I beg to move,
That this House has considered local housing allowance and homelessness.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am raising this issue because our constituents are in pain. A series of cuts, including the freeze in local housing allowance rates since 2016, has led to an increasing number of people across the country struggling to keep a roof over their heads. In the worst cases that is leading to homelessness and rough sleeping. The last 10 years of Tory rule have given us rising levels of homelessness in England. Rough sleeping alone has more than doubled in that time and in London in the last year it increased by 18%. The number of people in temporary accommodation has also increased. At the end of last year there were 83,700 individuals and families living in temporary accommodation, which is a 74% increase since 2010. It is unacceptable and we cannot allow it to continue. We must reverse it. We must look at the availability and affordability of housing.
Local housing allowance rates relate to housing benefit, which is now part of universal credit. They were introduced just over 10 years ago and are meant to give support to people on low income who are renting privately, including people who are working, so that they can keep up with paying their rent. However, in the last 10 years rates have been cut repeatedly and are now frozen, leaving people who need the support struggling to pay their rent. Research by Crisis and the Chartered Institute of Housing found that in 92% of areas in Great Britain, fewer than one in five homes were affordable within local housing allowance rates last year for single people, couples or small families. The cut has an impact on a huge number of people in most parts of the country, even when they are working.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that Shelter’s figures provide an even starker illustration than the picture he paints? They show that 31% of renters in receipt of housing benefit had to cut back on food for themselves or their partner, and two in five, or 37%, were forced to borrow money just to pay their rent in the last year. That indicates the scale of the problem. Does he agree that it proves that what is needed is not only the unfreezing of local housing allowance rates next year but their restoration to a realistic value?
I quite agree with my hon. Friend and am sure the Minister will take note. It is not a political argument. All the charitable and voluntary organisations express the same concerns, and we need to do something about it.
Too many people are at risk of homelessness as they struggle, month after month, to make up the shortfall between their rent and the support they get from local housing allowance. There is a huge problem in my constituency; it is staggering. From 2011, local housing allowance rates were meant to cover the most affordable third of local rents, but in my constituency, for single young people, just 1% of shared properties were affordable within the shared accommodation rate last year. For a family with one or two children, just 6% of two-bedroom properties were affordable. To give an idea of how far behind rents the rates now are, that family would have had to find more than £150 extra a month to rent a property in the cheapest third of the private rental market. That is not an amount that can be made up from better budgeting. It is two and a half weeks’ worth of food shopping for the average family in London. No wonder that in too many cases it is almost impossible for people to cover the cost of their rent when they face such shortfalls. The ending of a private tenancy is one of the most common reasons why people become homeless today. What is more, when people lose their tenancy, it is equally impossible for them to find somewhere else to live within local housing allowance rates. They are left facing homelessness.
That is not the experience of a few people. Charities deal with people in that situation far too often. One woman I heard from is long-term sick and unable to work. She has to move out of her home because the landlord is selling the property, but as her local housing allowance rate is only £350 a month she cannot find anywhere else to live and is at risk of becoming homeless. That is having a huge impact on her severe anxiety. I heard from another woman, who has worked almost continuously since she was 16. She is now in her 50s. Four years ago she was made redundant, and she has struggled to get another job since. She is now struggling to find ways to manage a £300 monthly shortfall between her housing benefit and her rent. After years of work, the housing benefit system is failing her when she needs it most. She needs security and to get back on her feet. Another person who faces a huge shortfall between rent and housing benefit after having to stop work last year said, “It just feels like you are being kicked when you are at your lowest.”
Visitors to Ealing soup kitchen have the same stories. Gert was failed by LHA when he was made homeless because he got a tiny increment in wages and his housing benefit help stopped, which effectively made him homeless for over a year while he was still trying to work. LHA also failed a volunteer at Ealing Soup Kitchen, Simone, who has been asked to leave a property and is unable even to bid for band D properties despite having a disabled child and working full time. On her low wage she cannot pay for high-rent properties, and there is a good chance that she will be made homeless by the system in September. She works in a care home and spends her spare time volunteering at homeless shelters—and she may end up having to use them.
Andrew Mcleay, the manager of Ealing Soup Kitchen, says:
“We try to help these people that slip through the cracks—however LHA is making our job almost impossible”.
Ealing Soup Kitchen and other organisations in my constituency do amazing work, and help people move from homeless to hopeful. They save lives. I am confident that the Members attending this debate, and every Member of Parliament, will have groups doing equally important work in their constituencies, but I particularly want to thank St Mungo’s, Hope for Southall Street Homeless and Ealing Soup Kitchen for their amazing work. No-one should be in that desperate situation, and no one should become homeless or be at risk of it simply because the help they need is not there.
For years, social housing has been ignored and sold off, driving rising rents and falling housing stocks. Social rented housing is key for providing people on low incomes with secure, decent and affordable housing. But the Government are woefully behind in building enough homes to address the scale of need. Just 5,000 social rent units were built last year. Research from Crisis and the National Housing Federation has shown that we need to build 90,000 homes a year in England for the next 15 years to significantly reduce the worst forms of homelessness, such as rough sleeping and living in unsuitable temporary accommodation.
It will take time to build the social rent homes that are needed. That is why we must act now to ensure that people on low incomes can afford their rent in the private rented sector. We simply cannot afford to wait for more than a decade and, in the meantime, watch the numbers of people facing homelessness rise and rise. Right now, more and more people on low incomes are having to turn to the private rented sector to find homes, only to struggle to pay their rent because of cuts to local housing allowance rates. In reality, we need to fund both. We need to invest in increasing the supply of genuinely affordable housing, as the most effective long-term solution and the best way to manage the housing benefit budget, but that must not overshadow the urgent need to invest in an immediate and effective solution to help people to keep their existing home and avoid altogether the trauma of becoming homeless.
Unfreezing the rates and ensuring that they cover at least the cheapest third of local rents will significantly help people at risk of homelessness in the private rented sector. That will also help to reduce the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness now. It will help those stuck in temporary accommodation or hostels, living on the streets, hidden away on people’s sofas or sleeping at the back of buses to find a home and have the immediate means to keep it.
As I mentioned, we have seen a huge rise in the use of very expensive temporary accommodation. That is a result of fewer and fewer affordable housing options for councils to prevent and resolve homelessness, as per their statutory duty. That not only sustains people in insecure situations, but is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. As a country, we are spending almost £1 billion on temporary accommodation, rather than helping people to move into safe, stable and affordable homes. That money could be better spent on services to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place and save both the economic and the human costs of homelessness.
That is why I, along with many of my constituents, are supporting the Cover the Cost campaign launched by Crisis. That campaign has the support of thousands of people, several leading organisations in the area of housing and homelessness, councils and landlords. Those organisations include the Local Government Association and the Residential Landlords Association. The campaign calls on the Government to restore local housing allowance rates so that they cover at least the cheapest third of rents.
We are due a spending review, and I am sure the new Prime Minister will at least deliver that. It is a prime opportunity to unfreeze local housing allowance and put sufficient investment into the rates so that they cover at least the cheapest third of rents. That will give an immediate and much-needed lifeline to so many people who right now cannot cover the cost of their rent and so are at severe risk of homelessness. The investment will also have an immediate impact on homelessness, helping people back into the housing market rapidly, and will make a significant difference to many of my constituents and many people across the country. If the Government are serious about ending rough sleeping, as their manifesto says, then we need an immediate investment in local housing allowance rates so that the system is adequately resourced to support people as intended.
Order. Let me advise hon. Members on how I will manage the debate. I intend to start calling the Front-Bench spokespersons by 10.28 am. That provides roughly six to seven minutes for each of Back-Bench speaker. If they could stick to that sort of timeframe, I would be grateful; if they exceed it, I will start getting very fidgety.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, in this really important debate. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) is absolutely right: this is a very key issue. Unless we get housing right, it will not be possible to deal with so many of the other issues that concern us, in the context of eradicating poverty, improving life chances, improving education and dealing with poor health. Housing is the absolute foundation of the decent, civilised society that all of us in the Chamber want to see.
What have we seen over the last few years? We are starting to see a rise in home ownership in the younger generation—35 to 44-year-olds; that is starting to inch up. Last year, we managed to build more homes than were built in all but one of the last 31 years. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing says, we need to build more and better-quality homes and we need to do that much more quickly than we have managed so far.
We also want to see longer-term tenancies. I am pleased with the moves that the Government are making in that direction. It is absolutely right that we also crack down on rogue landlords, because they should have no place in a decent society.
It is very welcome that the Government accepted the calls from the Local Government Association and others to scrap the housing borrowing cap. The Local Government Association advises that that will lead to the building of up to 10,000 new homes a year. That is a significant contribution towards the estimated 100,000 new social homes a year that are desperately needed.
I support councils in wanting to encourage home ownership, but we must do that without a corresponding decline in the number of social rented homes. That is why it is so important that councils be able to keep 100% of the receipts from right-to-buy sales to invest in new affordable housing.
I am sure that all of us in the Chamber have frustrations about the planning system and the way in which we build houses in this country. I understand that in April the Local Government Association advised that there were 423,000 homes for which permission had been given to build but which still had not been built. The issue of slow build-out rates has gone on far too long. In my own constituency, up to about 13,000 homes in total are being built to the north of Houghton Regis and part of Luton. The end date for that development—for the final houses—will not be until some point in the early 2030s. That is simply too long—and unacceptable, given that there is desperate housing need now.
I wonder whether we need to be more imaginative about what we do on the big sites for which planning permission has been given, to which houses have been allocated—the houses are going to come—but which are left empty for years and years, even though there is desperate housing need. When I have taken my family away on summer holidays, we have stayed in a luxury-type chalet caravan park on various weeks away. Would it be possible to look at having that type of housing, on a temporary basis, on those huge sites where there are no houses but houses are planned? As the permanent houses were built, we could move those units off to other sites where we were waiting to build. That is not a long-term solution, but this is a really urgent issue—it is an “Action this day” issue. We need new, fresh, more imaginative thinking about how we meet the very urgent housing need that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall set out very clearly and vividly for all of us in his speech.
If we build zero-energy-bill homes, the people who need these new homes will have more money for food, clothes and the household budget in general. It is possible to build houses that have no net gas and electricity bills; they are no more expensive to build than conventional homes. British architects such as Bill Dunster are building such homes now. I hope to have some in my constituency shortly. We are all asking why all new homes are not zero-energy-bill homes. That would help us to meet our net zero target and help poorer people to live within their means: if they do not have to pay gas and electricity bills, they will have more money for food and clothes, and to take their children on a family holiday.
We can do this; we just need to get on with it. To see how we can do it, hon. Members can visit the Building Research Establishment in Watford. We pay £23.5 billion a year in local housing allowance. The real answer is to build more. If we build more, we can solve a whole range of problems that concern us all.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
Central London, which includes my constituency, is the largest private rental market in the country. There is not one property for rent in the entire borough available to people on the local housing allowance rate. That includes not only some of the high-value property in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, which I would not expect to be accessible to those on local housing allowance, but some of the poorest wards in the country, such as Paddington. It includes hundreds—probably thousands—of properties that were council flats, have been sold under the right to buy and are now rented back to private tenants. Flat 3, say, which is socially rented, costs £150 a week, yet the property next door, which is privately rented, costs £500 a week.
What does it mean that not a single person in my constituency can afford to rent in the private rented sector? It results in cases, such as one I received the day before yesterday, of a mother who has been privately renting for many years and whose landlord has evicted her through a no-fault procedure—no doubt, they will get more money from another tenant. The local authority has put her in emergency accommodation on the other side of London, as is often the case. That rent for emergency accommodation, incidentally, will be around £500 a week.
That woman has a child with a statement of special educational needs in the borough. The borough has now said that the care plan cannot be moved to another borough, so her child cannot get the 20 hours of educational support that they need in the borough where she is currently in emergency accommodation. She has to go through the whole statementing process again, but she will not be able to do that before September. Her child is clearly in need. I would say the local authority is in breach of its statutory duties. The mother is totally desperate.
Another mother has two children who are blind. She has been in the private rented sector a long time. She wanted to stay in the same area, because her two blind children know their routes to their school and college. However, the shortfall in her benefit payments is now so severe that she has to use all her children’s disability allowance to meet the shortfall. That is probably legal, but it is clearly not what that benefit is intended for.
The situation is even worse for young people: under-25s can only get a single room and under-35s are also constrained. I am currently dealing with the challenge of trying to get a number of young people away from serious gang violence. One young man was sleeping with a machete under his pillow, because he was so terrified. For seven months, we have been trying to find somewhere he could afford to rent in London—in London, not just in the borough. There was not one property available in my constituency that was affordable, and only 0% to 15% of properties in the whole of London are affordable.
I am sure the Minister will refer to the targeted affordability fund, which has, thankfully, stood between us and total meltdown, but those complicated additional top-ups into schemes are not the answer. They are bureaucratic and complex, and they do not last. Similarly, discretionary housing payment is cited, as if it could plug the gap. Arithmetically, we know that it does not. DHPs are intrusive and complex. One woman was absolutely howling with grief to me because when she was filling out the form for a DHP, to fill the gap on her private rented property, she was told by the officer that in her budget breakdown she could not include taking her disabled child to the cinema—that expenditure was considered to be unacceptable if she was going to make a discretionary housing payment. I am sure we all have many examples of such untenable situations.
We know that for the foreseeable future we have to place in the private rented sector people whose incomes are too low to pay the rents and who will not be able to get into the social rented sector because there is such a catastrophic shortfall of socially rented properties, given that the right-to-buy scheme was not replaced and new building has not happened. It is all very well talking about meeting new targets, but we know that there has been a 90% fall in construction of social housing in the last nine years.
If people will be in the private rented sector, we have to act on quality and security. The Government are making some noises on that, which is good. We also have to act on affordability. I have been working with Sadiq Khan; I am pleased that the Mayor is bringing forward proposals to look at rent control. For the foreseeable future, we cannot just pour public money into supporting rents, which are rising again after a short levelling off. We cannot just expect public money to fill that gap, so we do need that. In the meantime, while we are trying to build and while we are waiting for the Government to act on control of rents, we urgently have to close that gap.
That means ending the freeze and restoring the housing allowance, so that at least the 30th percentile of renters in every single rental market, not just a few, can afford housing—and we need to keep it there. Without that, we will find more and more people, such as my constituents, swelling the ranks of the homeless—we already have 58,000 homeless families in London alone. They will be driven deeper and deeper into poverty, which will scar their lives forever and from which it will take them many years to recover.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. It is also a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), of whom I am quite a fan, because the Act she introduced—the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018—is an essential piece of legislation. I am delighted that the Government supported it. I frequently agree with her.
I felt the need to speak in this debate because I was concerned that too many Opposition Members would make it seem like a world of doom and gloom, as if the Conservative party was doing nothing to support homeless people—I understand it to be the opposite. Immediately before coming to Parliament, I had been with YMCA Birmingham for three years. Just before I left to become an MP, I was the assistant chief executive. Those were three of the most fulfilling years of my life, working for an organisation that provided accommodation to previously homeless young people. During my tenure, how did things look when it came to what the Government were doing?
When I joined, the YMCA had funding for £500,000 through the empty homes programme, which offers the opportunity to find buildings that are vacant—it is not just a question of building new things—and use them for accommodation, and in this case for previously homeless young people. Harry Watton House was previously used by Birmingham City Council to provide social care, but it had not used it for some time and we converted it into 34 flats.
Also during my tenure the Government, through the HCA, gave us a £1 million contribution towards a building in Erdington, where we were providing 34 extra units of accommodation. We had accommodation of different types, because someone’s journey from street homelessness to sustaining a tenancy of their own goes through many stages. We had a 72-bed direct access hostel, where people were provided with just a room with a sink, plus shared shower and kitchen facilities. That property is currently undergoing a £3.6 million renovation with money from this Government. It will mean that people can come in straight off the street, straight out of prison or, sadly, from military service—they are frequently former members of the armed forces who just find life too chaotic when they leave.
“Chaotic” is how we could describe those people’s lives. When we were servicing their rooms or doing repairs, we would frequently find machetes or other items under their mattress—that was the type of world that they had been involved in before coming to us, and they felt safe and secure only when they had such weapons with them. Our job was to stabilise their lifestyle and get them ready for the next stage: supported accommodation. In 2015, I was terrified when the then Chancellor announced that he would cap housing benefit at local housing rates, and that that might apply to supported housing. However, YMCA campaigned vigorously against that proposal and made a powerful argument to the Government, and fortunately it was not imposed on us.
As I say, we had direct access accommodation, we had Harry Watton House, which offered supported accommodation, and finally we had our building in Erdington, thanks to £1 million from the Government; it must have been a fine building, because Princess Anne turned up to open it. All YMCA’s work—offering support and counselling, bringing in third parties and third sector organisations to help people who were on drugs or had other lifestyle problems—was supported by the Government through supported housing funding or capital funding.
The hon. Member for Westminster North mentioned the Mayor of London. Well, in the West Midlands Combined Authority we have a Mayor of our own, Andy Street. His first priority on becoming Mayor was to tackle homelessness across the region. It is far from being the case that Conservatives or this Government are not aware of the homelessness problem, not doing everything they can to address it, not taking the matter seriously or not working hard to support those in most need.
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of YMCA. However, given that 12,000 households are on Birmingham’s housing waiting list and 2,500 households are in temporary accommodation, does he feel that the first priority that the Mayor set for himself is being achieved?
It would not have been the Mayor’s first priority if it were not a substantial problem, as the hon. Gentleman rightly sets out. We all recognise that it is a substantial problem in the west midlands, but the Mayor is certainly putting all he can into tackling it. He is one man with limited powers, but often a Mayor’s power is a subtle one—the power to convene. One of the great things that he did was get a lot of housing associations across the region to work together to decide where they would be best placed to develop land, build new houses and so on, and engage them with the idea of tackling homelessness.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on leading the debate so thoroughly. I shall be brief.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear my usual plea for a redesign of the local housing areas. Stroud was put in the same local housing area as Gloucester. That had nothing to do with this Government—a previous Government did it—but because Gloucester’s rents are traditionally much lower than Stroud’s, it has affected us particularly badly. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us some good things, because it has had two effects.
First, people on lower incomes in my constituency are now being forced towards Gloucester, because it is the only place where they can pick up private renting. Secondly and more particularly, there is a huge shortfall. Private landlords are increasingly refusing to take anyone on benefits in the Stroud area, because they know that there is a shortfall. It has undoubtedly pushed rents up—it is difficult to prove, but that is the word on the street—which has put my local authority, Stroud District Council, under even more pressure as a result of homelessness, even though it is trying to build more houses and bring more social housing into play.
The best illustration is the horrifying figures that I and other hon. Members received from Shelter when preparing for our debate. In the Gloucester-Stroud local housing area—I suspect the figures for Stroud alone are much worse—only 9% of four-bedroom properties are within the local housing allowance.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. Although the problem may be most acute in London and the south-east, it applies right across the UK, as he points out. In my constituency there is not a single four-bed, three-bed or two-bed property that fits within the LHA, and the only one-beds are caravans or the odd sheltered housing flat. It applies everywhere.
I agree. My hon. Friend’s example shows, in a nutshell, what it is like out there. It is not only that housing is not available, but that the limited amount available is of such poor quality that families in a desperate state are being forced into even greater poverty. They then almost certainly have to top up.
The figures in the Gloucester-Stroud area show a shortfall of £27.24 for a single room, which rises to £112.46 for a four-bed property—if there even are any, which I suspect there are not. I make a heartfelt plea to the Minister that this cannot go on. Such is the difficulty we face with the dislocation in the housing market. We have to accept that private renting is there for people who do not stand a chance of getting a council property or any other form of social housing, because they are so far down the band system as a result of whatever may have happened in their past, their inability to pay the rent or their not being local to the area. They end up renting in the private sector; they get penalised because they cannot find anything; if they do find something it is poor—and then they have to top up.
Please, Minister, can we look at this as a crisis and start doing something about it?
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for setting the scene so well, and all hon. Members for their substantial contributions. As always, I will give a Northern Ireland perspective on the matter and give an idea of what is happening there.
It is good to see the Minister in his place. He has not been in post long, but hopefully he will continue in it long after today. I know that he has a deep interest in this subject, and we look forward to hearing his response to the genuine questions that we have, because I know that he will do his best.
Despite targeted affordability funding, less than 10% of the local housing allowance rates now cover the rent of the cheapest 30% of private homes. That is a chasm of difference, which is very hard to equate, as other Members have said. Many people who cannot get on the social housing ladder and who have no family to take them in realistically have to resort to sleeping on the streets. It is not by choice; it is almost by design that they are unable to find accommodation.
I have had a number of such cases in my constituency. Entering the private housing system is not an option for many benefit claimants, given how high the cost of rental is in the private housing sector. People without a partner who are benefit claimants cannot realistically get a one-bedroom flat through social housing and cannot afford to get one through private rental under the current allowances, because the two figures just do not equate, as I have said.
The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) mentioned a mother with two children who are visually handicapped, who has to use the money that should be purposely set aside for their disability to pay the rent, so that they have accommodation and the children can get to school. That is a supreme example of the problems that people have, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to it specifically if he can.
Given the issues, why should we expect people to try and get suitable accommodation? I know the difficulties in my area. My staff and I were working with a young man who was literally sleeping in a garage. He was 40, so not entitled to homeless points, despite our efforts on his behalf. We all tried to get him into accommodation in the area, but he could not get a one-bedroom flat in his price range. His elderly mother—very often, family members step in—ended up paying the difference, but when she passes away, hopefully not for a long, long time, I do not know where this troubled young man will be. He will certainly not be in a private rental.
Nobody should have to sleep on the streets in this day and age, as I think all of us—the Minister, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), and all right hon. and hon. Members here today—realise. I believe that we must try to bring more people into employment, so that they do not have to rely on benefits to provide them with a stable home. I will make some comments and ask some questions about that shortly, because this issue is not just the Minister’s responsibility; other Departments have a role to play as well.
The local housing allowance should be a safety net for people, so that they can find a job to provide them with a bit more stability. Yes, some people may undoubtedly seek to take advantage of the benefits system as an excuse not to find a job, but I have to say that, from my evidential basis, I do not see that. I am not saying that it does not happen, but I do not see it in my constituency.
There is a genuine lack of housing at these prices, and private rental landlords are sometimes loth to take universal credit or housing benefit tenants, and especially not at a discounted rate. There is a very difficult balance to strike between a rental that is correct and a housing benefit or universal credit system that helps people to stay in the accommodation they are in.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely powerful and important speech. He seems to be making the case for much-needed and industrial-scale social rented housing, which would provide people with basic security of tenure for their home, so that they can then get a job and enter the workplace with that assuredness. I think he is also saying that there is such a big gap between housing costs and local housing allowance provision, particularly for one-bedroom accommodation.
I have been a great believer in social housing. I have supported it all my life, and I regularly have people coming to me trying to access it. It is incredibly important for those who cannot afford to buy their own home—even more so today. Alongside that, when it comes to social housing, we must provide a benefit system, and the LHA enables people to stay in their accommodation, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I totally agree with what he said.
I have sympathy for those experiencing difficulties and recognise that people may be experiencing difficult times that prevent them from finding a job. I believe that help should be available to them, but there is another aspect of this issue, and that is getting the right qualifications to find a stable job—a reality that some people fail to face up to in school. In 2017, 16.6% of Northern Ireland residents aged between 16 and 64 had no qualifications. I believe that these problems are intrinsically linked, which is the point I made earlier. It is not just the Minister’s Department; the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and others all have a role to play. To tackle homelessness, we must tackle the problem of people having no qualifications, as low-skilled jobs are becoming harder and harder to come by nowadays.
Unfortunately, homelessness and deaths are linked, and I will give hon. Members some statistics—I cannot say that they are exactly linked together, but the stats may just tell us something. In Northern Ireland from October 2017 to the end of August 2018, an average of 13 homeless people per month had their housing applications closed due to death. Of the deceased, 63% were aged 60 or younger and the youngest was only 18. The majority, 93, were male. Their cause of death is unknown; I make that comment clearly. This is a problem, and I believe that these people should be helped. These figures are distressing, and it is horrendous that people cannot get a helping hand to lift them out of the difficult situation they are in.
A new strategy is required if we seek to solve the homelessness problem across the UK. Getting more people into work and getting people with the right qualifications would be steps in the right direction.
To conclude, support should be available to those in need, and certainly used as a springboard to get them into employment and keep this fine nation going forward, but in the short term we need affordable housing—the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) referred to social housing. That housing simply is not there at present. We need funding to build affordable housing, and for rent control as well. We simply should not have people on the streets in this nation, and we need to do all we can to ensure fit-for-purpose allowances in areas with a lack of one or two-bedroom accommodation, as compared with those on the housing stress list.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey.
A stone’s throw from St Philip’s Cathedral, on the steps of the House of Fraser, in the heart of Birmingham’s business district, there is a shrine. It is marked with flowers, photos and expressions of feelings. Here, in the wealthiest quarter of the second city of the fifth richest country on Earth is the latest memorial to a man who died homeless on the streets. “You are unforgettable, Miguel”, reads one dedication. That is right. It is right that we remember this man in our city. It is right that we hear and remember his name in the House of Commons. And it is right that we remember the names of the 90 people, along with him, who have died homeless in our city since 2013, many on the streets of the second city in this country.
Those people are the citizens who we collectively have failed, so I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). I personally believe that we should be debating every day the deadly doctrine behind this death toll, because be under no illusion: this is now a moral emergency and it requires from the new Prime Minister today an emergency response.
In Birmingham, rough sleeping has now risen by almost 1,000% since 2010, yet that is just the visible crisis that we can see. The invisible crisis is just as bad. In total, 20,000 people—the size of a small town—along with 5,000 children are now lodged in temporary accommodation. They are cursed to move every couple of weeks, when it is time to rebook. Be under no illusion: these are futures that are now being sacrificed, as every single one of us who has had to support children taking their GCSEs from a Travelodge will now know.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful and moving speech. Of the 90 people who died, is he aware how many had drug issues at the same time? I absolutely accept that decent housing helps people to get over drug problems, but does he know the proportion that were involved with drugs?
We do not know, because obviously there is not a safeguarding adult review for everyone who dies. There should be a safeguarding adult review for everyone who dies, because my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall made a sensible but crucial point: that local housing allowance is absolutely part of this crisis. He is absolutely right. The average LHA in Birmingham, which is £132 a week, covers only two thirds of the cost of a median home in our city. However, it would be delusional to pretend, as our current Mayor has tried to do, that local housing allowance is somehow the nub of the changes we need to make.
The truth is that to fund tax cuts for the lucky, this Government have reduced social insurance for the unlucky to a clutch of shreds and patches. This Government have now cut back so hard that social insurance in this country is now in systems failure. I know the Minister will say that it was a hard choice, but the truth is that it was the wrong choice. The tax cuts that have been handed out to British corporates now total £110 billion. Overwhelmingly, that money has either gone back to shareholders or is lodged in those corporates’ bank accounts. It was the wrong choice, because rather than strengthen the hand that helps, this Government chose to feather the nests of those who already had plenty.
I will illustrate the systems failure that we now face. From all my interviews with homeless citizens in Birmingham through the long nights, what has become clear is that three systems are needed: a benefits system, a health system and a housing system. All three are now in crisis. Mental health caseloads in our region are now rising four times faster than funding. Addiction services in our region have been cut back by between 12% and 20%. The University of Birmingham has concluded that the health services provided to homeless people are now so bad that those people are actually being denied access to basic health services. Housing benefit hands cash to the landlords of houses in multiple occupation in a way that is completely unregulated, with no obligation on them to provide much-needed counselling or support. There is no regulation of private landlords worthy of its name, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said, the conditions that we now contend with are absolutely disgraceful.
We are building affordable homes in our region so slowly that it will take us until the 2050s to clear the council waiting lists across the region, which now number well over 50,000. Just to add insult to injury, although the Government promised £211 million to build new homes, according to parliamentary questions they have handed out only £2 million. That means that £209 million is left in the Treasury when we have people dying on the streets of our city.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful and important speech. Does he agree that there are two issues: that the Government are hiding behind statistics about housebuilding that are inflated through permitted development rights and in other ways, and that we are seeing an increase in HMOs? The provision is completely inappropriate for the housing and social needs in our communities.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are hiding behind definitions of “affordable housing” that are frankly meaningless in the real world. What we need to be doing is building houses for social rent—what used to be called council houses. Let us again build council houses that communities can be proud of.
This systems failure is now killing people, as should be obvious to all of us in this House. I pay tribute to the incredible coalition of kindness in my city that is trying to turn the tide, particularly Councillor Sharon Thompson, who knows a thing or two about homelessness, Jean Templeton, who is chairing the Mayor’s taskforce, and the 14 or 15 different outreach groups that make sure that the homeless people in our city are not actually starving on the streets. However, what those people need is a Government who are on their side, and are prepared to make sure that the Mayor does not spend £1 million on secret consultants, but puts that money into ensuring that there are more emergency shelter places than there are rough sleepers.
We need a hard duty on all public services to act together and collaborate to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. We need a region-wide private landlord licensing scheme. We need to expand accommodation in refuges. We need a universal offer on all public services for vulnerable people. We need to double the pace of council house building. We need to end the Vagrancy Act 1824 and reintroduce housing benefit for the under-25s. We need to end the lunacy of the “no recourse to public funds” rule, and we need an urgent review of the exempt accommodation rules.
George Dawson, the founder of the civic gospel in our city—the precursor of municipal socialism—once asked his congregation,
“Are you prepared to vindicate the enormous wealth of some men, side by side with the extreme poverty?”
I am not prepared to live in a city where we have cranes in the sky, but homeless people dying in the doorways. We need an emergency response to this moral emergency, and I hope the Minister will drive it through with today’s new Prime Minister.
We now come to the Front Bench spokespersons, who normally get 10 minutes. There is a little in excess of that, but given the number of questions that have been asked of the Minister, could the Opposition Front Bench spokespersons be disciplined and give him adequate time to respond to them?
As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this hugely important debate and thank everyone who has contributed to it, including the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) who, with his hands-on experience from the YMCA, shone an interesting light on this issue based on his own background.
As we have heard so often this morning, there is an inescapable and undeniable link between the paucity of affordable rented property in the private rented sector and the increased risk of people becoming homeless simply because they cannot afford to meet the cost of living in private rented accommodation. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was absolutely right when he described the “chasm of difference” between what those people are expected to pay and what they can afford to pay. To back up what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said, local housing allowance should be there to help those on low incomes meet the cost of renting a home, and provide stability and security in their housing situation and prevent the risk of falling into homelessness.
The hon. Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Stroud (Dr Drew) were also right in what they said. They gave all-too-real examples of what happens to people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, who are told that they can no longer afford to live in the areas where they have grown up and in which they have roots and families. It is little wonder that social problems follow as people are moved further and further away from the areas in which they have those roots.
However, let us be absolutely clear: this housing crisis, particularly in England, as well as the rising levels of homelessness and rough sleeping, did not happen by accident. There has not been some unforeseen set of circumstances that has led to the number of households living in temporary accommodation in England rising by 60% between 2012 and 2018. There has been no unexpected or unforeseen quirk that has led to the number of rough sleepers in England nearly doubling over the past five years—far from it. This housing crisis was all too predictable, because just about every stakeholder warned the Government right from the start about the inevitable consequences of pursuing their austerity agenda. When they froze local housing allowance and failed to meet their targets for building social housing, what did they expect to happen, other than a rise in homelessness and the number of people sleeping rough on our streets? That is exactly what has happened, so let us call this what it is: a crisis entirely of the UK Government’s own making.
It is incontestable that the UK Government’s austerity agenda has had a hugely negative impact on people’s ability to rent private sector accommodation. Research from the Chartered Institute of Housing shows that many LHA rates now fail to cover even the cheapest third of rents as they were designed to do, and a survey carried out by the National Housing Federation and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations found that tenants on universal credit were more than twice as likely to be in debt than other tenants.
This year alone, the Scottish Government will spend in excess of £125 million to mitigate the worst impacts of those cuts and seek to protect those on low incomes. That will include £50 million to mitigate the bedroom tax and £63 million in discretionary housing payments, of which £1.3 million will be used to directly offset the impact of the LHA freeze. However, it is not the responsibility of the Scottish Government to foot the bill for the Tories’ austerity programme; that is the UK Government’s responsibility, and theirs alone. By lifting the benefits freeze, the Scottish Government will no longer have to plug those gaps caused by austerity, and those funds can be spent on other vital services that benefit the people of Scotland.
The freeze to local housing allowance has had a devastating impact on the poorest people in our society. Removing the freeze and reinstating its true value would be an enormous help, but that is only part of the answer. Only by increasing the supply of affordable housing will long-term, sustainable solutions to the crisis be found. Last month the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), admitted exactly that in reply to an urgent question, saying that a lack of new housing was a major factor in the rise of homelessness, and that,
“successive…Governments…have…not built enough affordable…social …housing.”—[Official Report, 13 June 2019; Vol. 661, c. 833.]
We have heard from others this morning, including the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), that the shortage of housing, particularly for social rent in England, is a major contributory factor to the rise of homelessness. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) was absolutely spot on when he said that it was fuelling both the invisible and the visible housing crisis.
The Centre for Policy Studies reckons that England is on course for its worst decade of house building since the second world war. It has calculated that the total number of completions between 2010 and 2019 will average out at 130,000 a year, which is down 20,000 from the figure of the 1990s and 2000s, and is at only half the level seen in the ’60s and ’70s—a successive pattern that has continued for almost half a century. As I said at the start, the issue is about political choices and Governments deciding what their priorities are and what they deem to be important. That is why I fully commend the work of the SNP Scottish Government, who have delivered 76,500 affordable homes since 2007 and are investing more than £3 billion to deliver another 50,000 affordable homes by the end of the current parliamentary Session in 2021. That figure will include 60,000 homes for social rent, 7,000 homes for affordable rent and just over 20,000 homes designed for affordable home ownership. In addition, the Scottish Government continue to support the empty homes partnership, which has brought 3,200 empty homes back into use since 2010.
To put the figures into perspective, between 2007 and 2018, the supply of affordable housing per head of population in Scotland has been a third higher than in England. In the four years to 2018, the Scottish Government have delivered 50% more affordable housing units per head of population than the UK Government have for the people of England. In those four years, the Scottish Government have delivered a remarkable five times more social rented properties per head of population— 84 units per 100,000 compared with only 13 for the people of England. That is not because the Scottish Government have a magic wand and are able to do things that this Parliament cannot do. It is simply that the Scottish Government have prioritised housing as a fundamental of any decent society and, despite a shrinking budget, have invested accordingly. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the Scottish Government have stopped the right to buy in Scotland. We have protected social rented homes and prevented them from entering into the private sector to the tune of up to 15,500 houses in the past 10 years.
In conclusion, as I said earlier, what we are witnessing, particularly in England, is a crisis entirely of the UK Government’s own making. Knowing full well the consequences of their actions, the Government steamed ahead, creating a perfect storm where punitive, arbitrary and deeply damaging cuts to welfare, coupled to a devastating under-investment in building social housing, have led to soaring rents in the private sector and caused a spike in homelessness and rough sleeping. It is the UK Government’s own mess. When will they wake up to the crisis that they are creating?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this important and timely debate and on spelling out the reality for so many of our people. I also congratulate him on the 12th anniversary of his election to Parliament yesterday, which we were pleased to celebrate last evening.
As my hon. Friend said, we know that rough sleeping in London has hit a record high with an 18% rise on last year, but it is not limited to London. Since 2010, when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition Government came to power, rough sleeping has more than doubled across England, and there is no one reason for that. There are ways that it could have been prevented, but successive Governments since 2010 seem to have been content to allow the numbers to escalate. Even when they have admitted that there is an issue, the Government have failed to act. Two Prime Ministers have seen the numbers grow on their watch. I wonder what the new one, due to be installed later today, will make of such a terrible legacy and what he will do to sort it out.
Our Governments and Prime Ministers have been too preoccupied with Brexit and internal warring, meaning that people across this country have been let down and forced on to the streets because they simply have no other option. It is not that the Government do not know what is happening to people who are being made homeless. Ministers are quite happy to turn up and spout at events like the recent one hosted by Crisis, but we know that for all their rhetoric and plans, rough sleeping has dropped by less than 2% in the past year. If it is to be eradicated, at that rate it will take 50 years to sort it out, so I am left with no other conclusion than to ask whether they simply do not care enough to act.
Let us look at what the Conservatives have done—the decimation of social housing up and down the country over recent years, a failure to build the social housing needed, and the erosion of the welfare state. Such failures have been major factors in generating a worrying rise in homelessness, and it is across the piece. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is always in his place speaking up for the people of Northern Ireland. He made it very clear that the crisis here in the UK is reflected in Northern Ireland, too, and it is families that suffer as a result.
There is ultimately one root cause that must be tackled if we are serious about ending homelessness. We need to increase the availability and affordability of housing. Stable and secure homes will give people the best chance of moving on from homelessness, or preventing it altogether. Unfortunately, we are in a position where having housing for every person is seen as an ambitious goal when it should be the standard and the bare minimum. The Government have moved the goalposts of what is seen as reasonable and turned adequate housing for all into the unachievable.
We know that many people live on low incomes. A person could work 40 hours a week on the minimum wage and not be able to afford the cost of renting privately in some places in this country, especially if they have children. We should not have a race to the bottom where only those with higher incomes can afford adequate housing. Those on lower incomes deserve secure, decent living conditions with affordable rents, but that is not the situation in Westminster North, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said. Not a single home is available for low-income families and we have the lamentable situation where former council homes are now out of reach of the poorest people because of rents of as much as £500 a week.
On the need for social housing, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke of the need to build more homes more quickly. He talked about energy-efficient and bill-free homes, and he is entirely correct about that—no doubt about that—but the Government have built fewer than 7,000 new homes provided at social rent in England in 2017-2018, when what we need is 90,000 each year for the next 15 years just to tackle the backlog of housing need. People are being forced to turn to private rented housing. Although some positive moves have been made regarding tenant fees, affordability is still a major problem, even if people can find a property in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) spoke of private landlords refusing to take people on benefits. What does the Minister have to say about that? Is he surprised that private landlords are not always accommodating and understanding when their tenants are late with their rent payments? The reality is that families are being evicted because they cannot keep up with rent payments, and they enter undesirable living arrangements—sleeping on the floors of other family members, at best, and sleeping in cars and on the streets. We have heard other examples as well. Often it means that families are split up, leading to more pain and suffering.
Research from Crisis—we have heard much about its research—and the Chartered Institute of Housing has shown that cuts to local housing allowance rates mean that in 92% of areas in Great Britain, single people and couples or small families who need local housing allowance to pay their rent will struggle to find somewhere to live that they can actually afford. Until social housing can meet demand, people on low incomes must be able to find secure and stable housing in the private rented sector. Shelter has said that targeted affordability funding is not alleviating the problem. The top-up grant for areas most affected by the freeze in local housing allowance—just a 3% increase—has not worked.
Yes, and what is happening in response? Very little. So much more needs to be done. The housing allowance is not allocated or based on how many areas are in need, just distributed to areas in a ranked order until there is no more money. In Shelter’s words, the affordability funding is
“not even close to plugging the gap.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall proved that the housing crisis is very real with a series of case studies of real people and families in crisis. They are not just numbers in a table of statistics. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) told us that we need to remember the names of some of the people who never found a home, and spoke of the memorial to Miguel in his constituency. He also spoke of children in his area who are taking their GCSEs while accommodated in the local Travelodge. I understand why he is asking the new Prime Minister to take action on that systematic failure.
I hope that the Minister remains in post, and can do something. As I mentioned, we will get a new Prime Minister today, and there will be a lot of shuffling around, but whether the Minister remains or provides a handover to his successor, I urge him to work to restore local housing allowance rates back to the 30th percentile of the market, as others have called for. We need to address homelessness with immediate effect, and provide a lifeline to people on a low income. We simply cannot afford not to.
I know that it can be easy to sit in opposition and criticise those making the decisions, but Labour has made some bold pledges that we will deliver when we win a general election. We will define affordable housing as linked to local income, and scrap the Conservatives’ so-called affordable rent home price, at up to 80% of market rates. We will stop the sell-off of 50,000 social rented homes a year by suspending the right to buy—I am pleased that the Scottish Government have done that already—ending all conversions to affordable rent, and scrapping the Government’s plans to force councils to sell their best homes.
We will back councils and housing associations with new funding, powers and flexibilities to build at scale. While we work to provide 8,000 homes for rough sleepers, we will provide local authorities with £100 million to deal with winter pressures and ensure that no one sleeps rough. We will also tackle the scandal of empty homes, many of which need upgrading to be habitable, and many more of which investors simply buy and leave empty, believing that the value will go up and they will make a financial killing.
The crisis is leaving families homeless because of the Government’s failure to act. Successive Conservative, and Lib Dem coalition, Governments have failed on housing and failed to end homelessness—no wonder people have no confidence in their housing policies. There is no doubt in my mind that it is time to act on house building and, in the meantime, on the local housing allowance, before even more families are shown the door and thrown out on to the streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this important debate, and colleagues from across the House for sharing compelling accounts.
I have been in post for only three months. It will come as no surprise to Members that both housing and, in particular, tackling homelessness and rough sleeping are passions of mine, as I have co-chaired the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. I will start by saying that I get it, and I share Members’ passion for fixing it and getting it right. I work very closely with stakeholders in the field, including Crisis, St Mungo’s, Shelter and many others. Even in just the past three months, I have met with most of them and have been on several visits to see and experience the lived experience of some of those they support.
I recognise the issue, which, although I accept it is largely now nationwide, is particularly acute in certain parts of the country where there is very high demand and limited supply. I am also aware that too many people have to top up their housing from their benefits, which are designed for the cost of living. We have to put that right. I am determined to address it, and I am working very closely with the Secretary of State, who has been hugely supportive of the moves that I have made in this area.
Currently, there are no plans to extend or maintain the benefits freeze after March 2020, but specific decisions on how to uprate local housing allowance from April 2020 will form part of the discussions in support of fiscal events later this year. I will address as many points raised as possible, but I am conscious that we have a relatively limited amount of time, and that a number of them are more appropriate for a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government colleague. I will certainly raise those points with my counterparts, subject to my still being in post tomorrow or the day after.
Reform to housing support was a central part of the Government’s plan to create a welfare system that supports the most vulnerable and is fair to taxpayers. To help to ensure a balance between those two elements, LHA rates are not intended to meet rents in all areas. The intention behind the welfare reform programme is that the same considerations and choices faced by people not in receipt of benefits should also be faced by those claiming benefits. The LHA policy is designed to achieve that.
It was not so long ago that, at about 2 am or 3 am, I met a man who goes by the name of “Ginge”. He sleeps in the Barclays bank lobby at Colmore Row, and has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Is he supposed to find the money to cover the entire rent of a home that he could move into?
The right hon. Gentleman refers to rough sleeping. Often people lump homelessness and rough sleeping together, but there is a huge difference between them. The Government are taking considerable action on rough sleeping. I will happily meet him, or arrange for the Housing and Homelessness Minister to do so, in order to discuss it in more detail. I know that he cares hugely about this issue, and contributes to debates on it. I share his passion. The Government are taking significant action, but he is right that we must look at LHA rates. I hope I made it clear at the outset that I am doing that with the Secretary of State, and ahead of the next fiscal event we are looking very closely at what more we can do.
Between 2000 and 2010, housing benefit expenditure rose by more than half in real terms, reaching £25 billion in today’s prices. Left unreformed, by 2014-15 housing benefit would have reached £29 billion. That was clearly not sustainable. The measure to freeze local housing allowance rates for four years from April 2016 built on reforms introduced in the previous Parliament, which saved £6 billion in total by 2015-16. Savings from freezing LHA are estimated to be around £655 million for Great Britain over the four-year period of the measure. Our reforms are part of our wider goal to move people from welfare and into work.
We recognise that some places have seen higher increases in rents than others, and have made provision to help people further in those areas, as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) mentioned. We have used a proportion of the savings from the freeze to reduce the gap between frozen LHA rates and the 30th percentile reference rent in the areas of greatest rental growth. Initially, 30% of the savings from the freeze were used for targeted affordability funding, but we invested an additional £125 million in that funding for the final two years of the freeze. That was based on 50% of the savings rather than 30%.
Has the Department conducted any kind of cost-benefit analysis of the measure’s overall impact? In practice, it is leading to additional health and education costs, and to huge impacts on families that have to be sucked up by already strapped local authorities. Has there been any kind of 360° review of the measure’s overall impact across Government, including local government, and not just on the benefits bill?
I have been a Minister for only three months and I keep all the policies in my remit at the Department under very close review. I regularly meet and have conversations with key stakeholders in policy areas such as this, to ensure that we are aware where policies are and are not working, and that we are alive to the issues. It will not come as a surprise to the hon. Lady that stakeholders in this area have flagged LHA rates as an issue. That is why we are looking at it very closely indeed.
The additional funding enabled us to increase 213 LHA rates—there are 960 rates in total—by 3% last year. This year, a total of £210 million has been made available: the highest amount of targeted affordability funding since its introduction in 2014. That has enabled us to increase 361 LHA rates by 3%. As a result, it is estimated that 500,000 households this year will benefit from an increase of around £250 a year.
In addition to that targeted affordability funding, the Government have provided more than £1 billion in discretionary housing payments to local authorities since 2011, which the hon. Member for Westminster North referred to. Discretionary housing payments allow local authorities to protect the most vulnerable claimants and support households affected by different welfare reforms, including the freeze to the LHA.
Not necessarily. They have been available since 2011, and more than £1 billion has been made available to local authorities. Quite intentionally, we allow local authorities discretion on how it is used, and they use that money and use it well. There is an underspend in a number of local authorities, but it is a tool used by many local authorities to prevent homelessness. Where individuals or families are at risk of homelessness, local authorities will use DHPs to protect tenancies.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) has raised the point about broad rental market areas a few times; I note his concerns about the broad rental market area boundaries in Stroud and the wider area. As with all policies, we keep that under review, and I am looking at this very closely. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that any reform of the policy would be a significant and complex undertaking, given that there are 192 broad market rental areas across England, Scotland and Wales. We should be aware that any changes to the BMRAs and their boundaries are likely to create both winners and losers, so I have to give very careful consideration to the potential impact.
The hon. Gentleman also raised a point about “No DSS”—landlords not renting to those in receipt of benefits. The Prime Minister and No. 10 have taken that issue very seriously. I attended a recent roundtable with a number of stakeholders and we are working very closely with the Residential Landlords Association. Part of the issue is mortgage lenders and insurers. More and more mortgage lenders are now reducing or removing their restrictions on renting to those in the receipt of benefits—Metro Bank is the most recent addition to that list. There are a few still to go, and we still have to tackle the insurance market, as some insurance policies still do not allow people who buy to let to rent to those in receipt of benefits. We are looking at that area closely and are working with key stakeholders, because we very much want to fix this—to break the myth and challenge the ignorant belief that those in receipt of benefits are riskier tenants than those who are not, because it is absolutely untrue.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall also raised temporary accommodation. With other Government Departments, we are working to assess what more can be done to address the number of people in temporary accommodation. Time spent in temporary accommodation means that people are getting help and ensures that no family is without a roof over their heads. The Government have targeted funding streams focused on reducing the number of households in temporary accommodation as part of our £1.2 billion spending plan.
While the Minister is being constructive and generous, and before he finishes, could he undertake to try to secure an explanation as to why the £211 million promised to the West Midlands Combined Authority when it was set up has not yet been paid over? Could he do that before the reshuffle?
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me down a road that is wholly outside my remit. That is a question for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and my counterpart or the Housing Minister in that Department. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he has tools in his arsenal—he can write to that Minister or secure an Adjournment debate, or he could catch the Minister around the Estate later on to ask that question. If I see him, I will raise it, but I think the right hon. Gentleman might be able to find his own salvation by raising it personally with the relevant Minister.
Can I take the Minister back to the point about mortgage lenders and difficulties in lending to people on benefits? Will his officials have a look at what has happened in France recently? My understanding is that, certainly in previous years, the French Government set up a system for people on benefits and low incomes to get on the housing ladder in association with a number of French banks. We should study that to see if there are any lessons for us in the UK. Would he undertake to ask his officials to have a look at that system?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I was not aware of that scheme and will certainly look at it—it sounds very interesting. Subject to being in post in 24 or 48 hours, I will certainly commit to looking at that and to coming back to him with my thoughts.
Numerous Members, including the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall, and for Westminster North, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), all raised the issue of housing for social rent. This is also an area that I am hugely passionate about. Local housing allowance rates and debates such as this are only half of the story. We must look at how we can increase the supply of housing that is affordable to people on low incomes to create a more sustainable system over the longer term.
I am keen to continue my work with colleagues in MHCLG to support them in looking at how we can increase the supply of housing for social and affordable rent and what more my Department might be able to do to achieve that. I urge my hon. Friends and hon. Members—not that I am supposed to—to address the issue of housing supply with my counterparts in MHCLG and to lobby accordingly. It is a hugely important issue. I share the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire when he says that at the heart of the route for tackling poverty, improving health outcomes and improving educational attainment and employability is a secure and stable home, and that is something that we should prioritise.
It is going to take some time to build the houses required. In the meantime, we need the local housing allowance to be properly addressed. The evidence has shown that it is inadequate, yet in some areas there is an underspend. What is the Minister going to do to review that and to transfer the money to where there is a greater need?
I made it clear at the beginning that this is an area that I am looking at very closely. We are committed to providing a strong safety net for those who need it and that is why we continue to spend more than £95 billion a year on welfare benefits for people of working age. There are no current plans to extend or maintain the benefits freeze after March 2020. As I said at the beginning, specific decisions on how to uprate the local housing allowance rates from April 2020 will form part of the discussions in support of fiscal events later this year.
Looking at the time, I do not think I will be able to respond to each and every point, so I thank collectively all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I am glad to see the passion and commitment that the Minister has shown for the subject, and I hope that he will retain his position tomorrow and carry on. Otherwise, there are other routes he can follow to make sure that we carry on fighting for the rights of those who are vulnerable in our society. I thank you, Mr Bailey, for your chairmanship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered local housing allowance and homelessness.