Before I call the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, let me say that it may be of interest to the House and useful to those on the Front Benches to know that no fewer than 19 Back-Bench Members are seeking to catch my eye. In deciding on a time limit, I shall have to take account of the length of contributions from the Front Bench, and those on the Front Bench, being ever considerate, will, I am sure, wish to ensure that their contributions are tailored to allow for the views of Back Benchers to be expressed.
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government’s planned cuts to housing benefit support for vulnerable people in specialist housing, including the elderly and people who are homeless, disabled or fleeing domestic violence, risk leading to the widespread closure of this accommodation; notes the concern from charities, housing associations, councils and others across the country about the severe effect of these cuts; further notes that supported housing has already suffered as a result of Government spending cuts and policy decisions; notes that the planned changes will apply to all new tenancies from April 2016; notes the clear evidence that the Government’s proposal to mitigate these cuts with discretionary housing payments will not work; and calls on the Government to urgently exempt supported housing from these housing benefit cuts and to consult fully with supported housing providers to safeguard this essential accommodation.
We have called the debate to give voice to hundreds of thousands of elderly and vulnerable people whose homes have been put at risk by the Government. It is very encouraging to know that 19 Members from both sides of the House wish to express their concern and to make a contribution to this debate.
We have also called the debate to expose the decision to challenge; and to expose it to compassion and to care. We want to expose it, too, to common sense. In his November spending review, the Chancellor announced that
“housing benefit in the social sector will be capped at the relevant local housing allowance.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1360.]
With one short, sweeping sentence, he put at risk almost all supported and sheltered housing for the frail elderly, the homeless, young adults leaving care, those suffering with dementia, people with mental illness or learning disabilities, veterans and women fleeing domestic violence. According to those who provide that type of housing, he condemns nearly half of all such housing schemes to closure. He has already caused the cancellation of building work on nearly 2,500 new homes for people in those groups. The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary—my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith)—and I therefore joined forces to use the motion and the debate to draw attention to how the Chancellor’s crude housing benefit cut could hit the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who totally depend on such specialist housing, many of whom are the most vulnerable people with nowhere else to turn.
The National Housing Federation says that 156,000 homes—at least that number of people will be affected—are set to close. A survey by Inside Housing found that one in four supported housing providers are set to close everything, while 19 out of 20 say that they will close some of their supported accommodation.
Since the spending review, as you might expect, Mr Speaker, I have been asking Ministers for evidence regarding the decision. I asked the Minister for Housing and Planning how many elderly people will be affected by the Chancellor’s cut, but he told me that the Government do not know. I asked how many women fleeing from domestic violence will be affected—don’t know; how many people with mental health problems—don’t know; how many young people leaving care—don’t know. The Government do not even know how many people in supported housing receive the housing benefit that they plan to cut.
The Minister did tell me, however, that the Government have commissioned an evidence review. It started in December 2014 and should have been completed by November 2015, but was not. Why not? In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me that the delay was due to
“the emerging complexity in the design and delivery of the review”
and “General Election Purdah restrictions”. The Minister therefore did not know what he was doing when he commissioned the review, and he must have been alone in the House and the country in not knowing that there was a general election in May last year. He says that the review will be ready later this year, so he does not even know when he will know what, at the moment, he does not know. What a shambles! What a serious dereliction of duty from a Government who should be making policy on the basis of evidence, especially when that policy affects the lives of so many very vulnerable people.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one helpful thing that the Minister could do during the debate would be to make it clear that the cap applies to housing benefit, not to the service charge applied to so many in supported accommodation?
I do not often disagree with my hon. Friend, but I do not agree that that is the solution. It is absolutely clear, as the motion says, that the Government need to act immediately and confirm that they will exempt in full supported housing from these housing benefit cuts. They then need to work with housing providers to ensure that such housing can be developed and secured for the future. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that argument and will back us in the Lobby today.
My right hon. Friend suggests that the Government do not know what they are doing, but does he agree that it could be suggested that they do not care about the people whom they are directly affecting? They should care, however, that the Homes and Communities Agency has estimated that its investment in supported housing results in a net benefit of £640 million a year.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I shall come on to touch on that matter, albeit lightly. People will make their own judgments about whether Ministers and the Government know and care enough so that they act to stop the cuts.
The devastating decision has been made with no consultation, no impact assessment and no evidence. This is not a tussle between Government and Opposition Front Benchers because the situation concerns each and every Member of the House. Every MP has in their constituency hundreds of residents in supported or sheltered housing, many of whom cannot pay their rent and service charges for themselves and totally depend on housing benefit to help to cover their costs.
Is not the real unfairness that supported housing, for many of our constituents, is an expensive but necessary choice? Without additional support from the housing benefit system, those people would not be able to afford such accommodation, which is vital to their everyday needs.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that we all have constituents in accommodation such as sheltered housing, and he knows that all Members, irrespective of their party, care about our constituents. Will he dissociate himself from the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) that Conservative Members, in seeking to bring forward changes, do not care, because we do?
It is down to the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues to demonstrate that case to those who are watching the debate, and especially to the people whose homes and lives are at risk.
As I said, every Member of the House has constituents who are threatened by the Chancellor’s crude housing benefit cut. In the Minister for Housing and Planning’s local authority area of Great Yarmouth, there are some 258 people in supported housing and at least 139 in sheltered housing. The numbers are even higher for Swindon and Tunbridge Wells. What do we say to these residents and their families? What do we say to the committed charities, churches, housing associations and other groups that provide such specialist housing and are so concerned?
Surely the right hon. Gentleman concedes that this is not a back-of-a-fag-packet policy and that the Government are doing a sensible thing by collating all the information and demonstrable data as part of a proper scoping exercise on assisted housing, with an impact assessment. They have also put aside nearly £500 million for discretionary housing payments and the changes will not take effect until April 2018. Surely that is a sensible policy for the Government to pursue.
We have not seen the information and we have not seen the evidence—we have not even seen the fag packet. Without the information and the evidence, why on earth did the Chancellor take this decision in the spending review before Christmas, thus pre-empting exactly what good policy and decision making should be based on?
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd and I called the debate to give voice to widespread concerns, to try to make the Government think again and to say that they must make exemptions from the cut. I shall set out in a moment why Ministers need to take a decision immediately.
Let me explain how the process will work. The Chancellor’s decision caps housing benefit for social tenants at a new rate, which is the same amount that private rental tenants receive through the local housing allowance. For most general council and housing association homes, this will not cause tenants any immediate concerns as their rents are lower than that level. However, specialist housing services and schemes that provide extra care and support involve much higher housing costs, with their higher rents and service charges often covered by housing benefit. The Government know that from their 2011 report on supported housing, which listed the main reasons:
“providing 24 hour housing management cover…providing more housing related support than in mainstream housing…organising more frequent repairs or refurbishment…providing more frequent mediating between tenants; and providing extra CCTV and security services”.
That is why rents in that type of accommodation do not mirror the rates in general private rented accommodation in the local area, but that is the level of the Chancellor’s cut and cap.
My right hon. Friend will know that, in Nottingham, the housing charity Framework is appalled at the impact of the change on the supported accommodation it provides for some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency. It says that hundreds and hundreds of spaces will have to close by 2018 if the change goes ahead. This is a very real problem facing some of the most deprived and vulnerable people in the country, and I applaud the fact that he has called this Opposition debate.
I thank my hon. Friend and applaud his effort to talk to providers in his constituency. The fears that Framework expressed are widely voiced and shared by providers who offer that type of housing and support. I do not know what figures he has for Nottingham, but Homeless Link cites figures in Birmingham that expose the shortfall. The average national rent in a homeless hostel is about £180 per week. The local housing allowance rate in Birmingham is half that figure, at £98.87 a week. The local housing allowance rate for a room in a shared house, which is all that single people under 35 are entitled to, is just £57.34 a week—a shortfall of over £120 per week, per tenant.
Supported housing is not just an emergency bed or a roof over someone’s head; the support helps people to get their lives back together. Last year, 1,500—or two in five—people housed by St Mungo’s in its hostels moved on from supported housing into individual accommodation. Last year, St Vincent’s—the Manchester-based housing charity—saw 15 of its young Foyer residents go on to university, one to Oxford. For thousands of other people with severe autism, learning disabilities, dementia and mental illness, living as independently as possible in supported housing, there is no alternative but hospital and residential care, which are much more institutionalised for the residents and much more expensive for the taxpayer. This policy risks turning the clock back on people’s lives and standards of care by 40 years.
My right hon. Friend has illustrated his case by referring to people for whom the alternative may be much more expensive and less adequate care. There are other people, such as women fleeing domestic violence with their children, who come to very good accommodation in my constituency, who will have no alternative at all if those places are closed down as a result of these measures.
My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, understands this better perhaps than anyone in the House. There is no alternative to the supported housing needed by many of the most vulnerable people, and which they have at present. That is why Ministers must act immediately to exempt supported housing in full from the crude cuts and undertake a detailed consultation with providers about how such housing can be secured in future. Before Christmas, I revealed the scale of the problems facing people in specialist supported housing.
No, I will carry on for the moment.
Since then, we have had a series of half-baked statements from the Government. The first was, “This is unnecessary scaremongering.” Not true—we are giving voice to the warnings and evidence from those who have the facts and will have to manage the consequences. Those are organisations the British public trust and respect, including Age UK, Mencap and Women’s Aid. Secondly,
“nothing will change until 2018.”
Not true—the cut and the cap apply to new tenancies from April this year, so the problem is immediate. My local housing association, South Yorkshire Housing Association, has told me that
“it takes time to rehouse anyone, let alone the most vulnerable people. Consultation on scheme closures will need to begin within a matter of weeks”.
No one will sign contracts for supported housing when they do not know whether the basic costs can be covered. New investment has already been stopped in its tracks: one in five providers have frozen investment and new schemes, according to the Inside Housing survey. Golden Lane Housing, Mencap’s housing arm, had plans for £100 million of investment over the next five years in supported housing across England, but they have been scrapped.
“Additional discretionary housing payment funding will be made available to local authorities, to protect the most vulnerable, including those in supported housing”.
Not true—the fund is run by councils to deal with emergency applications from people already coping with the bedroom tax, the benefits cap, and the cuts in the last Parliament to the local housing allowance. Awards often run for only a few months. The fund is currently £120 million a year, and it is a short-term and overstretched measure.
Policy costing in the autumn statement scores the cost of the Chancellor’s housing benefit cut at £515 million. The Government proposed to top up the discretionary housing payments fund by not £515 million but £70 million. Housing organisations rightly dismiss the idea that the fund is the solution, saying that that is “nonsense and unworkable”.
The insufficiency of discretionary housing payments for the bedroom tax has been shown again and again. I am delighted that today at least one case involving a family of carers has been exempted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that facing this sort of situation preys on the minds of vulnerable people, as they know that they have to apply for a discretionary housing payment and may not get it?
I think that my hon. Friend is discussing the case in the High Court, which found the Government to be in breach of equality legislation. We have always said that the bedroom tax is unfair, punishing people who often cannot afford to make up the difference, and that it should be scrapped. I hope that today’s High Court judgment will lead Ministers to think again about the bedroom tax and to act to stop the housing benefit cut damaging the prospects of many people.
The question for the Minister for Housing and Planning and for the Secretary of State—who was in the Chamber a moment ago, but then scarpered—is: did they discuss the cut with Treasury Ministers before the spending review? Was the Department even consulted? Either they did not spot it or they did not stop it. Either way, the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Department have been disregarded and overruled by the Chancellor.
The Housing and Planning Minister is in the Chamber to try to explain why housing schemes supporting more than 150,000 of the most vulnerable people, with nowhere else to turn, are set to close, while the real culprit keeps his head down in the Treasury. Forced to backtrack on tax credits when a tough stance on benefits backfired, the Chancellor turned to housing benefit cuts across the board to make his fiscal sums add up. With this, he has made the same errors of judgment. He has put politics above good policy and even basic humanity. He announces first, and asks questions later. He is failing many vulnerable people, and he is failing the taxpayer too.
This decision is a big test for the Conservative Government. The Prime Minister said just before the election:
“I don’t want to leave anyone behind. The test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society.”
So will the Government act immediately and confirm that they will exempt in full from this crude, sweeping housing benefits cut those in supported and sheltered housing? Will they work with those who provide that housing to ensure that it is secure for the future? The only decision for Ministers to take on the motion before the House is to exempt that housing—a decision that would be based on evidence, compassion and care.
Once again, I stand at the Dispatch Box grateful for the subject chosen by the Opposition for debate. We are always happy to discuss welfare reform, because it is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. We make no apology for this commitment to the people of Britain.
Our aim is simple. We need to balance the books and introduce a welfare system that is fair to taxpayers, where work pays and where having a job is always preferable to a life on benefits. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) speaks as though we are debating in a vacuum. We have to bear in mind where we have come from in order to understand where we are going, and the wider picture. Let us remember that in 2010 we inherited a welfare system that failed to reward work, hurt taxpayers, and was a millstone around the neck of the British economy. During the 13 years of the Labour Government, welfare spending had shot up by 60% in real terms and 1.4 million people had spent most of the previous decade trapped on out-of-work benefits. The result was a benefits system in disarray, which was costing taxpayers an extra £3,000 a year.
Was my hon. Friend as surprised as I was when he heard his opposite number talking about good policy, when in the last 10 years of the Labour Government housing benefits increased by 46% in real terms? How could that be considered good policy?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the contribution from the Opposition Front Bench was long on flannel but short on facts? The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that despite small initial savings, there will be long-term benefits from capping housing benefit. My hon. Friend may wish to comment on that.
Will the Minister confirm that the coalition Government, including the Tory party, spent £130 billion more than the previous Labour Government on welfare, breaching £1 trillion for the first time under any Government? Is that not a fact?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the terrible mess that the coalition Government inherited. There was no fairness for hard-working taxpayers in such a system. There was nothing progressive in trapping people in lives without hope for a brighter future. The welfare system that his party left was broken, yet the Opposition have since then opposed every single decision we have taken to fix it. We have never heard from them proposals for alternative reforms, which can mean only that they oppose making any difficult decisions at all. It is easy to make noise, but much harder to do the right thing by the British people. We have seen one tactic time and again—scaremongering, exploiting the concerns of the very people they claim to represent, and playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people. Today’s debate is no exception.
If the Minister wants a specific proposal to save money on housing benefit and welfare, why does he not look at the £4.6 billion lost through fraud and error in the administration of our housing benefit system? Why does he not get a grip on that and introduce some better credit rating agency checks for applications? That is where the savings should be made, rather than on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our society.
We have been clear about protecting the most vulnerable people in our society; I will come to that in a moment. The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to continue to make progress in cracking down on fraud and error, and in local government as well—something that the Labour Government did nothing about.
My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. Will he remind the House that the Government are issuing £800 million to be allocated to local authorities for discretionary housing payments, and that a further £40 million was announced in the autumn statement for supporting the vulnerable, particularly for refuges for beaten women?
Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that until we heard from the former shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, we had not heard, in 25 minutes of listening to the shadow Minister, any suggestion or acknowledgement that housing benefit is now an issue that any responsible Chancellor needs to look at? We spend more on housing benefit than on secondary education and it represents 50% of what we spend on the defence budget. No responsible Chancellor of the Exchequer would not be losing sleep about housing benefit and looking to reform it.
I shall make a little progress and then take more interventions.
This Government have always been clear that the most vulnerable will be supported through our welfare reforms. We know that the welfare system is vital for supporting vulnerable people, and we know it is essential that all vulnerable people have a roof over their heads. That is why we have been determined to support their housing needs. We have set aside over £500 million to create a strong safety net against homelessness; we recently pledged £40 million for domestic abuse services, ensuring that no victim is turned away from the support they need; at the autumn statement we announced a further £400 million to deliver 8,000 specialist affordable homes for the vulnerable, elderly or those with disabilities; and the Department of Health committed to fund up to 7,500 further specialised homes for disabled and older people.
We spent an extra £2 billion on main disability benefits over the course of the last Parliament, and by 2020 we will be spending at least £10 billion a year extra over and above inflation on the NHS, including a record £11.4 billion a year on mental health, which we can do because of the stronger economy that the Chancellor has brought to our country.
The Minister is giving us the statistics on how much money the Government have put aside or will be spending. I ask him a straight question: will people currently in supported housing be protected, rather than being turfed out and made homeless? That is a simple question.
The Minister talks about women’s refuges. The manager of Monklands Women’s Aid, Sharon Aitchison, has just emailed me. She says:
“There is no doubt that our current set-up with housing benefit is already stretched to the max, so the refuge provisions viability would most certainly be in question and the reality is we would be unable to fund refuge provision if the cap went ahead for us.”
What does the Minister say to Sharon Aitchison, the manager of my local women’s refuge, which provides a brilliant service for women and children in desperate situations?
As I have just outlined, this Government announced an extra £40 million for domestic abuse services.
Funding for supported housing is part of the Government’s wider financial settlement to councils, which includes £5.3 billion in the better care fund in 2015-16 to deliver faster and deeper integration of health and social care. That will result in councils being better able to work together and invest in early action to help people live safely in their own homes for longer.
I am amazed. The Minister has started trotting out figures for the better care fund. That fund is back-loaded: the money will not reach councils until 2019-20, and is cancelled out by the new homes bonus being taken back at the same time. We have already lost an awful lot of support for older and vulnerable people.
Does the Minister believe, as he seems to have just said, that the most vulnerable will be supported by the welfare reforms? That is just not true, as we see from all the court cases that are going through. How will people in 2,300 units of housing for older people in Salford be protected? I advise the Minister not to talk about discretionary housing payments, as those have been shown to be insufficient.
I think that the hon. Lady, in talking about the settlement, is referring to the new £1.5 billion coming through. As I am sure she is aware, our affordable homes programme actually delivers 6% more supported homes a year than Labour’s equivalent did.
Of course, the supported housing sector is wide and varied, but all the different kinds of provision have one thing in common: they all provide dedicated support for some of our country’s most vulnerable people.
I am going to make some progress, because many Members wish to speak, but I will give way again shortly.
Many supported housing tenants have multiple physical and mental health problems, histories of offending and dependency issues. They might be elderly, socially isolated or face barriers to accessing employment or living independently. We know that supported housing can also reduce costs to the wider public sector—for example, in health and adult social care or in criminal justice.
I am sure that the whole House will agree that we want all our families, friends and constituents to live fulfilling and independent lives, wherever possible in a home of their own. Some people need more help to do that, and supported housing gives them that assistance. It provides a place of safety and stability. It helps people get their lives in order. It improves their health and wellbeing, and it provides the platform from which they can reach their full potential.
My ministerial colleagues and I have been out and seen for ourselves, over not only the past few months but the past few years, the difference that supported housing can make. Homeless hostels, such as Shekinah in Plymouth, which I visited last January, provide not only accommodation but invaluable opportunities for people in recovery. The same is true for specialised housing for older or disabled people, such as the Lady Susan Court development in Basingstoke, which I have visited. The residents there are delighted with their homes, which have allowed them to maintain their independence. Their only regret is not having moved in sooner.
My colleague Baroness Williams has also seen how domestic abuse refuges, such as the Saheli Asian Women’s Project in Manchester, are helping women flee terrible abuse and violent relationships and start new lives. Protecting the most vulnerable in society and supporting their housing needs is just as much a priority as driving down the deficit. There need be no contradiction between those two aims.
Last week I visited Camberwell Foyer in my constituency, which is run by Centrepoint; I was shown around by Shante and Tia, who live there. The Foyer provides brilliant support for young people who would otherwise be homeless for a period of time. It has expressed grave concerns to me about the impact that the withdrawal of housing benefit from 16 to 21-year-olds will have on youth homelessness, in relation to the demand for their services, which it fears it would be unable to meet, and also on young people who are ready to move on and will not be able to access housing benefit for the homes they need. How does the Minister answer that point?
I think there was an intervention somewhere in that speech. The hon. Lady has experience of the excellent work that those organisations do, as do I—I was a trustee of a Foyer. That is why it is important that we ensure that we protect the most vulnerable in society.
Is not the difference between the two sides of the House the fact that we on the Government side have got 339,000 disabled people into work and off benefits, whereas in 2010 the Labour party, to its eternal shame, presided over a situation in which 70% of people on disability living allowance had never been systematically re-assessed? That is a shocking and disgraceful record.
My hon. Friend highlights the difference between the two parties. We want to ensure that we get a deal that protects the most vulnerable in society, helps them out and gives them an aspirational opportunity to move forward in their lives while getting a right and proper deal for the hard-working taxpayer.
In the autumn statement we announced that social sector rents eligible for housing benefit will be limited to the level of the relevant local housing allowance rate, including the shared accommodation rate for single claimants under 35 who do not have dependent children. It will be effective from 1 April 2018, affecting all tenancies that commenced from 1 April 2016. I know that has raised some concerns, so let me be clear that we will always ensure appropriate protections for the most vulnerable in supported housing. We will work closely with the sector, through the supported housing review, to ensure that we do that in exactly the right way.
The Minister has rightly recognised the importance of supported and specialist housing. He has now just indicated that the Government will somehow protect people in these circumstances. Can he give any indication of how that will be done and when these measures will be announced, given that housing associations are already having to plan for potential change in 2018 that could lead to the closure of existing accommodation and to new accommodation not being built?
The hon. Gentleman has effectively asked me to continue my speech, because I was just about to say, as I am sure he will appreciate, that the underlying principles are the bedrock of this policy formation. He, along with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, urges the Government to note the concerns of supported housing providers, so let me reassure all Members of the House that we have of course been listening very carefully to those concerns, and we will continue to do so.
My ministerial colleagues and I have met representatives of the National Housing Federation and chief executives of housing associations that provide supported housing. We have listened very carefully to all these representations and noted everything that we have been told. We know that the costs of supported housing provision are higher than general needs housing and that providers rely on housing benefit funding for support elements such as wardens, security and the up-keep of communal facilities.
I thank the Minister for finally giving way. Could he just point out exactly how he has been helping to protect the most vulnerable in the 34 specialist women’s refuges that have shut since the Conservatives came to power? I also wonder whether he would like to join me this afternoon at the all-party group on domestic violence to meet pretty much every CEO from all the Women’s Aid organisations across the country and see what they think.
I am slightly surprised by the hon. Lady’s comments. If she looks back at the Hansard report of this debate, she will see how many interventions I have already taken, so she might want to talk to her colleagues about the fact that they got in before her. I am sure that she appreciates that I will always take an intervention from the Chair of the Select Committee first.
The future of supported housing matters, which is why my Department and the Department for Work and Pensions have jointly commissioned a fact-finding review of the sector. This will report by the end of March and will deepen our knowledge and understanding. The research has included extensive consultation with local authorities, supported accommodation commissioners and all categories of supported housing providers, be they charities, housing associations or, indeed, those in the commercial sector. It will provide us with a better picture of the supported accommodation sector.
In the meantime—Lord Freud has written to all interested parties outlining this today—the 1% reduction will be deferred for 12 months for supported accommodation. We will get the findings of the review in the spring. We will work with the sector to ensure that the essential services it delivers continue to be provided while protecting the taxpayer, making sure that we make best use of the taxpayer’s money and meet the Government’s fiscal commitments. We will look at this urgently to provide certainty for the sector.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for setting out the next steps. I put it to him politely that he ought to have done that kind of research before making the announcement in the first place. In order to give those housing providers certainty, can he now also tell the House precisely what kinds of measures will be implemented to offset the changes in housing benefit?
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the financial mess in which the previous Labour Government left this country means that we have to make difficult decisions and move quickly to ensure that hard-working taxpayers are properly protected. I am proud to be working with a Chancellor who sees that as one of our first and foremost duties.
Can I be the first on the Government side of the House to warmly welcome the announcement that my hon. Friend has just made? It makes eminent sense to postpone this decision for one year on the basis of proper evidence and facts. His supported housing review will report at the end of March. After the review has concluded, will he come to conclusions on the matter rapidly? I was lobbied about this on Saturday by Bromford housing association in my constituency. There is a lot of uncertainty in the sector, so I urge him to come to conclusions rapidly after the review has concluded.
I welcome this partial step as an indication of progress. It has taken Labour’s forcing this debate to get Ministers to take this 12-month backward step on the reduction in rents. However, what about the cuts to housing benefit for supported and sheltered housing? A pause is not enough. It will not remove the alarm or anxiety of residents or the uncertainty for providers, and it will not affect the schemes that have already been scrapped. The Minister must provide an exemption. Will he announce that now?
It is almost as though the right hon. Gentleman forgets that when he was a Minister—I think in the DCLG, although he might well still have been at the Treasury—the Government of the time moved the spare room subsidy, which was first introduced under Labour, into the private sector and created the unfairness that we now see. I am not going to stand here and take a lecture from him about this Government doing the right thing in working with the sector to deliver the right outcome and to do what we have always done, which is to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Labour—I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is guilty of this—simply wants to get a headline by scaremongering around the country.
I, too, hugely welcome the exemption for a year as a really meaningful announcement. Like the £40 million for domestic violence refuges—a tripling of the budget—it is really significant and contrasts with the political point-scoring we have heard from the Opposition.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that those who will benefit from this exception from the 1% rent reduction during this year of consideration include those fleeing domestic abuse, and that it affects homeless provision and housing for ex-offenders as well as supported housing for older and disabled people? Does he recognise how much this will be welcomed by many of us? Will he pay tribute to those who are working with him on it, including Homeless Link and St Mungo’s?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. A large number of people provide phenomenal services, across the sector and across the country, in working with the most vulnerable. We are keen to work with them to make sure that, as we have said all along, the right protections are in place for the most vulnerable people.
Let there be no doubt: this Government will always protect the most vulnerable and provide them with the support they need and a safe home to live in. We are a one nation Government. We want everyone to have the opportunity to live happy and fulfilling lives, whoever they are and wherever they live. We want workers to earn a living wage and benefit from our strong economic growth. We want to support aspiration, boost productivity, reward work over welfare, and allow people to keep more of the money they have earned in their own pockets. That is our new settlement for Britain—to keep moving from a low-wage, high-tax, high-welfare economy to a higher-wage, lower-tax, lower-welfare country.
On this journey, we will, I repeat, always support vulnerable people and make sure they have a safe home to live in. The whole House should support that aim. Instead, Labour Members are resorting to their favourite tactic of scaremongering for a short-term political headline. It is time to stop that kind of poor politics. It is time to stop playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people while we are working to help to provide the support they need and deserve—and we will provide it.
I rise to support the motion in the name of the shadow Front Bench.
The starting point on issues surrounding housing benefit was the decision made a couple of months ago in a Delegated Legislation Committee to freeze housing benefit for four years. Once again, a decision was made in a Delegated Legislation Committee that should have been made through debate in this House. I am glad that the Independent newspaper, among others, has started to highlight this mechanism that the Government are using to bring in their most damaging policies affecting the country. I represent a constituency where 40% of homes are in the social rented sector and 10% in the private rented sector, so any changes in housing benefit will have an impact.
What has been most startling about these proposed changes, and the key thing to note, is that the Government have not produced any statistics on the number of housing benefit claimants who receive the benefit to pay for supported accommodation. In other words, the UK Government are proposing to cap lower LHA—local housing allowance—with no knowledge of how that impacts on women’s refuges and sheltered and supported complexes for pensioners, among other types of accommodation. No statistics are available on the number of residents in supported housing who are in receipt of full or partial housing benefit. On 17 November 2015, the Government were asked for the latest figures on the number of supported housing schemes in England that participate in such a scheme. Baroness Williams of Trafford answered for the Government:
“We do not hold this information. More information on the scale, shape and cost of the supported accommodation sector should be available through the evidence review jointly commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions.”
If the Government do not know the impact of the change, why make it?
This Tory Government must halt their continued assault on housing benefit so as to ensure that those who need supported housing are not literally left out in the cold. Supported housing provides vital help to tens of thousands of people. It plays a crucial role in securing a safe home and supports people to live independently. Supported housing provides the support for older people to maintain independent lives. It provides emergency refuge and support for victims of domestic violence, helping them to stabilise their lives and to engage with other services that they require. Supported housing providers work with homeless people with complex and multiple needs and help them to make the transition from life on the street to a settled home, education, training and employment. In my constituency, I know the work of a charity called Soldiers Off The Street that supports military veterans who are homeless and struggle to meet the challenge of civilian life, having served in our armed forces.
Supported housing assists people with mental health needs to stabilise their lives, recover and live more independently. It supports people with learning disabilities in the longer term to maximise independent living and exercise more choice and control over their lives. The stark reality is that any change to housing benefit can undermine the ability of such tenants to pay their rent, thereby putting their home at risk and threatening their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as posing a threat to the financial stability of housing associations. Single people under 35 will lose out, as well as those who need supported housing. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that the savings arising out of this measure would be small in the short run, cutting housing benefit expenditure by £255 million in 2020-21.
The longer-term impact of the change is expected to be more significant. If applied to all social tenants now, housing benefit would be cut by £1.1 billion from a base of about £25 billion, with 800,000 households losing an average of £1,300 per year across the UK. An Inside Housing article from 21 January 2016 claims that 95% of supported housing providers would be forced to close their schemes. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has arrived at figures that point to the potential cash impact of the policy, as it stands, in Scotland, based on a small-scale piece of research that it conducted with its members in the weeks since the autumn statement.
The proposed changes could have a devastating effect on the future provision of refuge accommodation in Scotland, because that accommodation is in the ownership of either housing associations or local authorities. LHA rates do not take into account the additional cost to refuge providers of leasing accommodation from social landlords and the associated service charge costs. A range of additional costs are involved in providing and managing refuge accommodation for women and children fleeing domestic violence. These costs derive from the more intensive housing management due to the crisis nature of admission, the special vulnerability of the women and children concerned, and the variable lengths of stay and rapid turnover. Other requirements include the need for increased safety and security measures, and the provision of furniture, bedding and equipment. Many refuges also include additional facilities such as communal rooms for counselling and therapeutic playrooms for children.
An analysis by the Angus branch of Scottish Women’s Aid found that in all cases, refuge rent and service charge costs are significantly higher than the LHA rate. It provides the example of a rural area where introducing a cap linked to the LHA rate would result in an annual loss of £5,800 for a two-bedroom refuge flat. In other examples, the annual loss on a one-bedroom refuge flat in an urban area is £7,100 per year, while the loss on a three-bedroom refuge in a semi-urban area is £11,600 per year. In each case, the financial cost will be multiplied by the number of refuge spaces provided. Without the existing level of housing benefit to cover costs, refuges may be forced to close. It is estimated that 62% of housing association tenants rely on housing benefit to help them to pay their rent.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. His point about the protection of refuges is important. In addition to our opposition to the Government measures, is it not quite clear that in Scotland, where housing is devolving—leaving the Scottish Government to protect the general stock, end the right to buy and fund new build housing and new supported accommodation—we need the full devolution of housing benefit to square the circle and to allow us to protect the most vulnerable and our general housing?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The SNP has been pursuing the full devolution of housing benefit.
The proposed introduction of the under-35s shared accommodation rate in social rented housing means that younger people will struggle to meet their rents, and it places women under the age of 35 at much greater risk of further abuse. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has found, based on its own analysis of the figures, that a single person aged under 35 who is reliant on housing benefit would face a weekly shortfall of £6.22, which is £323.44 per year. That translates into a rental loss of £2.8 million per year for housing associations in Scotland. The SFHA comments that that is likely to be a conservative estimate, given that, in August 2015, there were already 67,462 housing benefit claimants in social housing tenancies with housing associations in Scotland under the age of 35.
If women under the age of 35 are unable to access refuge accommodation or move into their own tenancy because of a restriction on their entitlement to housing benefit, that will in effect prevent them from leaving an abusive partner. In 2014-15, the 26 to 30-year-old age group had the highest incident rate of domestic abuse recorded by the police in Scotland. Women in that age group clearly have a significant need for domestic abuse support services, including refuge accommodation.
I thank my hon. Friend for making very important points about women in vulnerable circumstances. Does he agree that there are issues about universal credit, in that women in domestic abuse situations may find themselves in difficulty if it is split? That would put them in a vulnerable position, which would be compounded by their not having a refuge to go to.
That factor would compound the original error. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to raise that issue.
Discretionary housing payment to top up the gap between LHA rates and the actual costs of providing supported accommodation is simply not secure enough in these uncertain financial times. The autumn statement indicated that additional discretionary housing payment would be made available to local authorities to protect the most vulnerable. This type of discretionary funding for the social sector is far too insecure and uncertain a funding mechanism to allow providers to continue to provide specialised accommodation, such as refuge accommodation. It would mean local authorities deciding at an individual level whose support needs would or would not be met. That would create a postcode lottery, as well as distressing tenants, worrying about whether they would be successful.
The Angus branch of Scottish Women’s Aid claims that that would create additional barriers, not to mention risk, particularly for those women and children experiencing domestic abuse who are seeking refuge. In April 2013, Lord Freud responded to Scottish Women’s Aid with his commitment to protect refuge accommodation from any unintended consequences of the welfare reforms. In order to ensure that such vital supported accommodation is protected, the UK Government must commit to at least exempting refuge providers from further squeezes. The Department for Work and Pensions has stated that the extent to which supported accommodation, including refuges, will be included within the cap is still to be decided. The DHP fund is a cash-limited annual allocation and the future of the payment is not secure, particularly if the pot is stretched to meet growing numbers. The DHP fund should not be used to top up benefit; instead, the changes—leaving gaping holes in the support for those that need it most to keep a roof over their heads—should not go ahead.
The proposed capping will lock out those who need support from seeking it or being able to afford it. The gap between the LHA paid and the price of supported housing could mean that many at-risk individuals will not receive the support they need from a residential tenancy. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations argues that uncertainty about the allocation of DHP could leave potential tenants reluctant to take up supported accommodation that better suits their needs. Furthermore, it argues that the uncertainty and distress about access to appropriate support could create a vicious cycle of tenants not accessing support and associations being left with empty properties.
Is it not absolutely contrary of the Government to say that they will protect the most vulnerable by providing additional DHP? The only way in which they can actually protect vulnerable people is by completely exempting them from the proposals for such types of accommodation, rather than by providing additional DHP.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It was interesting that the Minister, in his response to the Labour spokesman, made no mention of the additional cost of the proposals to the health service and other social services across the board. In some respects, these are penny-pinching proposals, given the higher costs that will arise in future.
The proposed cuts come in the context of additional Tory planned restrictions on housing benefit for some of the most disadvantaged people in society. As part of summer Budget 2015, the Chancellor announced the removal of entitlement to the housing element of universal credit from young people aged 18 to 21, with some exceptions, from April 2017. The regressive rationale is to
“ensure young people in the benefits system face the same choices as young people who work and who may not be able to afford to leave home.”
The measure is forecast to save £40 million by 2020-21. Certain categories of young people will be exempt from the removal of housing benefit, including vulnerable young people, those who may not be able to return home to live with their parents, parents themselves, and those who have been in work for six months prior to making a claim. Organisations such as Shelter, Crisis and Centrepoint have welcomed the limitation of the impact to 18 to 21-year-olds, as opposed to the wider age group of 16 to 24-year-olds, but are actively lobbying against the removal of what they describe as an “essential safety net”, which can offer a lifeline to young people faced with homelessness.
Only with full power over social security can we fully protect individuals in Scotland from future housing benefit cuts. The Smith commission recommended that powers over discretionary housing payment be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Clause 23 of the Scotland Bill allows for DHP to be paid in exceptional circumstances, where applicants would not normally be eligible. The Smith commission also recommended that the Scottish Parliament have the power to vary the housing costs element of universal credit. Clause 27 gives Scottish Ministers powers to vary the calculation of the housing costs element of universal credit, subject to consultation with the Secretary of State about the practicability of implementation. The Scottish Government are already protecting low-income families from the impact of the bedroom tax, with total funding of £90 million in mitigation of this draconian measure.
I am proud to represent a constituency rich in the history of helping and championing the less fortunate, and of standing up to those guilty of exploitation. In Glasgow South West only a few months ago, we commemorated the centenary of the Glasgow rent strikes, which were led by the great Mary Barbour. As is explained in early-day motion 684, which I commend to all hon. Members, that fight against unscrupulous landlords who increased rents on the home front took place during a time of sacrifice on the western front. It may have been a century ago, but we have come full circle, as exploitation of one of the most basic human needs—shelter and a place to raise a family—is once more a key issue in Parliament. That is why my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will vote for the motion.
I want to put on the record my support for the one-year moratorium that has been announced, which demonstrates that being in government is about listening to a wide-ranging debate and taking on board the views of the key stakeholders. It is very welcome. Government is about matching policy principles, such as fairness and social equity, with practical policy implementation.
We have seen the usual hysterical shroud waving from the Labour party. It is working with people in the housing sector to scaremonger and to frighten the most vulnerable tenants.
No, I will not.
The question has to be, where is the Labour party’s policy? Where is the coherence? Where is the comprehensive costing? Where is the alternative? It is not there. And this from the party that voted against every single welfare change that we made in the last Parliament. What would it have done? It allowed housing benefit claims to reach £104,000 for a single year. They are the people who saw a 46% rise in the housing benefit bill. They are the people who consigned millions of families to welfare dependency, with a record number of children in workless households. This Government are doing something about that.
Does my hon. Friend recall that Labour Members recently voted against the pay-to-stay policy in the Housing and Planning Bill, under which higher earners in social rented accommodation will pay more and housing associations will keep the revenue to invest in supported housing?
No, I will not.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said, these are difficult decisions. In the short term, they will deliver £240 million in savings. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that in the long term, they will save £1.1 billion. We have to do this, given the fiscal inheritance that we took on.
The Government have a responsibility—it was a manifesto commitment, so there is a mandate from the people of this country—to deliver welfare reform. The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) is no longer in his place, but if Labour Members really believe, after reading the report by Deborah Mattinson on the BritainThinks focus group, that the Labour party will ever be trusted on the economy, and particularly on welfare, with the policies it is pursuing—the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) knows that this is the case—they are completely wrong. They have to understand that completely opposing everything the Government do on welfare reform, in favour of more spending, more taxing and more debt, will never deliver another majority Labour Government.
I say gently to housing associations that the 1% cut in rents will have a direct impact on all their tenants in general needs housing. There will be a 12% reduction in average rents by the end of the Parliament. We give £13 billion a year to housing associations so that they can discharge their duty to house people. They have to raise their game and meet the challenge. This is not often commented on, but housing associations are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. We need to see that they are as efficient as possible. They are very efficient when it comes to campaigning against the Government, but they are not so efficient in resource allocation to deliver front-line services to the most vulnerable tenants.
On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that over the past five years, large sections of the public sector have stepped up to the plate, delivered more for less and executed changes that have saved the taxpayer money and helped the public finances, and that housing associations should be able to follow that example?
I agree with my hon. Friend.
There will be an impact assessment and an evidence-based review of the whole assisted and supported housing regime. We do not know what the final decision will be, but it is for local housing associations to stop complaining and to work with planners, developers and other key partners, such as those in the national health service—
Sorry, I would love to, but I do not have time.
Housing associations must work with those partners to deliver the projects that they want to deliver.
I am not wholly supportive of the Government on this issue and I will tell the House why. There has to be a comprehensive and holistic approach to meeting the crisis that the demographic time bomb of older people will bring to acute social care and acute hospital care. We have to reduce those numbers. We have to use the tax system—
I will not, I am afraid. The hon. Lady is not taking the hint, but I cannot give way because I do not have time.
We must use the tax system and the expertise that we have to deliver good adult social care and to care for women who have been subject to domestic abuse. That is a massive issue. Of course, we have put £40 million into it. Mention was made earlier of discretionary housing payments, which will assist those tenants directly. Incidentally, we have talked about the spare room subsidy, but those payments were not always drawn down fully by local authorities, often Labour ones, because of inefficiency.
I say to Ministers that the Opposition spokesman made the fair point that we need further clarity. It cannot be the will of the Government to make it more difficult to develop more extra care facilities. We do not want non-viable projects to go forward. It is therefore important that the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government get round the table and work out together how we can deal with this.
We have a duty and a responsibility to deal with the fiscal inheritance, including the out-of-control welfare spending, but we must balance that with practical, pragmatic solutions that deliver adult social care and that are fair to the most vulnerable people in our society, whom we all care about—memo to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle). Fairness and equity are important, but if we demand tax revenue from our constituents, we must deliver value for money. That is why I will not support the Labour party tonight, but will support the Government.
We are here today for one of two reasons. Either the Government set out, as a matter of deliberate policy, to bring about the closure of specialist and supported housing—perhaps they are not bothered whether such housing units close—or this is an unintended consequence of a wider policy to change housing benefit that we have to deal with today because the Government did not do a proper impact assessment of the policy right at the beginning. We should have had an impact assessment before we began the process, rather than when concerns were rightly raised up and down the country about the potential impact. I welcome what the Minister has said today. It is right that a proper review will be carried out, and that the Government will not simply carry on with this policy and its potential consequences.
Government Members have said that there has been political point scoring and scaremongering by Opposition Members and the housing association movement. That is not true. When I am rung up by Tony Stacey, the chief executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association, who is widely respected by people on both sides of the House because of the work of his association and his personal commitment, and he says that the impact of these measures will be a £2.8 million reduction in the income of the association, out of a £20 million budget, that is a matter of major concern. That would lead to the closure of about 1,000 supported housing places and, because of the financial impact, the housing association would have to start acting on those closures within the next few months and would not be able to wait until 2018. That is not scaremongering; it is the financial reality for an association that has to balance its books over that period. That is why we are here debating the issue today.
Having welcomed what the Minister said, I have one or two questions. First, he talked about a review by the end of March. When is a conclusion likely to be reached to provide certainty for housing associations and others, including local councils, about the impact of these measures or the changed measures that I hope the Government will bring forward? In conducting the review and coming to a conclusion, will the Government talk not only to the National Housing Federation, which they must rightly talk to, but to the Local Government Association, because council schemes and voluntary schemes are also involved? Will the Minister ensure that all relevant parties are consulted? Will he indicate when conclusions will be reached so that there can be certainty?
Secondly, will the changes for new tenants that are due to be introduced in April 2016 now be postponed, or will new tenancies be created in 2016 on the basis of the changes proposed at present, before the review? I hope the Minister will say that no changes will be introduced, and that the full costs of supported housing will be covered through housing benefit for new tenancies from April 2016 until the review is concluded.
Finally, I also welcome what the Minister said about rent increases for supported housing—that the 1% reduction will not go ahead for next year, while the review is being undertaken. Does that mean that the changes in the Budget will not be implemented, that the 1% reduction will not now happen and that CPI plus 1% will be allowed for next year, or that rents will simply be frozen? There is quite a big difference for associations, because even the rent changes, without the housing benefit changes, have an impact on supported housing. Can we have clarification on that as well?
I welcome the direction of travel that the Government seem to be moving in now, back to a more realistic position. Perhaps the Communities and Local Government Committee will want to have a look at this as well. I hope the Minister will fully consult and take on board the real concerns that the housing association movement and local councils have raised about these measures. None of us wants to see supported housing units closed.
I would like to put it on record that I, too, welcome the announcement on the 1%.
We spend more on family benefits in Britain than they do in Germany, France or Sweden. There is no doubt that social housing is invaluable for hundreds of thousands of people in this country who need help in getting accommodation, but it cannot be right to continue to subsidise people to live in houses that are bigger than they need while there are 375,000 families living in overcrowded conditions. Nor can it be right to subsidise people to live in houses that are out of reach or unaffordable for hard-working taxpayers.
Page 97 of Labour’s 2009 Budget summarised the problem:
“Indications…are that some claimants may be able to afford accommodation that is out of reach of working families on low incomes. Furthermore, costs of Housing Benefit have been rising above inflation despite static caseloads.”
In fact, between 1999 and 2010, the cost of housing benefit rose by 46% in real terms, reaching £21 billion. Housing benefit was truly out of control, with the maximum housing benefit award reaching over £100,000 a year. Even after the benefit cap, people can seek support for housing up to a rate of £20,000 a year. What would a working family paying tax have to be earning to afford rent of £20,000 a year? They would have to be earning £60,000, £70,000 or £80,000 a year.
Rents in the social sector increased by 20% over the three years from 2010-11 and were markedly higher on average than for like-for-like properties in the private sector. That is clearly unsustainable and helped to fuel the something-for-nothing culture that Labour presided over for 13 years. Some 1.4 million people spent most of the previous decade trapped on out-of-work benefits, while the number of households where no member had ever worked nearly doubled under Labour.
The announcements in the autumn statement followed on from reforms in the last Parliament to better align the rules between social and private landlords, ensuring fairness between those receiving housing benefit and the hard-working taxpayers who have to pay for it.
No, I will not.
Those who oppose making difficult decisions on welfare must say what they would cut or what taxes they would put up to pay for it. However, it would seem from some contributions by Opposition Members that Labour and its leader have still not learned the lessons of the past. Their plans to spend more, borrow more and tax more are exactly what got us into the mess before; and, as Labour’s great recession showed, it is working people and their families who end up paying the price for it. When we came into government in 2010, the country was borrowing over £150 billion a year. One in every four pounds spent by the then Labour Government was borrowed. Unemployment had increased by nearly half a million. Britain had suffered the deepest recession since the war and had the second biggest structural deficit of any major economy.
We have halved the deficit and are working to eradicate it by 2020. It is a fundamental truth that without sound public finances there can be no economic security for working families and the country cannot pay for the hospitals, schools and housing that people rely on. It is this Government’s long-term economic plan that is turning this country into a high-wage, low-tax, low-welfare economy. The Labour party is out of touch with hard-working people. Labour is out of touch, out of ideas on welfare and out of office—and, based on this debate, will be for a very long time.
I was just about to point out to the House, and in particular to Government Members, that a fairly easy way of finding out what this afternoon’s debate is about is to actually read the title. It is about homelessness services and the unintended consequences, or maybe intended consequences, of the cap on housing benefit. It is about the potentially catastrophic outcome of these changes for people in specialist housing, homelessness arrangements or specialist schemes for dependent drinkers, for example—the catastrophic outcome for their rents, their circumstances and, indeed, the organisations that seek to house and provide services for them. That is what this afternoon’s debate is about and we need to concentrate on that.
I must say that I was remarkably disappointed by the fact-free bluster that we heard from the Minister. I suppose one can only forgive him that, because there was never any impact assessment of these changes. Therefore, if he has not come here today armed with an impact assessment, he presumably does not really have any facts to defend his side of the argument in the first place. I want to provide a little impact assessment of my own. I want to base it on an organisation that is based in my constituency, but which nevertheless provides services for homeless people, people with severe and enduring mental health problems and people with alcohol or substance misuse problems, as well as specialist services for ex-offenders, in Southampton and around.
That organisation is called the Society of St James, and—[Interruption.] Government Members who are playing with their phones might put them to better use by looking up that organisation’s website, because if there is any dispute in this debate about who cares, then the Society of St James certainly does care. It cares deeply about all the people it is trying to house and help, and it assists by housing or helping some 2,500 people across Hampshire.
The Society of St James has looked at the impact of the changes on its various housing schemes across south Hampshire and calculates that the average rent reduction will be 40% across the 300-odd people who are housed at any one time, although that does not include the wider group of people it helps with various schemes, in addition to those it houses. The Society of St James calculates a sum of £1.03 million per annum, which means, quite simply and straightforwardly, that all those schemes are at risk over the next period, because it will not be able to fund them properly.
It has been said that the discretionary housing payment scheme might help in the longer term, but as its name suggests, it is discretionary. It covers temporary situations and cannot give the long-term revenue security that these organisations need to plan their future housing needs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the discretionary housing fund is already barely covering the number of people applying for it, given the impact of the bedroom tax? What we are seeing is just another attempt to stretch it further, when it is already not going far enough.
Indeed, and my hon. Friend makes an important point. I was perhaps being a little kind to the discretionary housing fund, in that so many things are being poured into it that the chances of it having a material impact in this field, even on a limited basis, look to be fairly low.
The other question is what happens with new schemes that develop in future. The Society of St James has recently received substantial capital donations to develop new properties to extend its services, but there is no chance that those sorts of schemes can now go ahead, because there is no prospect of them being funded properly once they have been built. Indeed, it would be deeply irresponsible.
My hon. Friend underlines powerfully the importance of understanding just how early organisations such as the Society of St James and the ones her constituency have to take decisions about what they do in future. In that context, a one-year moratorium will not make any difference to those decisions, because those schemes are concerned about the long-term security of revenue. It is very likely—it is certainly not scaremongering—that those schemes will disappear immediately, not in the future. The whole system will be greatly the poorer as a result.
Whether the Minister thinks in retrospect that the problem was not of his own making because he did not notice it arriving from the Treasury, or whether he was told too late for him to do anything about it, or whether he did something and the Treasury ignored him, there is an issue for him to address right now. The central question for the Minister in my mind boils down to this: if we assess the impact on the organisations at the heart of the process of caring—in addition, they save the state large amounts of future public expenditure because they keep the people they care for and assist out of prisons, psychiatric institutions and emergency services by securing their accommodation in the community—what will he do immediately that specifically puts the problem right for the Society of St James in Southampton?
If the Minister does not have an answer to that question, he has a great deal of thinking to do about the wider issue. Up and down the country, those organisations—they are voluntary organisations rather than local authority organisations—find themselves holed below the water line. Unless the Minister can come up urgently with either a patch or a new boat, that will be the reality of the situation over the next period. I urge him to take action at the earliest possible opportunity to ensure that important organisations such as the Society of St James can continue their good work in future.
I welcome the opportunity to talk about this important issue. I am concerned that the shadow Housing and Planning Minister and Opposition Members are confusing general needs housing and supported housing. Currently, no legislation going through will cap housing benefit in supported housing. An evidence review is being conducted. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) talked about not having an impact assessment, but that is exactly what is happening. Either Opposition Members do not understand the difference or they are scaremongering.
I am a big supporter of supported housing. I was a cabinet member for housing in a unitary authority under the Labour Government. Funding supported housing at that time was difficult because of the year-on-year cuts to our supported housing grant. We funded sheltered housing blocks—both our own stock, and through housing associations and charities. With those cuts, we had to dip in and find the difference to fund our sheltered housing services. The same applied to our learning disability clients who were funded in supported houses. Let us not pretend that Opposition Members did not cut that money when they were in government.
Up until recently, I was a trustee of a homeless charity. It helps people who have hit rock bottom through drug and alcohol dependency. That may not be of interest to Opposition Members, but it is of interest to people living in those hostels. They are supported not just through rehab, but in gaining independence and in sustaining a tenancy on their own in the long term. Supported housing benefit makes a huge difference.
General needs housing benefit is being capped, but there is currently no change to supported housing benefit—it is under review. Opposition Members need to be clear about that.
No, I will not give way because I am conscious of the time and that other Members want to speak.
Let us look at the reasons why we are having to cap housing benefit. It is not just because of the economy, but because of the impact of the local housing allowance in constituencies such as mine. I have the town of Newhaven in my constituency. It is on the same LHA rate as Brighton and Hove, which is a much higher rate than the rest of East Sussex. The shadow Minister does not want to listen to this, but the LHA rate has artificially pushed up private rented rates for the ordinary person who is not on housing benefit. They can no longer afford to stay in Newhaven—the only people who can are those on general needs housing benefit. That has artificially increased the rental market and has not helped young families in my constituency.
If Opposition Members do not want to cap general needs housing benefit, how will they tackle the welfare bill, which they are proud of saying they will be able to manage so much better than the Government? Will they reduce money on the NHS, schools, the police service or the armed forces? They have to make a decision—[Interruption.] As an hon. Friend says, they could put up taxes. They need to be honest with the British public on how they would manage that.
To conclude—I know time is tight—I am a passionate supporter of supported housing. In the review that is taking place, will the Minister come to my constituency and visit Newhaven Foyer? We heard just yesterday that money is secure for that housing placement, where young people who have had a really rough start in life can have a secure tenancy for a period of time. They are able to gain skills and get into the workforce. Will he come and meet those young people and see the difference that supported housing is making for them? They are not under threat from the housing benefit cap because it is not currently relevant to supported housing. I will not support Opposition Members—they are misleading the most vulnerable in our society and scaremongering—and I will not support their motion.
The confusion and lack of clarity on supported accommodation will have a devastating effect on my constituency. It is curtailing homelessness prevention strategies and jeopardising new extra care housing developments. For example, in Wigan, a need of 500 extra units of extra care housing was identified to meet housing needs, and to reduce the reliance on very expensive residential care facilities and future demands on the health service. That housing would allow people to live independently in the community for much longer—all hon. Members would agree that that would be a great outcome for the individual, the family, the local authority and the NHS.
Two years ago, work started on implementing that strategy, and a scheme comprising 130 flats and bungalows with community facilities at a site in Orrell was identified. A partner, Torus, was selected, the scheme was designed and consulted upon, and planning permission was obtained. Funding was obtained from the Homes and Communities Agency, and the valuable site was transferred at nominal cost. With the support of all, the start date was imminent. I say “was”, because with the change to the LHA rate, the scheme—a £13 million project that we desperately need—has stalled.
That is not the only future project under threat. Eighty units in partnership with Arena in Wigan, and 121 in partnership with Torus in Leigh, are also on hold. What about those projects that are in the process of being built? Wigan & Leigh Homes is building 25 units for older people in Hindley and a 39-unit sheltered plus scheme in Goose Green in my constituency. The financial projections for both those schemes do not now add up unless the Government exempt this type of accommodation from the cap.
I have given some examples of how future schemes are threatened, with the result that there will not be the houses for people to move into the community, but what about existing provision? Adactus Housing and Wigan & Leigh Homes have contacted me about this. Across the borough, approximately 400 properties provide homes for people with long-term care and support needs, ranging from learning disabilities to autism. These are people who are unable to live in, and become a valued part of, the community. Their security, and the ability of others to move from a care setting into this type of accommodation, is under threat due to the high rent and support charges required for such specialist accommodation. In fact, one mother has already contacted Wigan & Leigh Homes about her severely autistic 17-year-old son, saying, “Will I now have to have him in the home permanently?” She had scratches all down her arms where he had attacked her.
Does my hon. Friend recognise the case of a 19-year-old with serious mental health problems and autism, who was talked down from a bridge in St Helens, where he was threatening to commit suicide? He was awaiting a mental health bed. The only bed offered to him was in France or Germany. I have written to the Minister about this case and am waiting for a response. What comfort can be given to that young man and his parents?
I agree with my hon. Friend: there is cold comfort in many constituencies for parents caring for young people with severe autism and mental health disabilities. They are finding their choices on the best place for their sons and daughters becoming limited.
I return to the price that will be paid by people who are homeless or fleeing domestic violence. There will be an immediate impact on some 35 units of dispersed accommodation, which, by their nature, are short-term and for single people, saving them from going into hostels, which are not always the appropriate environment. For example, a young man came to see me whose parents had thrown him out when they found out he was gay. They had also emptied his bank account. All I could find for him was the local Salvation Army hostel, which was not a safe place for him at that time.
A further 100 units of homelessness accommodation, ranging from hostels to young mum and baby units, are threatened. Perhaps I can mention just one of the units I visited. It is a self-contained flat in a block where young mums aged between 16 and 25 and their babies are supported, for a maximum of two years, to live independent lives. They learn from staff and from each other in a safe environment. They then leave with the confidence and skills to live in the community, and be excellent role models, providers and parents for their children. How can we threaten that type of service? What will be the cost, both human and financial?
Women’s refuges provide a safe haven for those who have suffered emotional and physical abuse. They also provide activities to improve their life and family skills. The Government’s solution to this is discretionary housing payments! That is not a solution. It is an excuse to continue with an ill-thought-out policy. No housing provider can build a business model and forecast finances with any degree of accuracy when their client base has to rely on cash-limited payments that are not guaranteed, but payable after all aspects are considered—that is, at discretion. How will we assist vulnerable people to apply for these payments? What will that cost? How many people will be deterred from living independently?
The policy has not been thought through. I welcome the announcement that there will be a review. As it stands, it will affect the most vulnerable and their families, those charged with making sure the best quality of life is available for all, the old, the ill and those at risk—in fact, anyone who is vulnerable at any stage of their life. It will end with increased costs and burdens on other services, for example the NHS. I urge the Minister to listen and to provide the clarity that is needed soon, and not to rely on discretionary payments, so that my constituents and others across the country can have a home that best suits their needs.
The background to this debate is the deep changes in our society: a growing population, an ageing population, and more and more of our constituents living with long-term disabilities and illnesses as a result of medical advances. Not all, but many of the speeches from the Opposition have been rather simplistic. In fact, the situation is incredibly complex.
A wide range of our constituents live in supported housing: the elderly, refugees, victims of domestic violence and people living with mental health problems. Some will live in this environment for a matter of months, others for practically their whole lives. Members on both sides of the House have spoken passionately about organisations in their constituencies that work with those people. It is evident that we will need more supported housing. If that is the case, we need to ask very honestly: is this accommodation suitable and are the services that go with it suitable? Is supported living getting the best value for taxpayers’ money? If it is not, it will be unsustainable over the long term. In the end, it will be the vulnerable in our society and in our communities who will suffer.
I very much welcome the fact that this is a consultation. The Government are listening. We see that from the one-year moratorium announced today. This debate will be a part of that, as will representations from housing associations.
We have to talk about sustainability because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) outlined, the housing benefit bill increased by 46% between 1999 and 2010. That was not a fair balance between those families living in social housing and the hard-working families who did not quite meet the threshold. Supported housing has to be on a sustainable footing. This policy is still being developed. With that in mind, I would be grateful if the Minister looked very closely at the representations from my local housing association, Progress Housing, which serves people all over South Ribble, but is based in Leyland. It has refuges and supports people with a wide range of difficulties.
I take great issue with some of the statements from those on the Opposition Benches that we on the Government Benches do not care about the vulnerable in our society. It is very easy to throw money at a problem and have a quick fix. We want to put supported living on a long-term sustainable basis, after a thorough consultation, so that it works for everybody—not just now and not just till the next election, but for the next 20 or 30 years. That is a clear plan of action, rather than criticism with no answers.
Let me start by saying that I agree with many of the contributions already made from the Opposition Benches and I am happy to speak in support of the motion today.
Surely the mark of a civilised society is that it looks after its most vulnerable, yet here again we have a Government seeking to remove some of the support mechanisms for the most vulnerable in our supposed civilised society.
Does my hon. Friend agree that supported housing provides the support older people need to maintain their independence? It also helps homeless people with complex and multiple needs to make the transition from life on the street to a settled home and education, training or employment. Surely any change to housing benefit could undermine the ability of such tenants to pay their rent, and threaten both their physical and mental wellbeing.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, and not only does it affect the individuals; it can have a devastating effect on the organisations providing the services.
What is the purpose of the reforms? Is it to save money? According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, any initial savings would be “small”. Indeed, not only will there be little saving to the public purse, but expenditure could rise as a result of the unintended consequences of this poorly thought out measure. This is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul: a small saving on the housing benefit bill might be massively outweighed by the rise in costs associated with providing institutional care, funding an increase in hospital stays, the higher cost of private landlord housing and, in the worst case, the increased costs of imprisonment. This must surely be the very definition of fiscal irresponsibility.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has identified that associations in Scotland could lose between £5 million and £14 million per year. This is completely unsustainable and will inevitably lead to the closure of accommodation that supports some of the most vulnerable in our society. Top-ups from discretionary housing payments will simply not provide the security that accommodation providers require to continue even the current level of specialised accommodation, let alone plan for additional provision in the years to come.
I am concerned about the potential effect of these changes on vulnerable young people. Open Door Accommodation Project, which operates in my constituency, has nine supported flats throughout West Lothian that can accommodate up to 16 young people between the ages of 16 and 21. The flats are fully furnished and most are shared accommodation. The aim is to prepare young people for their own tenancy. When a young person joins the supported flats service, they are allocated a dedicated support worker who works with them to give personal and practical support, helping them to develop the self-confidence and skills needed to live independently.
The young people being supported are already experiencing issues with the time it takes to receive benefit payments, and this wait can have a huge impact on the likelihood of them sustaining their accommodation. A major concern is that there is no longer a seven-day run-on between accommodation, meaning that young people have to move immediately when they sign up for a tenancy, which gives them no time to set up utilities or apply to the social welfare fund for the most basic of necessities. The uncertainty about the reductions in housing benefit can only exacerbate these issues and, worryingly, might even put this vital supported accommodation at risk. How will such organisations plan for the future when faced with yet more funding challenges?
I come now to one of the most serious of the unintended consequences: the impact on the funding for supported accommodation for people with substance abuse problems. Many such organisations are doing amazing work, especially with ex-offenders, helping people to rebuild their lives and rejoin society. Threats to funding for this type of supported accommodation are intolerable. There is a young offenders institution in my constituency. On leaving it, young people will be dependent on the very supported accommodation that is at risk if these draconian funding proposals are implemented.
My hon. Friend makes her point very well. It is a completely false economy, and I believe it will end up costing the public purse far more than the Government are trying to save. Again, we must look at the fiscal implications of a saving in housing benefit that leads to a lack of supported accommodation for young ex-offenders. How many of these vulnerable young people will end up back in prison—the point she just made—at a higher cost to the public purse?
It is my firm belief that the Government must halt the continuing assault on housing benefits, or at least ensure that supported accommodation is exempt from these future changes. Scotland has already had to mitigate the effects of the unfair bedroom tax—a tax that, given today’s court ruling, might be illegal. Will this reform to housing benefit be yet another botched Tory attempt at savings that simply moves an increased burden on to Holyrood? Only with full power over social security can we fully protect those in need from future housing benefit cuts.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day).
I hope all Members agree that housing and homes are important. The security of a roof over one’s head—be it owned, or rented privately or socially—or of a place of succour and sanctuary, temporary or permanent, at a time of emergency, is important. For that reason, Labour’s position should be condemned. We have heard precisely what we are used to hearing from Labour. I have found this debate slightly annoying. I am annoyed not that the motion has been tabled—[Laughter.] If hon. Members would listen, they might hear a view that sheds some light on their prejudice. I am annoyed not that this important issue is being debated, but by the odour of smug hand wringing and crocodile tears from Labour Members.
Labour Members always purport to have a monopoly on caring. They believe that we are the nasty bunch—that we could not give a damn about anything. But we are not. As I said in an intervention on the shadow Minister, we all have constituents in sheltered housing and we all want to ensure the best provision for them. There is nothing kind or caring about trying to prop up an inflated and unsustainable welfare system.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making the kernel of the argument for why a cap on housing benefit is important. The absence of a cap—of any control on housing benefit—has been the fuel to the fire of those who have sought to ramp up rents. A bottomless purse—a pit that always delivers the funding—provides the dynamic for higher rents. We believe that a cap will act as a brake on this runaway train.
Whenever a welfare reform is proposed, the default position of many Opposition Members is to say no. It is their eternal cry, the golden thread running through their political approach. As we have heard from my hon. Friends, Labour has not supported a single welfare reform. It has learned no lessons from last May’s general election.
These schemes have demonstrated clear success in providing a better quality of life for residents and delivering better social care and health outcomes. Failure to provide these schemes in the future will put greater pressures on health and social care services, as housing providers will not be able to deliver good quality independent living places. That means people going back to residential settings, old folks’ homes, languishing in hospital beds—
The hon. Lady speaks with enormous passion, and I understand that. Of course, service providers want some certainty, and the pressing of the pause button announced by the Government today will be welcomed, but what has added precious little certainty to providers seeking to make short, medium and longer-term financial commitments has been Labour Members’ panic-stricken shroud waving. They have been trotting round the country desperately trying to stoke this up for party political advantage.
Will the hon. Gentleman recognise that it is not shroud waving? In this term and the last one, the Government exempted this group from every single one of their welfare reforms, having been forced to do so by alleged shroud waving. We are not saying no to the reform; we seek only an exemption for this group.
As the hon. Lady will have heard, as did we all, that was the point made by my hon. Friend the Minister when he referred to gathering the evidence, talking to experts and then producing a policy in due course. In all seriousness, I would hope that the hon. Lady could draw some comfort and satisfaction from that. She can put her shroud away, contain herself for a few moments and the debate can go on.
On the subject of service providers, I have spoken to all the housing associations covering my constituency. I hope I will not be misquoting them if I characterise their response as follows—things change; systems and procedures change from time to time. New policies usually present new challenges, but my housing associations are saying, “We will meet them. We will reform, change and recast what we do—but the central core of our ethos, and why we are in business, will remain intact.” I think that is an important point to make.
The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), as shadow Minister—he is no longer in his place—had the absolute brass neck to accuse my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of putting politics before policy. If his speech did anything, it was precisely that. We heard the crocodile tears of, “We care for these people who need these sorts of homes.” We all recognise that, but it is shameful to drape the issue with the flag of party politics.
At the heart of what Her Majesty’s Government are doing is an attempt to provide fairness, equity and equality. In my judgment, it is absolutely right that social sector housing benefit should be capped to mirror that of the local authority level—the same rates as those in the private sector. The reforms seek to align those two sectors and, as I said to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), to prevent private social landlords from artificial rent inflation. On the Conservative side, we care about getting this right, about fairness for taxpayers and about quality provision of housing. What we do not care for is the shroud waving, the hand wringing and the crocodile tears of Labour Members.
I have listened and I am afraid that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) exemplifies the brand “Same Old Tories”.
Let me make it clear from the start that I am a big fan of welfare reform. I believe that as we move to the second half of this decade, we need an active welfare system. However, the difficulty I have with measures such as the bedroom tax, the local housing allowance and caps on housing benefit is that I am not convinced that they are genuine welfare reforms. They ignore the supply problems in housing, rapacious landlords and the lack of specialist supportive accommodation. We treat all tenants as if their circumstances are the same. In fact, we simply passport cuts from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Department for Communities and Local Government without any regard to the consequences.
This particular measure smacks of what in the 1960s we used to call “Rachmanism”. A lot of families will find themselves destitute on this route because they will not be able to pay those rents. It is a private landlord’s charter to make money.
Almost everyone now realises that we cannot have action on housing benefit without having action on rents. That is self-evident.
We are having this debate because those who are the targets of this change are not the workshy and the feckless. Too many of them are vulnerable people—the very people that many of us, including many Conservative Members, came into politics wanting to help, such as elderly people no longer fit to wholly look after themselves, veterans, youngsters leaving care and those fleeing domestic violence. The National Housing Federation claims the Chancellor’s changes could cost some people up to £60 a week, enough to force them to leave their accommodation and in some cases add to the growing number of casualties sleeping on our streets as a homelessness crisis sweeps our country like a plague.
The NHF also speculates that the changes may lead to the closure of thousands of homes. The kind of places we are talking about are retirement homes, active elderly establishments designed to improve the quality of life, supported accommodation and temporary accommodation. Is that really the kind of reform that Conservative Members want? There is already a 16,000 shortfall in meeting demand for supportive accommodation, and estimates say that is likely to double by the end of this Parliament.
We have heard from some Government Members that they have the same fears. A lot now rides on this review.
Without exemption, we are about to witness a housing disaster for those with a clear learning disability who live in supported accommodation. After years of talking about rights and independence, are we seriously going to banish them to institutions and substandard care homes? Seven out of 10 people with a learning disability would prefer to live by themselves or with friends rather than in a registered care home or with their parents. Are they not entitled to aspire to that? Are they not entitled to that degree of independence? Cannot this society, whatever cuts we want to make, afford to show just a bit of generosity to such people? How will the Government ever succeed in closing places like Winterbourne View and delivering on NHS England’s 2015 strategy “Building the Right Support” without a supported housing plan for those with learning disabilities?
What about young people leaving care? How are they going to make the first step on the ladder to independence? Vulnerable young people, especially care leavers, should be excluded from the under-35 shared accommodation rule. We should hear that announced today. Is the Minister now in a position to tell us when the housing benefit regulations for those aged between 18 and 21 will be published? How, too, have we got to a situation where the cap applies to any tenancy signed after 1 April—only 62 days away—and where housing associations are still not clear about the plans?
The Minister has offered no details of his review, and his party has form on promising things during debates on which it subsequently backtracks. In fact, everyone knows there is a dangerous air of hubris about Government Ministers these days. I believe they might find a degree of support if these measures were intended for working-age adults in general-needs housing only, instead of being such a sweeping threat to the vulnerable.
Allowing for the comment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) when I intervened on him earlier, I believe that the Minister would ease the situation a little if he could say today that service charges will not be included in the cap. It is obvious that sheltered accommodation, support of housing schemes and extra care measures command higher rents than service charges since they are more expensive to build and manage, yet they bring huge savings to the NHS and other services. Some housing associations, including Midland Heart, as we heard earlier, fear that these proposals could cost a huge shortfall of over £1 million, and in some cases discretionary housing payments will not deal with the problem.
Before this debate concludes, the Minister needs to tell us that he has plans to protect vulnerable people. He needs to give some clue as to what they are, and he needs to demonstrate that he has listened to the plight of those in supportive accommodation. We want to hear that he will definitely exclude them from these measures.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe).
These measures are about striking a fair deal: a fair deal for those in accommodation, a fair deal for those who provide accommodation and a fair deal for the taxpayer. There needs to be a balance between the rent increases in the social housing sector and those in the private rented sector. Over the past 10 years, there has been a 60% increase in the social housing sector and a 23% increase in the private rented sector. I therefore consider that the 1% reduction in housing benefit is a fair measure. It is fair to the taxpayer and to tenants, but it is also a fair deal for the housing associations, and one that I believe they can manage.
This is, of course, all about balancing the books, which UK Governments have done in only 28 of the last 34 years. That has led to a cumulative debt of £1.6 trillion. The present Government have reduced the deficit from £150 billion to £75 billion, but there is much more to do. In the last eight months, since I have been in the House, the Opposition have opposed every single cut. So how would they balance the books? Would they cut funds for healthcare, the armed forces, welfare or pensions? I invite them to make constructive suggestions.
Housing associations have a responsibility to use taxpayers’ money wisely. The top 100 housing associations employ, collectively, 91,000 people, and the number has been growing. Is a 1% reduction per annum feasible in an organisation with 1,000 employees? Yes, I believe it is. It is managed on a regular basis in the private sector.
Not only are these changes fair, but they will result in huge savings. They will save £255 million by the end of this Parliament, and £1.1 billion a year will be saved by future Parliaments. Of course, consolidation and greater efficiency may be needed.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the impact on supported housing will fly in the face of any notion of economic credibility? When accommodation of that kind is closed, there will be knock-on effects: people will resort to NHS care or more costly residential care, and the impact on the taxpayer will be higher. This is not good economic policy.
There is no doubt that we need to house vulnerable people in supported and specialist accommodation, and that our homes, hostels, refuges and sheltered housing need such support. They constitute a much more labour-intensive part of the market, involving personal care, supervision and maintenance.
May I take up the point made by the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley)? It costs an extra £18,500 to house those with the most complex needs, and most users of supported living are over 70. In our health debates, we talk about trying to get people into the community. As a result of this measure, people will end up in expensive alternatives.
I accept the hon. Lady’s point. We need to ensure that we protect our most vulnerable people, and that is what I believe we will do.
Many of the providers of supported housing and specialist accommodation are part of much larger organisations which are able to blend reductions across their estates, but we want to ensure that specialist providers continue to supply accommodation. This policy is in its early stages, and is currently the subject of consultation. I welcome the Minister’s announcement of a one-year delay, or interruption, so that we can get it right. However, it has been referred to before. In September last year, my hon. Friend the Minister for homelessness—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones)—said that specialised supported accommodation was likely to be exempted. I do not think that there is any need for Opposition Members to frighten residents and make them fear that they will lose their homes. That is irresponsible.
It should also be borne in mind that, during the current Parliament, there will be £800 million in discretionary housing payments for the most vulnerable tenants, and £40 million for those who suffer domestic violence.
I suggest that Opposition Members should wait to see the results of a policy which I believe will provide a fair deal for the most vulnerable people.
I have listened to all the speeches that have been made by Conservative Members today, and have found myself wondering whether some of them are attending the right debate. If they consult the Order Paper, they will see that this debate is about supported housing. It is not about housing bills or taxation; it is about a very specific, vulnerable group of people.
We keep being told to wait and see what the proposals are. Would it not have been sensible for the Government to work out the costs of their proposals and establish the issues involved at the outset, and then conduct a review before making their announcement? If they had conducted the review properly, they might have established that the proposals were counter-productive in both economic and moral terms. If they had done their homework first, we might not be having this debate.
To suggest that mine are crocodile tears are very unfair. I rarely cry, but when I do, my tears are real. I assure the House that Labour Members care about people, and we care about people because it is what the Labour party was founded for. As for the suggestion made by some Conservative Members that social housing organisations have pots of money and spend millions of pounds on campaigning, that is absolute rubbish. I have been contacted by a number of housing associations and charities that look after vulnerable people in my constituency, and I assure Members that they do not have money to waste on campaigning. I have visited those places and I know what happens there.
Let me enlighten the House. At least three organisations in my constituency are doing valuable work. The main provider of social housing is Bolton at Home, whose representatives have contacted me—and I speak to them regularly in any event—to say that thousands of children will be made homeless, as well as hundreds of adults. Bolton at Home also provides supported housing, and it is important to remember what “supported housing” means. It means support for the vulnerable, the disabled, the elderly, those with mental health issues, and the young. The suggestion that turfing them out of their supported housing will enable the Government to economise and cut costs is absolute rubbish, because the state will then have to pick up an even bigger tab.
Another organisation in my constituency, St Vincent’s Housing Association, is a charity which runs a secure unit for about six adults. It relies on housing benefit to look after those people, who have mental health and drug problems. They are extremely vulnerable. If they are put on the streets, they will probably commit crimes and end up in the courts or in prison, and that will cost the state even more money.
Emmaus runs a “companions” system. It, too, looks after vulnerable people, using housing benefit to support them. I do not understand why the Government seem to think that their proposed cuts will save money. In fact, they are counter-productive.
In the words of the late Ronald Reagan, “There you go again.” The hon. Lady seems to be suggesting that she has a monopoly on understanding. Does she not accept that Conservative Members also talk to service providers in our constituencies, and also know what is going on?
Sometimes I genuinely struggle with the question whether some Conservative Members either care or are bothered. If you were really concerned about disabled and vulnerable people, you would have spent your five-minute speech talking about them, rather than criticising Labour Members for raising this issue and accusing us of shedding crocodile tears. I do not know how many times you used that phrase.
I am so sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker; I got carried away.
If Members on the Government Benches were genuinely concerned about the vulnerable, they would be supporting our motion today, because it is only about specific sets and groups of people with a whole range of issues.
Going back to Emmaus and its companions, it gets £132 in housing benefit that it uses for them, but the companions then have to come off other social security benefits. The cost to the charity of providing a home for these people is £1,000, but it does it because it wants to help them learn skills and reintegrate into society. This cut in benefits will mean it will have to find even more money in order to support these people.
If the people in St Vincent’s housing, for example, are turfed out, that will cost the state far more than cutting their housing benefit. So I go back to the question I asked the Minister right at the beginning when he opened this debate: can he guarantee to us that people currently in supported housing will not be turfed out of their home? Will they be supported and protected? I have still not had an answer to that.
Since my election in 2015 I have worked closely with my main housing association in Bexhill and Battle, AmicusHorizon, which I believe does a superb job in looking after its tenants.
Getting more people into homes was a key election priority for me: we have a huge shortage of properties in my constituency and I am pleased that this Government have set out their ambition of delivering 1 million new homes by 2020, and I applaud the doubling of the housing budget to £2 billion in order to make this happen. While this Government are rightly increasing spending on the housing budget, difficult decisions must be made if this Government are to deliver a Budget surplus by 2020. With these ambitions in mind, I am conscious that the housing benefit bill has increased by £6.7 billion between 1997 and 2010, to reach a total of £23 billion.
I welcome the Government’s general intention to reduce the housing benefit bill by measures such as reducing the number of weeks a claimant can be absent from this country, reducing some rents by 1%, and requiring higher-income social tenants to pay near-market rents. So while I recognise the concerns raised in this motion, I fully understand the reasons why the Government are looking to cap the amount of rent that housing benefit will cover in the social sector to that of the local housing allowance, thus limiting this to the rate paid to private renters on housing benefit.
I am also conscious that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) mentioned, over the past 10 years average social rents have risen by over 60%, compared with 23% in the private rented sector. There have been understandable concerns that ever-increasing costs of rent in the social sector are chasing up the housing benefit bill, and that this needs reform.
However, my leading local housing association provider wrote to me, prior to the Government’s welcome announcement, to express its concerns as to how it will be able to cover the additional funding required for supported housing for those with complex needs. I am further told that, as a result of these concerns, a proposed extra care scheme that is due to open in a new development in Bexhill, the Orangery, could be shelved. Representing a constituency where the proportion of over-65-year-olds is 28%, compared with a national average of 17%, bestows an even greater duty on me to ensure that the sometimes complex needs of my constituents are properly recognised and taken into account. So I welcome the Government’s intention to build a framework to support the most vulnerable at the same time as delivering the reforms to housing benefit, which I also support. To this end, I am conscious that the Government recognise that our new reforms will need time to bed in and will cost millions, and that the Government will have to pump money in to support these reforms, as they did in the last term in respect of housing benefit reform.
In addition to the £465 million of discretionary housing payments that this Government have pledged, they have now pledged an extra £70 million, which I welcome. I would ask the Minister if, as part of this review, it would be possible to build in some form of supported housing LHA which would embrace the concept of the capped amount with some top-up to cover the reasonable cost requirements of housing associations to provide for the most vulnerable. Until this time, I do hope that speculation from this House does not lead to the most vulnerable being driven to worry about what may not in fact occur.
While on the topic of housing associations, I would like to reference the importance of all housing associations acting with care and compassion to their tenants. I have recently acted on behalf of a number of concerned residents from Hilltop in Rye, which falls on the border of my constituency. The tenants of Hilltop were informed last year, in writing, that their landlord, Orbit, was looking to decant the properties. There was scant detail given to residents who had lived in their home for years. There being no other Orbit properties locally, there was talk of moving these residents out of their town. At a time when this Government are giving housing association tenants a right to buy their property, I was staggered that these residents, who work in their town, educate their children in their town and volunteer in their town—in one case on a lifeboat—could actually lose their homes. I am pleased that the Government, having signed an order paper for the disposal, require that:
“Any tenants decanted from properties to be sold under this policy are suitably re-housed to their satisfaction before the date of completion of the disposal.”
In my interpretation, this means that the test of whether alternatives are “suitable” is a subjective one from the perspective of my constituents and I will be working on their behalf to achieve a better outcome than that feared.
I use this example because I feel it is essential, in circumstances where this Government are rightly giving rights to tenants to buy their own housing association properties, that the law of unintended consequences does not kick in to deprive tenants of these new rights.
In conclusion, I welcome the desire of this Government to make savings in the housing benefits bill and use these proceeds to build more houses. I also welcome the fact that the Government are looking at how they can support housing association tenants who are vulnerable and need additional support. I look forward to continuing to champion the needs of all my constituents who live in housing association properties.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate and congratulate Labour on bringing it before the House today. I also commend the excellent contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). I also support the pertinent points and questions posed by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), and I hope the Minister was taking note and will respond to them. I also recommend that the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) and some others on the Government Benches look at the Library briefing on this subject and the Chancellor’s autumn statement, as I do not believe their speeches bore any resemblance to either of them.
A secure, warm and fit-for-purpose home is a right we should all enjoy; it should never be threatened, least of all by the state. Yet I am afraid that this Government are doing just that. We have already seen what they are capable of through the expansion of the bedroom tax, and we are again seeing it here in the proposals to cut housing benefit.
On the subject of the bedroom tax, we hear today that the Court of Appeal has ruled in two cases that the policy is discriminatory. In the light of this ruling—and the overwhelming evidence of how detrimental this policy has been—the UK Government must now think again on the bedroom tax, and indeed on this proposal to cut housing benefit, and not just think about it for a year, but do so for good. They should get back to the drawing board and start again from a basis of supporting people in their homes, not threatening to evict them.
In Scotland, the SNP Scottish Government have committed to building 50,000 affordable homes over the course of the next Scottish Parliament should the SNP be returned. Those homes will provide much-needed capacity in the social rented sector, because we recognise the need to build houses, not cut support to housing benefit recipients. The Scottish Government have also taken the necessary steps to mitigate the draconian bedroom tax by providing funding of £90 million to more than 70,000 households, which have escaped rental arrears and the threat of eviction. The Scottish Government have done this despite the overall budget being cut by 12.5%—by one eighth—since the SNP came to power in 2007. In Scotland we realise that a house is a home, and it would serve the UK Government well to bear that in mind as well.
This cut threatens the very roofs over the heads of housing benefit claimants. The House of Commons Library briefing for this debate estimates that over 800,000 families across the UK will be affected by these cuts, costing them on average £1,300 a year. Where will this shortfall in annual rent bills be found? It cannot come from discretionary housing payments as this type of discretionary funding for the social sector is far too insecure and uncertain a funding mechanism to allow such providers to continue to provide specialised accommodation such as refuge accommodation. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has estimated that a single person under the age of 35 who is in receipt of housing benefit will face a weekly shortfall of £6.22, which equates to an annual loss of £323.44 and a total loss to the housing associations of £2.8 million a year.
The area in which this cut is of greatest concern is women’s refuges. Scottish Women’s Aid wrote to Lord Freud last week about the impact these cuts will have on its ability to provide a refuge service for women and children fleeing domestic violence. In its letter to the Minister, Scottish Women’s Aid highlighted information that, frankly, the Government should have been aware of. Had they carried out an impact assessment, it would have been as clear as day to them. There is a range of additional costs involved in providing and managing refuge accommodation for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West and Scottish Women’s Aid have eloquently outlined, local housing allowance rates bear no resemblance to the actual costs incurred by women’s aid groups, such as Monklands Women’s Aid in my constituency, or to the way in which they provide refuge facilities. I have been working closely with Sharon Aitchison, who manages Monklands Women’s Aid. It operates on very fine margins to provide a brilliant service for incredibly vulnerable women and children in their time of desperate need. It has already had its funding challenges, but this cut to housing benefit will put it out of the game. That will be the consequence of the Government’s latest cut. While I am on this subject, I hope that the Chancellor will reply to my letter of 26 November last year regarding his announcement on the tampon tax fund. To date, I have not had so much as an acknowledgment.
Brilliant work has been done in recent years to highlight and tackle domestic violence and to provide better support for women and children fleeing from abusive relationships. All that work will be undone at a stroke as a result of this cut, because Monklands Women’s Aid will not be the only refuge that is forced to close. This is a cut that will once again hit those who need our support the most, and it is time that it was scrapped.
Let us all ready ourselves for some “shroud waving”. I rise to speak as perhaps the only Member here today—and perhaps the only Member in the whole House of Commons—who has run one of these precious services. Let me tell you, it has been so frustrating today to listen to the lack of understanding of the practicalities and the reality of how these services actually work. It has been mind-boggling, so I apologise if any of my comments come out as aggression.
There are many women, and even more children, who have lived in a refuge who stick in my head, but none more so than Amirah. You learn to live with it, but she was the only woman who brought tears to my eyes. Amirah, who was pregnant, was found on the side of the road after she had drunk bleach in an attempt to end her life. She had been kept chained to a table and fed scraps like an abused animal by her perpetrator. In the refuge, we had to teach her to eat again, with small portions. It was slow progress. When her beautiful daughter was born, it was a refuge worker who held her hand while she was in labour and a refuge manager who picked her up from the hospital and took her back home. The women in the refuge became her family. Refuges are amazing.
I think back to the Conservative Members I walked round the women’s refuges where I worked and where Amirah lived. I remember drinking tea with the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) and the then Minister Francis Maude in the playroom of one of our refuges. That playroom, in which the Minister so delighted in posing for his photo opportunity, will not be there if these changes come to pass. The likelihood is that they would not have had a refuge to visit at all if those measures had been in place then.
They were not our most eminent guests, however. That accolade goes to the Home Secretary, who was a keen visitor to my domestic violence services. If the Government’s plans to reduce housing benefit do not exempt this group, Ministers will be letting the Home Secretary down in a big way. In every safety net that she tries to put in place, these proposals without exemptions will snip a hole that women and children will fall through. Ministers here today should make no mistake that when people slip through these safety nets, no amount of hard work or personal responsibility will help them. They will face danger, abuse and, in too many cases, death.
The coalition Government and some Departments in this Government have shown their commitment to these families. The Home Office, while by no means perfect, has tried to invest pots of money and to create schemes for improved access to services. It has taken a good hard look at laws that will help these victims. There is a lot more to do, but it is not that the Home Office is not trying. I believe that its Ministers care, but they are being woefully let down by other Government Departments, which fail to recognise the Home Office’s role in the fight to end domestic abuse. There is no greater offender than the Department for Communities and Local Government, whose brutal cuts to local authorities have already closed 34 specialist women’s refuges since 2010. Just before the election last year, facing “shroud waving” from Women’s Aid, the Department suddenly had an epiphany and released a fund to stimulate increases in the number of refuge bed spaces.
Does my hon. Friend agree that these constant references to “shroud waving” are an insult to those refuges and housing associations that are genuinely concerned that they are going to have to close accommodation for the most vulnerable people? For example, Thirteen, which does great work in the Tees valley with veterans, ex-offenders, women fleeing domestic violence and people recovering from addictions, is going to have to close supported accommodation. If the Conservatives are so genuinely bothered about scaremongering and shroud waving, they could put an end to it by doing something about this policy today.
I could not agree more. The simple thing to do is to exempt this category. I think we all know that the Government are properly going to do that. We have waved our shrouds and, do you know what, in every single case, they listened. So stop me having to talk about this! Stop making me a shroud waver! Just do it!
Anyway, the 10 million quid over 12 months that the Government gave just before the election was intended to create new beds, and I have heard Ministers stand at that Dispatch Box and talk about the number of extra bed spaces that they have created. However, I know that every single bid that was put in for that fund will have made its calculation based on the existing rates of housing benefit. I also know that every bid, as part of its sustainability plan beyond the 12 months, will have contained calculations based on the existing rates of housing benefit. Without the housing benefit-plus settlement, the £10 million offered would have been completely meaningless. I know that because I helped to write three of the successful bids.
I have run refuges that survived solely on housing benefit contributions, without any recourse to the now non-existent Supporting People funds. At my charity, when times were tough and our refuge funding was cut in half, we sucked it up, made tough decisions and found new ways and new funds. We worked on different models to bring in support staff to our refuges. None of that would have been possible without the existing system of housing benefit. We got all those Tories coming to see us because we had done such a great job of cutting our cloth to suit our needs, but we were only able do it because of housing benefit. Day one of this change would have closed at least 20 of our bed spaces. That would have resulted in turning away more than a hundred women and at least as many vulnerable children every year.
This week, I spoke in the debate on childcare and begged once again for the responsible Minister to consider exempting victims of domestic violence from the rules on the 16-hour threshold for increased childcare. He stopped me in my tracks and made that commitment. I am begging the Ministers here today to do what he did, and what the Home Secretary is trying to do, to protect victims of domestic violence and their children. The Minister might think that this is hyperbole, but I shall say it anyway: without the exemption, what he is proposing will, for many, be a death penalty. Please don’t do it.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that this Government are one of the most pusillanimous in living memory when it comes to tackling the powerful and vested interests in this country. This pusillanimous approach extends to the interests of the media, the utilities and any companies that replenish the coffers of the Tory party. In fact, it also extends to the international community as well. The obsequious kowtowing to foreign Governments, such as those of China and Saudi Arabia, is cringe-worthy, embarrassing and not worthy of a British Government. It comes to something when the Italian Government have managed to get more taxes out of big corporations than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that is saying something.
It does not matter whether a person is young, old, disabled—either physically or mentally—distressed, unemployed, on low pay, or on temporary or zero-hours contracts, they are fair game for this Government. This is a Government who challenge the weak, the vulnerable and the needy and dress it up as a virtue or something that is character building. The trend now is for the Government to discredit anyone who gets in their way, or who they think is getting in their way. The Government could teach the mafia a thing or two about extortion, but without the charm.
The House of Lords, the bastion of the Tory party for decades, challenges the Government, so the Government are now giving thought to how to clip its wings. It is strange that they have managed to do that only now when they no longer have a built-in majority in the Lords.
Let me turn now to the banks and the bankers. Today, we are seeing the continued fall-out from their reckless decisions that led to the crisis, with the Royal Bank of Scotland having to put aside a further £2 billion to cover its incompetence. Ministers sound like a stuck record, as they once again blame the previous Labour Government. Yet those are the people who, in the form of the shadow Cabinet in 2007, wanted to deregulate the banking and financial services sector lock stock and barrel through their “Freeing Britain to Compete” document. Following the banking crisis, which was caused by their friends in the City, they quietly buried that document much to the chagrin of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) who co-ordinated it. Although that document is as rare as rocking horse dung, I do suggest, none the less, that Government Members try to acquaint themselves with it—that is if they can find a copy of it.
I noticed the Prime Minister patting himself on the back today when he talked about the Government’s record on tax collection. If that is the best this Government can do, it is no wonder they are having to penalise those who can least afford it. If they cannot get the money off the corporations, they will get it off the dispossessed.
Yet again we are hearing about another policy that has not been thought through. The fact that the Minister has announced some delay in the proposed cuts to supported housing is evidence of that. The long-term impact on the finances of local government and of the health service are potentially catastrophic. It is significantly cheaper to have elderly people living in supported accommodation than it is to have them in residential care. There is a danger that these proposals will bring forward that cost with the transfer to residential care. Not content with penalising older people for being old, the Government are now on a roll, as they tackle homeless people, those escaping domestic violence and people with disabilities. Around 440,000 homes are potentially affected. Discretionary support will not make up the difference. Charlotte Norman of Place Shapers and St Vincent’s Housing Association says that the proposals look like having a more detrimental effect than any other recent housing or welfare announcement. In my own constituency, Anchor Housing will struggle. The average rent in sheltered housing schemes is £123 a week, which will leave a shortfall of £32. There will be a significant detrimental effect on those organisations that support the most vulnerable.
When we talk about the most vulnerable, the Government accuse us of shroud waving. We are not shroud waving; we are telling the facts as they are, or possibly as they could be. Those on the Government Benches can wring their hands and accuse my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) of being a scaremonger, but they are putting their heads in the sand. It is the responsibility of the Ministers on the Front Bench and this House to get a grip of the situation and get the Chancellor to change his mind for the umpteenth time.
My city of Cambridge is a high-cost area in the grip of a housing crisis. The problem is multi-faceted and complicated, and every single thing that the Government are doing is making it worse. This policy is no exception. We have been asked by Government Members what we would do. Well, I can tell them that three-year tenancies without any unexpected rent rises would be a very good start, and I commend that idea to them.
I have spent the past few days talking to providers of supported housing in Cambridge. What struck me was that every single one of them warned about the dangers of this policy and the effect that it will have on our cities. I will relay a few of the things that I was told. Let me start at the YMCA, which has 80 residents—a mixture of students and people in work—70 of whom receive housing benefit. I was told that if housing benefit is cut, the residents will be turfed out on to the streets. The YMCA does not want to do that, but it will have no choice. That would, of course, completely undermine recovery programmes and cause yet more young people to end up living on not the Conservatives’ spin-happy road to recovery, but the street.
What of the local council? Cambridge City Council directly provides or manages more than 100 units of accommodation for homeless households, including three hostels, 22 units of move-on accommodation for adults recovering from mental health conditions, and 13 sheltered housing schemes for older people—more than 460 tenancies. This will be the same story for every Member across the House. The council rightly says that, if this policy goes ahead, it will inevitably result in their tenants facing a higher net weekly payable rent. There will be no more income to pay the rent, just a higher rent. These are vulnerable people who will struggle to prioritise paying that rent, so we know what will happen: they will either sink into a spiral of debt or lose their accommodation—or, most likely, both.
My council also tells me that its inevitable loss of income will force it to reduce the services that it provides, which means fewer wardens, less support and less preventive work to stop people needing to go to hospital. My local NHS already has severe well-documented problems, which have recently been rehearsed in the Chamber, but the changes will just make that situation worse. We hear about joined-up government—I do not think so—but the policy will cost more money. It will just pass the buck by putting the cost on our hospitals and homeless services, which are already overstretched and working flat out.
Housing associations will also be affected. CHS Group tells me that the overall impact of the LHA cap will be a loss of income of £537,000 a year and that four of its support schemes in Cambridge will be plunged into a significant operating loss. Those schemes house 47 people—vulnerable teenagers, people with learning difficulties, and vulnerable women and older people—yet that provision will be under immediate threat.
Let me be generous for a moment. Perhaps the Government will change their mind, as happened when they thought again on tax credit cuts, after being presented with the facts. We have heard powerful and persuasive arguments from Labour Members today. Maybe the Government did not really understand the consequences of their proposals, but if that is the case, they should listen carefully now.
I shall conclude by being slightly less generous, however. I think that the proposal is part of a deadly cocktail of housing reforms that will decimate the sector and make our country’s housing problems worse. There is constantly a gap between what the Government say and what they do. They talk about helping our country to live within its means, but in reality they are just mean. I urge the Government to think again. We all make mistakes, so there is no shame in their admitting that sometimes they get things wrong. It would be far better to change course now than to risk inflicting such harm on so many vulnerable people.
In my part of the world, often the best thing that is said about the Conservative party is, “You know where you are with them: they may be cruel, but at least they’re competent.” Following today’s debate, however, and particularly after this week for the Department for Work and Pensions, one must wonder about at least the latter part of that sentence.
We began the week with the Government’s defeat in the other place on their ludicrous suggestion that incomes should be carved out of the meaningful measure of child poverty that the previous Labour Government introduced. The Government then had to acknowledge that they should exempt those in receipt of carer’s allowance from the punishment of the benefit cap, despite the fact that they spent £50,000 in the courts just a few weeks ago defending the inclusion of carers under the aegis of that cap.
This morning, we saw extraordinary events in the Court of Appeal as the Government found their bedroom tax ruled not only cruel, but unlawful, because it discriminates against disabled people—in particular my friend and fellow countryman, Paul Rutherford, his wife, Susan, and their profoundly disabled child, Warren. He was discriminated against by the bedroom tax for many years, but he had his day in court today. I can only hope that the Government reflect on the meaning of that ruling with a little more grace than the Prime Minister during today’s Question Time, and that they will come back to the House to give us satisfaction by getting rid of the bedroom tax.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it was always unfair to include carers under the bedroom tax and the benefit cap because their caring role means that they cannot go out to work or increase the number of hours that they do? These 60,000 unpaid family carers already save the state billions, so is it not time for them to be exempted? We call on the Government to take action straight away.
Is not that just shroud waving? We have heard for the past few years—not just months or today—that we are shroud waving about the bedroom tax and its effects on the vulnerable. Indeed, we have been told that it is shroud waving to suggest that the bedroom tax might be unlawful, but it turns out that it is illegal, so the Government must come back to the House to address the situation—[Interruption.] The Minister for Housing and Planning is chuntering, but this afternoon there was a welcome yet extraordinary turn of events in the House. Despite Labour Members and others interested in the social rented sector asking him on hundreds of occasions in recent months to make the change, the Minister has only now said that he agrees with us.
We should address the deeply unfair 1% cut to social housing rents which is but part of the problem that the social supported housing sector faces. I welcome the fact that the Minister, without much good grace, conceded that there should be a delay. It is extraordinary that his Government have been looking at the policy not, I have to tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), since 2014 but since 2011, which is when they first suggested that they ought to address the question of, in their view, high social rented costs versus local housing allowance. Five years later, they still have not reached a conclusion on what they are going to do. It is incompetence on a gross scale.
In the Welfare Reform and Work Bill Committee, we lost count of the number of occasions on which we were offered excuses as to why the change could not possibly be made, and why the moratorium—or, as we asked for, a full exemption—was not affordable or allowable. In Committee, I believe that the words, “shroud waving” were used on a number of occasions. We were accused of jumping the gun, and told that the measures would not be introduced for a while, so there was plenty of time for the Government to get their papers in order and get the policy right.
The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent case. Can he explain to the House why, in benign economic times, his own Government failed to deliver tax breaks to encourage the development of extra care facilities and specialist housing facilities? Why did they stand still when there was plenty of money coming in and they had the opportunity to do so?
We have not been in power for six years, and there is only so long that the hon. Gentleman can keeping waving that shroud at me. The key point is that under the hon. Gentleman’s Government there was a 40% cut, and we face the prospect of the end of supported housing in this country unless there is a change of course from his Government.
There is a lot of misunderstanding among Government Members about what we are talking about. I do not know whether they do not read the briefing from the Whips or the Whips do not tell them the truth, but there are two measures that we are debating. On the first measure—a 1% cut in social housing rents—there is now a one-year stay of execution. The second and more important measure, which the Minister did not address despite the questions raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne, is the equalising of the amount of housing benefit available to people in social rented accommodation with the local housing allowance. That is the biggest, most substantive change that the Government propose to make.
The hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) said that the measure had not been introduced and is not happening yet. She really ought to read the Government’s statements. I shall read from the autumn statement, which said at paragraph 1.125:
“The Government will cap the amount of rent that Housing Benefit will cover in the social sector to the relevant local housing allowance. This will apply to tenancies signed after 1 April 2016”.
According to my maths, that is in a couple of months, with housing benefit entitlements changing across the board from April 2018. This is not shroud waving, nor is it jumping the gun: it is the Opposition drawing to the attention of the House and, it would seem, Government Members, a measure that will impact on their constituents in just a few months’ time.
The hon. Gentleman is being misleading, because the motion is about supported housing. Now he is speaking about general needs housing benefit, and there is a difference. There is no change in legislation: an extensive review is under way on housing benefit for people in supported housing. There is a difference, and I am sorry that he does not appreciate that.
The hon. Gentleman has managed to brush over the fact that his colleague who spoke earlier was a Minister who was involved in bringing in the spare room subsidy originally. Perhaps he could confirm that our affordable housing programme has delivered 6% more supported homes per year than did the Labour equivalent?
It is interesting that the Minister did not ride to the rescue of his hon. Friend the Member for Lewes: he knows that she does not know what she is talking about on this subject.
The hon. Lady could have a further look at the Budget book produced by the Government for the same spending review, which shows clearly that £515 million is the saving anticipated from the cuts. The IFS goes further and says that by the time the cuts are fully implemented, the Government might save £1.1 billion. The largest part of that is the change equalising housing benefit with local housing allowance, not the one-year stay of execution that we have heard about today. Now that I have explained the position, does the hon. Lady wish to intervene?
I thank the shadow Minister for his reply. I am even more worried that he does not understand the difference. The supported housing allowance is much higher than the ordinary general needs housing benefit. The Opposition called this debate and we are supposed to be discussing supported housing, not general needs housing. I am shocked that the shadow Minister does not understand the difference.
I have made the point about general social housing catching specified supported housing. That is clear. It is also clear, because Ministers admitted it at the Dispatch Box today, that the hon. Lady is right—supported housing does cost more because it is bespoke and it is intended for people with, for example, complex autistic needs or physical disabilities, women fleeing persecution and violence, or elderly vulnerable people. It costs more money to look after those people because an in-house concierge and other things are needed. That is why it is so wrong for the Government to equalise the amount of housing benefit that they can get with local housing allowances available for the private rented sector. That is the issue we are discussing.
The issue was not raised by us initially. Those in the sector have approached us and Ministers on many occasions. I shall quote a few. Andrew Redfern, chief executive of the specialist housing association Framework, said that the planned cut
“ would mean the end of supported housing. All our schemes would close, and I think all others would as well.”
That seems fairly straightforward. Other housing organisations such as Great Places, New Charter, Hightown Praetorian and Family Mosaic all confirmed that many of their schemes would be unviable if the cut went ahead. AmicusHorizon, which I believe has 119 such supported housing bodies across London, has confirmed that it will have to close supported housing in London and elsewhere if these changes go ahead. Charlotte Norman of PlaceShapers and St Vincent’s housing said:
“We cannot believe that government understands the consequences of these changes and the vast extra costs that would fall to the public purse as a result of scheme closures. Nothing short of exemption for all such housing will be adequate and we very much hope that common sense will prevail.”
We heard a lot of common sense from Opposition Members, including from the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and in particular from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who asked the central question: what will happen to the LHA equalisation with housing benefit that the Minister failed to mention? Will there be an exemption for supported housing associations and for specified housing? He asked a further question that the Minister failed to answer, which I hope the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People will answer in a moment. If the rents are to go up next year and are not cut by 1%, will they go up in line with the formula, as they would have done ordinarily, or are they to be frozen? I would be grateful for an answer from the Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) talked about the Society of St James, which helps 2,000 people and will lose £1 million. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), drawing on their personal experience and deep knowledge, spoke about what this will mean for their constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) spoke with particular expertise about her experience of running a women’s refuge. She explained how these changes would shut that refuge and begged Ministers to listen to her and to the Home Secretary about the value of women’s refuges and the damage that will be done to them. My hon. Friends the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) and for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) also spoke.
On the Government side, Members were sanguine. On the Government side, Members dissembled. On the Government side, Members have a choice about what to do today. Will they agree with us that nothing short of the exemption of specialised supported housing is required in order to safeguard the most vulnerable in our communities and that what we have heard today from the Government is welcome but insufficient? When the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, will he agree with me that it is time for the Government to admit that they got it wrong and, as they have done so many times this week, reverse ferret?
This has been a powerful and important debate, and we have listened to the arguments from both sides of the Chamber. A number of important points were raised and questions asked, and I will do my best to cover as many of them as I can.
Our welfare reform is about bringing wide-ranging reforms to the welfare system and bringing the budget back under control after years of overspending by Labour. My hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) and for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) set out eloquently how important that is. Our reforms are bringing fairness for hard-working taxpayers, making work pay and making welfare sustainable for the future.
Protecting the most vulnerable is the key part of today’s debate. As we have progressed with these important and necessary reforms, we have stuck to our principle of protecting the most vulnerable. As the Minister for Disabled People, I hold that principle to be particularly important. I know how important the right housing is for an individual’s needs. I am proud of our record on helping those who need the most support.
I want to remind the House that we have spent around £50 billion every year on benefits to support people with disabilities or health conditions, and that spending will be higher in every year until 2020 than it was in 2010. We are spending £400 million to deliver 8,000 specialist homes for the vulnerable, elderly or those with disabilities, and funding for the disabled facilities grant, which funds around 40,000 adaptations a year, is due to increase by nearly 80% next year. We are providing £870 million of support through discretionary housing payment over the next five years to help those who need support, and the Department of Health has committed to funding up to 7,500 further specialist homes for disabled and older people.
We are also providing support to other vulnerable groups. For example, we are providing £40 million for victims of domestic abuse, which is a tripling of the support, ensuring that no one is turned away from the support they need. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for focusing the House on the absolute importance of the services that refuges provide, bringing real dynamism and realism to the debate. I understand that, because I have done a lot of work with Women’s Aid, particularly in the last Parliament, and I pay tribute to the women’s refuge in Swindon. It cannot boast about what it does, because it has to be behind closed doors. The hon. Lady has really focused minds, which is an important thing to do. More than £500 million has been spent since 2010 on tackling homelessness, preventing almost 1 million households from becoming homeless.
Let me turn to supported housing. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), who drew upon their real-life experience and set out some of the challenges and opportunities faced in this area. We recognise the value of the supported housing sector and want to ensure that the essential services it delivers continue to be provided, within the context of driving appropriate value for money. Many Members have put that on the record today and spoken about that support, which is very important. We want to ensure that the sector can continue to deliver the important services it provides, which is why we will be putting in place a one-year exemption from the 1% rent reduction for all supported accommodation. That will give us time to study the evidence from the supported housing review, which is due to report in the spring, and consider a longer-term solution for the sector.
The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) asked a number of questions, including about what happens to rents for supported housing next year during the one-year delay. They will be uprated by CPI plus 1% up until April 2017, then reviewed after that.
The review will tell us the size, scale and scope of supported housing funded through housing benefits. The policy options will be considered after the report is published, in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, and conclusions will be reached in due course as that is brought together.
I am reassured by the Minister’s comments. Will he ensure that the Treasury and NHS England are involved in this issue, because it is important that there is proper co-ordination between acute hospital care and social care as we face demographic issues in the future?
We all accept that this issue goes far wider, and we must look at all that in the consultation.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) asked me to take on board the comments from Progress Housing, and I will happily do so. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) talked about the YMCA, which is an important organisation. I am pleased that Denise Hatton, YMCA England’s chief executive, has already tweeted:
“It is positive that the Government has listened to the concerns of the sector and we welcome the fact it has taken appropriate action to protect supported housing.”
If the House is to take the Minister at his word that he wants to have the evidence from the review, then a consultation, in order to make these policy decisions, will he place a moratorium on the application of the LHA benefit cut, as he proposes with the rent cut, so that new tenancies from April this year will not be affected in the way that the Chancellor announced?
The changes do not come into effect at that point. That is why we said that we will urgently take forward the review based on the points that have been raised.
I can assure Members that DWP and DCLG will work closely together to ensure that the appropriate protections are in place for those in supported housing.
I have made it clear that, for those in supported housing, the change will be delayed for a year as we conduct the urgent review.
On the rationale for changes in the social rented sector, we will stick to our principles of protecting the most vulnerable. However, these are important reforms. We inherited a burgeoning housing benefits bill that we had to get control of. We have started to do that, but we need to go further. The housing benefit bill for England has risen by over 20% during the past 10 years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said. Part of the reason is that the rises in social rents have outstripped those in the private sector, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). Social rents are up by 60% compared with 23% in the private sector. In the private sector, the local housing allowance curbs the spiralling housing benefit bill, but there is no similar restraint in the social sector. That is why we are going to cap social sector rents in the same way as in the private sector, thereby reducing rents in the social sector. We should remember that this will help the one third of people in this sector who do not claim any housing benefit and whose rents will come down. However, we will continue to protect the most vulnerable.
This is just part of our wider housing reforms. We are improving access, creating more choice and building more affordable homes. We are doubling the housing budget to more than £20 billion over the next five years to help to ensure that housing is prioritised for those who need it most.
No. I am short of time.
Under Labour, the number of social and affordable rented homes fell by 400,000, but under the Conservative Government, 700,000 new homes have been built in the past five years, of which 270,000 are affordable homes. We are broadening opportunities for people to access housing through Help to Buy, right to buy and the £8 billion commitment to deliver 400,000 more affordable home starts. This Government are tackling the chronic problems of under-supply and access to housing, which the Labour party failed to do.
In conclusion, we will not fall into the trap of Labour’s blank-cheque approach by paying away problems without making any real or meaningful reforms to welfare. Our reforms bring fairness for hard-working taxpayers and make the welfare budget more sustainable for the future, and we are doing that while providing the right protection for the most vulnerable in society.