bill?
On affordable homes in London, does the right hon. Gentleman accept his Department’s own figures, according to which, over the past three years, 9,025 homes have been sold in London under right to buy and there have been 1,310 starts on replacements? That is seven homes sold for every home started. If that is the Government’s record, why should we believe that things will be different going forward?
I was going on to say that in London during the first year of the reinvigorated right to buy, 632 homes were sold and already, a year before the deadline for councils, 1,115 starts have been made. The rate of provision of additional homes in London is running at nearly two for one. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will celebrate that.
When we reinvigorated the right to buy for council tenants, we ensured that every home sold to a resident would allow another home to be built. It is as much a policy for expanding the housing stock as it is for extending home ownership, desirable though that is.
I shall make some progress.
Nationally, of the 3,054 additional sales made in the first year, 3,337 new properties have been started within two years, and councils have three years to be able to build—a rate of more than one for one. As I said to the right hon. Gentleman, in London the rate of provision of additional housing is running at around two to one. It is worth saying that under Labour, during the time when so few council homes were sold, the rate of new build for every house sold under the right to buy was one in 170. I would have thought that Labour Members could show more humility about that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me, as someone with some experience in this, that the barriers to building new council houses are not about replacing right-to-buy properties, but lie in the planning processes that will be dealt with in the Bill?
My hon. Friend is right. From conversations with local authorities right across the country, I have found that one thing they intend to do—to do what Members on both sides of the House want, which is to provide homes for the next generation—is make sure that the planning system is speedier and more accommodating of the need for more homes, especially on brownfield sites, for which the Bill will provide a major boost.
If our task in the last Parliament was to rescue the housing market, our task now is to renew it. Building even at the current rate is not enough. The lost years of housing deficit—building fewer homes than the rate at which new households are forming—has led to a chronic shortage of homes compared with what this country needs. That means getting back to building homes at the rates we last saw in the 1980s and previously, giving hope to the 86% of people in this country who want to become homeowners and taking steps to ensure that properties available for rent are properly managed, with no place for rogue landlords.
To provide these homes will require us to work together—Parliament, central Government and local government, house builders and housing associations—to find the land and grant planning permission, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) said, as well as to finance the development, build the homes and give people the chance to own or to rent them. The Bill helps us to do that.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the failure of the Government to deal with the housing crisis has meant that private rents have reached an all-time high of £803 per month—and more in London—and have continued to rise, with a 20% increase since 2010? Yet wages have failed to keep up with that increase.
The hon. Lady makes my case for me. The consequence of such a long period of failing to provide the homes we need is of course reflected in their price. That is why the purpose of the Government—and, I hope, of the House—is to build more homes to make sure that they are available in quantity to the next generation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for all the howling from Labour Members, the fact that house prices went up threefold to fourfold during the Labour Government is why young people find it so hard to get on to the housing ladder, with house prices accelerating way beyond salaries? Of course, that was during Labour’s alleged economic miracle.
The Bill recognises the aspirations of those who want to own their own home, but does the Secretary of State also recognise the hopes of homeless Londoners who want a decent roof over their heads? Will he recognise that St Mungo’s has signed up and agreed to the housing association right to buy, but will he also recognise the importance of receipts remaining in London to cross-subsidise the vital work done by St Mungo’s in helping vulnerable Londoners?
I have said that it is important that we provide more homes across the country, but particular in London, where we know that demand for homes by people of all types—families and single people—is very acute. The purpose of the Bill is to allow us to provide more homes in London, as I shall go on to say.
May I extend a warm welcome to this long overdue legislation? May I point out to my right hon. Friend that in my local authority area, Chiltern District Council, we have some of the highest average property prices in the country? Even with the 20% discount applied to properties known as starter homes, it will therefore be jolly difficult for some of our young people to afford those homes. In addition, will he tell us how my local council can prioritise those homes for local people?
We need to provide homes of all sorts. It is important to continue to provide homes for rent and to provide homes for purchase. My right hon. Friend will have constituents who have grown up in her constituency, who have had family connections there for many years and whose friends and relations are there, and they have to leave her area not because they want to, but because they have to. It is important to provide more homes in areas such as hers, as well as across the country.
In areas such as Brighton and Hove, where land for development is extremely constrained, it is likely that the money that is raised from the right to buy will be spent elsewhere, outside the city. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the money raised through right to buy will be spent in the city?
What the hon. Gentleman describes is not the experience across the country, including in Brighton and Hove. Councils are overwhelmingly able to build extra properties as a result of the sale of existing homes. I am not aware that Brighton and Hove proposes to return the money to the Government, which means that it is confident that it will be able to provide the extra homes.
I am going to make some progress.
Before I took the interventions, I was saying that if we are to find the land, grant the planning permission, finance the development and build the homes, it is essential that the various players in the housing market come together to do it. It cannot be done individually. The Bill will help with that.
Let me take the example of the right to buy. Home ownership is an aspiration for 86% of people in this country. The Bill will make it possible, through the agreement that the housing association sector has made with the Government, to extend the right to buy to all 1.3 million tenants who currently do not have the right to become homeowners. That agreement is good for
“residents, for housing associations and the nation’s housing supply. Residents will get the opportunity to realise their dreams of homeownership and housing associations will be able to replace the homes sold, boosting the nation’s housing supply.”
Those were the words of the head of the housing associations’ collective body, the National Housing Federation.
It has been a 30-year injustice that council tenants have had the right to buy their homes but housing association tenants have not. I strongly believe that when they signed a tenancy agreement, housing association tenants did not sign away their aspirations to become homeowners. Housing association tenants share the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. They live on the same streets, they shop in the same stores, their children go to the same schools. It is only right that they should have the same opportunities as council tenants.
First, will the Secretary of State confirm that the National Housing Federation does not support the sale of council housing property to fund this policy? Secondly, will he confirm that the purchase of housing association properties will be available to EU nationals after paying taxes for just three years?
The previous Government reduced the residence qualification for overseas nationals. We have proposed extending it. The combination of the residence requirement for social housing and the requirement to be a resident for three years before the right to buy comes in means that it will be seven years before there is any entitlement for an overseas national.
I thank the Secretary of State for the way in which he and his Ministers, especially the Minister for Housing and Planning, have engaged with colleagues across the House as the Bill has come together. I was pleased when we announced the extension of the right to buy in our manifesto and I will support the Bill tonight. However, some rural communities in my constituency want to know whether the current exemptions in respect of rural exception sites will continue in the extended right to buy. Can the Secretary of State reassure me and my constituents?
I certainly can. This shows the benefit of having a conversation with everyone who is affected. Colleagues across the House wanted to be reassured that, in those areas where it simply is not possible to provide a new home, a solution could be found to allow their housing stock to be maintained while at the same time allowing those in rural communities, who have the same aspirations as others, to own a home of their own. What we have agreed with the housing association sector, through its proposals, is that, while an association will be able to say that it is not possible to build a new home in certain areas, people will be entitled—this is a real opportunity for our constituents across the country—to apply their discount to a new home that the housing association will build in the nearest area in which it is possible to build one. That is a real result for every rural area in the country.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, if housing associations decide to sell off higher-value properties in rural communities, there must be like-for-like replacement in those communities? Otherwise, the demographic loss of young people from small rural communities will continue.
The advantage of reaching an agreement with the housing associations, which are locally based and whose mission is to provide homes in their areas, is that they are positively enthusiastic about it, as the head of the National Housing Federation made clear to the Communities and Local Government Committee the other day.
The Labour party’s approach, not just in this area, but to our devolution proposals, is genuinely disappointing. I and my colleagues have found that it is entirely possible to talk to and to come to consensual agreement with people who have the same interests as us. The Labour party, however, seems to set its face both against that kind of dialogue, whether it relates to devolution or the matter under discussion, and against our approach to establishing consensus on the best way forward.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the arguments he is making. Does he not find it perverse and incredible that the opposition to extending the right to buy to people on low incomes in this country should be mounted not just by the Labour party, but by people who are overwhelmingly owner-occupiers of their own homes?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. For anyone who has any doubt about the policy’s personal impact, I will illustrate it by reading an email I received from a young mother on the day on which our right-to-buy agreement with housing associations was announced last month. She wrote that,
“during the middle of the economic crisis in 2009…I was…made redundant from a job that I had been in for twelve years. I was left with a six year old, a three year old and a newborn baby and life was pretty much as grim as it could get.
For the past five years I have lived in a housing association home. At the time—it was very much a lifeline and I am enormously grateful for the safety, security and peace-of-mind that it brought me.”
She went on to say that,
“up until April of this year—I had simply accepted that this was my life now and would always be. I would forevermore be ‘just about’ comfortable: ‘just about’ paying the bills, ‘just about’ paying for Christmas. ‘Just about’ living.
But in late April that completely changed for me. I heard somewhere that the Conservatives were going to allow housing association tenants the right to buy their own home…I had completely written off ever being able to achieve that goal.
I voted Conservative in May because of that hope.”
“I watched and read intently all about the Conservative’s crazy, ridiculous policy. I read the negative fall-out from Housing Associations, from Labour, from literally everywhere…And of course—all of these associations, politicians, media have far bigger voices than people like me. By September I had resigned myself to the fact that this looked like a lost-cause.
I am absolutely eternally grateful to everyone in the Conservative government that helped push this forward. I absolutely cannot wait until the point, hopefully in 2016, where I can be holding the keys to the house that I own. A house that will be my savings for the future. A house that will allow me to pass something onto my three girls.
Please, please pass on my very heartfelt gratitude to everyone involved in ensuring this was made a reality. For me, it’s life-changing.”
As this lady made clear, this policy, agreed with the housing associations, is giving people up and down the country the chance to fulfil a dream they thought was beyond them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) said, it is disappointing, therefore, that the Opposition are turning their backs on such people’s aspirations and trying to take away the hope of home ownership that they have nurtured and which the Bill introduces.
The Secretary of State will know that housing associations have a long, proud history as independent bodies and that the main reason many signed up to this voluntary deal was to avoid their reclassification as public bodies by the Office for National Statistics, but it has now done just that. When did he know that this reclassification was on the cards? Was it before or after he made the agreement with the housing associations?
I am astonished by the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because the ONS, completely independent of the Government, has made it clear that the reclassification, which we intended to be temporary, has nothing to do with any action by the Government. The reason for the reclassification is the clumsy—I might even say clunking—provisions of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, taken through the House when he was a Minister. He should be apologising for the predicament into which he put housing associations. As hon. Members will have noticed, one benefit of our agreement with the housing associations is the ability, as reflected in the Bill, to deregulate the housing association sector to correct the damage he did when he was Minister.
The Secretary of State gives the House partial information. He will know also that the ONS made this decision in the light of government accounting changes introduced in 2011, not just the provisions of the 2008 Act. So I ask him again: what does he say to those housing associations that believe he has acted in bad faith, knowing this reclassification was on the cards but still willing to do the deal with them?
It is quite the reverse. It shows the benefits of a voluntary agreement. If we intend, as we do, to recognise the historical voluntary nature of housing associations, we are not going use legislation to thrust them into the public sector, as the right hon. Gentleman did when he was a Minister; we are going to legislate to remove those regulations that put them temporarily in the public sector. If ever there was a vindication of the voluntary approach, rather than the clunking reaching for legislation, which Labour favours, it is in this agreement.
I have been speaking for more than half an hour, so I will make some progress, but I might give way later.
I pay tribute to the housing associations for having the vision and foresight to see that extending home ownership is completely consistent with their historic mission. The lazy assumption that there is a contradiction between supporting the dreams of homebuyers and ensuring new homes are built must end. I look forward to equally positive engagement with councils—indeed, I have it already—during the passage of the Bill. Their objectives are the same as mine: to ensure that as they release the equity in their high-value properties, they can make sure that more homes are built, adding to the housing supply as well as extending home ownership. At councils’ request, we have included in the Bill a flexible approach that does not require the immediate sale of particular properties, but gives us a chance—if they wish to take it—to agree with councils an approach that meets our mutual objectives.
I want to say a word about London, which has come up already in this debate. Building homes in the capital is a priority not only for my hon. Friend the Mayor but for me. Benjamin Disraeli once described London as a “roost for every bird”. Like many of his observations, it has turned out to be a prophecy—100 years later, the birds are still flocking and the roost is still growing.
Last year, new housing starts in the capital were a quarter higher than when we came to power, and nearly a third of all affordable homes achieved during the last Parliament were in London. As I have said, after we reinvigorated the right to buy for tenants in London, nearly twice as many homes were built as were sold to their tenants—but I want to do more.
The Mayor has set out the most ambitious plan for house building in the capital since the 1930s, but I want to go further so that a quarter of all the homes we build in England are built in London during the years ahead—a quarter of a million new homes over the next five years. I want the right to buy scheme to be a major part of that, and I will talk to anyone in London local government to ensure that that happens, just as it was possible to have a meeting of minds with the housing associations.
I want to make some progress.
Other measures in the Bill will help. The Mayor has the power to establish development corporations and development orders to speed up the development of new housing across the city. I am absolutely determined to make sure that the Mayor has the ability to deliver the homes that London needs to maintain its position as London’s premier world city.