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Household Overcrowding: Covid-19

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered household overcrowding and the covid-19 outbreak.

Eleven years ago, I was contacted by a family who were very overcrowded. The father, mother, and four daughters aged from one to 10 were living in a one-bedroom council flat. In the four years that they had been applying to move, Newham Council had been unable to provide anything larger. Nine years after that, in 2019, I received a letter from the youngest of the four children, who was by then aged 11 and had a younger sister. There were now five daughters, all still living in the same one-bedroom flat. The letter from the 11-year-old said:

“Since I was born, I have not even had a good day, because all this flat does is bring back bad memories. I sleep on the floor with my two older sisters. Every night when my dad gets up to go to work, he always has to turn on the light so he doesn’t step on us. Due to this, I don’t get enough sleep. I can’t concentrate. I’m so scared, because I want to pass my SATs, but I’ve got no place to revise. I’m falling behind in class, and it is because nobody cares about me. Nobody wants to see me happy. I feel like you don’t care, because if you did, you’d help me. All of my friends invite me to birthday parties. However, I am unable to come, because I feel that if I come, they should be invited to my birthday, but I can’t, because I have no place in my house. I have never got to celebrate anything. Every day, I see my mum cry and it makes me cry.”

The family is still in that flat today. With 27,000 people on Newham Council’s housing waiting list, it is not unusual for families to wait 15 years to be housed, as that one has.

Until the 1990s, the average number of people per household in London had fallen steadily since the end of the 19th century. Now, the number is going up. Nationally, the English housing survey showed overcrowding at the highest rate ever in the social rented sector—it was 9% in 2019-20, just before the pandemic. In both the social and private sectors, the rate has roughly doubled in 20 years. I am sorry to report that in my constituency, the overall rate of overcrowding is the highest in the country, at 27%, according to the 2011 census. It will be a good deal higher than that when the data comes in from the census that is under way at the moment.

Some 34% of all Bangladeshi households are overcrowded. The figure for Pakistani households is 18%, black African 16%, Arab 15% and mixed white and black African 14%. All face high levels of overcrowding, compared with 2% for white British households. Dr Haque, who was the then interim director of the Runnymede Trust, told the Women and Equalities Committee last summer that

“there will always be multigenerational homes where people decide to live with multiple generations—maybe their mothers as well as their grandparents—but they do not ever choose to live in overcrowded housing.”

Recognising those different impacts, the Women and Equalities Committee recommended that, by the end of this summer, the Government produce a strategy to reduce overcrowding. If the Government are serious about addressing racial inequalities in public health, they must tackle overcrowding. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us whether the strategy that the Committee has called for will be produced by the end of this summer.

We know from studies such as the Marmot review that housing is a social determinant of health. Poor housing can lead to lifelong poor physical and mental health. There is a higher risk of accidents in overcrowded homes, and there is more condensation and mould. Research has established a link between overcrowding and poor child health due to infections and respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. There is consistent evidence of poorer mental health for people in crowded homes—depression, anxiety and stress as a result of living in cramped conditions. Poor quality of sleep is one of the reasons for that. Lack of space to play or study holds back children’s development and education.

Overcrowding is associated with interrupted schooling and behavioural problems at school. It can harm family relationships and lead to fighting and arguments between children. All of that was true before the pandemic, but covid has shone a bright light on all of these problems, and overcrowding has made coping with covid much harder. Transmission within households has spread the virus. In overcrowded households, infection has spread faster. Social distancing and self-isolation can be impossible. The stress of overcrowding—long-term and familiar—has been transformed by the pandemic into a catastrophe.

Last May, Inside Housing magazine published a graph plotting local authorities’ rates of overcrowding against their covid death rates. The correlation is remarkable. Overcrowding might well partly explain the disproportionate mortality rate among ethnic minority groups. Public Health England’s review into why black and ethnic minority groups have been so badly hit by the pandemic identified poor housing and household composition as key factors.

Severe damp and mould, much more common in overcrowded homes, cause chronic respiratory problems, making people more vulnerable if they contract coronavirus. For children, the onset and worsening of asthma in overcrowded conditions is well documented. For those who have to live, learn and work in one room, the psychological impact of lockdown has been extraordinary. On a video call last month with a family in my constituency —mum, dad and another family with five daughters, this time in a two-bedroom flat—the girls pointed out to me how infeasible it was for them all to study at the same time. That family was clearly teetering on the edge. More people in overcrowded households have reported psychological distress in the lockdown.

Sometimes in Parliament when we talk about the housing crisis, we are referring to young people not being able to buy homes until they are a bit older, and that is a problem. The Government have taken various steps to try to address it by subsidising first-time buyers with starter homes, Help to Buy ISAs and the 95% mortgage announced in the Budget last week, but there was nothing at all to tackle the real housing crisis—people trapped at the bottom end of the rental market with unaffordable rents in overcrowded, poor quality homes. The heart of the problem has been the failure to replenish the social housing stock, so families in social housing are twice as likely to be overcrowded now than they would have been decades ago.

I welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission report last month, with its ambition and vision. It states:

“A good home is a place…where we feel safe, it enables us to put down roots and belong to a community, it is a place we enjoy living in and which is a delight to come home to.”

That should be what we aim for. The report calls for Government action on a

“coherent, long-term housing strategy, focused on those in greatest need.”

It calls for a long-term housing affordability policy with new housing, greater public subsidy, reinstating capital grants, reducing land prices, a new housing affordability definition in terms of household incomes rather than market rents, and a review of social security to strengthen housing support.

I am old enough—just—to remember the furore in the 1960s over the housing crisis around the television play, “Cathy Come Home”, which was about a family destroyed by inadequate housing. That furore led to the foundation of Shelter and a wave of council house building. We are there again now. Families are being destroyed and lives blighted. The impact during the pandemic in the part of London that I represent was well documented in Anjli Raval’s powerful article, “Inside the ‘Covid Triangle’” in the Financial Times magazine last weekend. We need that moral outrage again and a new wave of investment in council house building. We need an alternative to private renting—a decent home where people can live and plan for their future. We have done it before; we can do it again. Councils are finding creative ways to build, such as the Red Door Ventures initiative in Newham, but we need them on a much bigger scale. The Government need to step up, and after the pandemic we need a new programme to build affordable and secure social homes.

Social security needs to tackle overcrowding. Welfare cuts over the past decade have mostly hit tenants. Freezing local housing allowance means that support is not tied to real rents and families cannot afford homes suitable to their needs. This year, thankfully, local housing allowance has been relinked to the 30th percentile of rents. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told the Work and Pensions Committee, which I chair, that that change was permanent. She was unfortunately mistaken. The Chancellor has frozen rates again from next month, and the gap will start to widen all over again. The benefit cap also makes it impossible for families in London to afford the housing they need. Many households have had no benefit at all from higher housing support over the past year, because it has been immediately capped.

The Work and Pensions Committee has recommended maintaining the increases in support provided in the pandemic, including keeping local housing allowance at the 30th percentile, and conducting an annual review of rates to keep them appropriate for each area. The Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community recommended that it be tied to 50% rather than 30%, and that the Government should urgently review the operation of the local housing allowance.

Having seen the impact of household overcrowding during the pandemic, I want to ask the Minister what prospect there is of a new wave of investment in social house building on the scale that we need—or are we going to have to wait again for a Labour Government, for the overcrowding crisis to be addressed? Will he prioritise building affordable family homes with three bedrooms and more? Why have we started down the road of freezing local housing allowance again, after that policy has done so much damage over the past decade, and what response, if any, do the Government plan to make to the report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). The voice of those in cramped, uninhabitable or overcrowded housing is louder in this place thanks in no small part to his tireless campaigning. The pandemic has impacted us all—every family and house, and everyone in society. However, the impact has not been equal. The stark inequalities of our society have been laid bare by a virus that thrives on that very inequality. Those in the worst health are the most likely to fall ill. Those in the lowest-paid jobs are the most likely to be unable to work from home. Those children furthest behind in school are the most likely to be without the internet connection that is required for remote learning.

Perhaps the starkest examples of what I have been describing are in housing—the constituents who contact me every single day, who are without the outside space that makes lockdown more bearable; the children living on the top floors of tower blocks, who are unable to open windows for ventilation, because of the danger of living on the skyline; the families trapped in temporary accommodation, who do not register with a GP for the vaccination because they have no idea how long they will call that hostel or B&B their home; or, as my right hon. Friend so powerfully explained, overcrowded households, or houses in multiple occupation, where there is a family living in every room.

How can a person possibly self-isolate when they live in one room with four children, like Mrs B in my constituency? The simple answer is that they cannot. Families like hers live across our capital in houses in multiple occupation that have a single bathroom and a household in every room. Sanitation is a pipedream for these families, who share facilities with people in the next room, many of whom disproportionately head out to the frontline each morning. And those in the most insecure work simply cannot afford to self-isolate without the support that the Government seem so reluctant to provide. It is the pandemic paradox—the impossibility of ensuring the safety of those on our frontline when they are the least likely to be able to self-isolate. It is a problem baked in by a decade of austerity, housing crisis and low pay, and the Government’s shambolic treatment of our nurses shows that the lessons are simply not being learned.

I invite the Minister to my Friday advice surgery, where we will hear from Mrs C, who has two bedrooms on the second floor of a property that she shares with her three young children. For the last few months she has been joined by her disabled mother, who unfortunately has cancer and who she wishes to nurse to her end. Her mum is unable to leave the flat and quite frankly—given the impossibility of social distancing in that situation—neither are the rest of her family, if they are to ensure her mother’s safety.

So when the Government huff and puff about isolation payments or celebrate another Budget bereft of social housing policy, I say to the Minister that they simply do not know how the poorest and most vulnerable are living—like Mr F and his twins, who live in one small room in a shared house, or Mr D, who is in a single room with his son, following the sad passing of his wife. Try telling them that the pandemic is the great leveller.

The reality is that coronavirus has shone the strongest spotlight on the importance of having a safe and suitable place to call home. With 1.15 million households on social housing waiting lists across the country, the housing crisis cannot be solved by tinkering around the edges. It needs political will, it needs to be at the heart of Government decision making and it needs a bit more than the 6,556 new social homes that were delivered last year.

Perhaps the £20 billion that has just been announced to look at building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland could be better spent on building the social housing that our country so desperately needs. Maybe then I could finally offer some hope to the families at my advice surgeries that they may one day get a place to call home.

I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for setting the scene. Obviously, I will give the Minister a Northern Ireland perspective. I know that he personally does not have ministerial responsibility for Northern Ireland, but I just want to give a Northern Ireland perspective to the debate, and to add my support to the right hon. Gentleman for what he does, and to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) as well.

The hon. Lady mentioned the bridge. I understand what the Prime Minister is talking about, by the way; it is about connectivity and it is about the Union. But yes, I agree with her 100% that the money could be spent on better things. I say that very respectfully. The bridge is not what this debate is about, but if I had been asked to make any comment on it, that is what I would have said. I would have taken the Prime Minister down to the roads in Strangford and told him to spend a whole lot of money on them, to address the issues that I referred to. However, that is not taking away from what the Prime Minister is saying. But the bridge is not the subject of this debate; it is the subject for another debate.

I declare an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on healthy homes and buildings, so I have a particular interest in this issue. One of our interests in the APPG—indeed, it comes up all the time, and I suppose the clue is in the title of our group—is how we can have healthy homes and buildings. It is about homes that are suitable for today’s modern lifestyle, and how we can move towards ensuring that any new homes built are built in a style that would satisfy the needs of a modern family, but it is also about addressing the issue of homes that perhaps are not built in that style. In the past, we have had an inquiry and we have brought out the results, so it is quite an active APPG, I am pleased to say.

May I also say how pleased I am to see the Minister in his place? I was saying to him beforehand—you probably heard me saying it, Sir Edward—that he has shone in the main Chamber and now is his chance to shine in Westminster Hall.

The Minister and I have been good friends ever since he came to this House and I value his friendship; I hope that he values mine. His kindness to us all in this House is beyond doubt. Every Christmas, he is the man who brings the Quality Streets into the Members’ Tea Room; every Easter, I look forward to a creme egg, because of him. So let us put on the record our thanks to him. By the way, I am a diabetic, so I should not eat any of the Quality Streets or any creme eggs, but temptation sometimes gets the better of me.

My own constituency has a huge waiting list. What I will say will replicate what the right hon. Member for East Ham and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden referred to; their constituencies have not cornered the market in housing problems—we have them as well.

Indeed, we have multiple daily problems in our office back home in Newtownards with the waiting list for appropriate social housing, largely made up of people in overcrowded accommodation who cannot afford private rent, or to pay the difference between housing benefit and rent in the real world. They have no alternative whatever but to move themselves and their children into their mum’s spare room—or worse, the living room, which takes away from where everybody lives. We often come to the problem of multiple families living in houses that may have been built for a two-person family but which have maybe six or eight people living in them, which becomes difficult. To have what should naturally be two separate households living together in such circumstances makes covid difficulties clear on so many levels.

The title of the debate is “Household Overcrowding: Covid-19”. We have learned about many things from the coronavirus situation and how we have responded to it, and one is certainly overcrowding, with people living almost on top of each other. I will give an example in a short minute. If just one person in a house gets covid, everybody has to self-isolate, which has implications, including whether an employer will actually furlough them. By the way, I understand that there is some choice in whether the employer may do that.

This is not the Minister’s responsibility, and I am not asking him to answer on it, but one of the biggest issues in my constituency is securing houses big enough for families. A single family may get a four-bed house. They probably have three or four children. One of those children is autistic, and they have maybe one girl and three boys, so right away an ordinary three-bed house will not be sufficient for them because of their physical circumstances and the disabilities of their children.

Sometimes a family has more than one child who is autistic, or they might have one with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as well, which means they need a single bedroom for each one. The right hon. Member for East Ham referred to some issues. Some issues that I face every day in my constituency relate to those who are disabled and how the implications of that then multiply the housing issues.

I was not surprised to learn from the Health Foundation that, going into the covid-19 pandemic, one in three households—32%, or 7.6 million; what a figure—in England had at least one major housing problem relating to overcrowding, affordability or poor-quality housing. Poor-quality housing is one issue that we are trying to address in the APPG. I see that replicated, to scale, in Northern Ireland and in my constituency.

It is clear that housing problems such as these can affect health outcomes—I believe that, and I see it when talking to people—including physical health, directly from poor-quality homes, and mental health, from affordability or insecure housing issues. I understand that the Governments both back home and here are trying to address poor-quality homes, I am pretty sure the Minister will give us some positive answers on the quality of homes and what the Government are doing, and also—I am not putting words in the Minister’s mouth—some idea of what the Government are doing on new building to address demand.

While fewer homes are classed as non-decent compared with 10 years ago, overcrowding and affordability problems have increased in recent years. The pandemic has highlighted the health implications of housing. Poor housing conditions such as overcrowding and high density are associated with a greater spread of covid-19. We have learned that, when one person gets it, we all have to self-isolate. I had to self-isolate from this House because of contact with an hon. Member, and I had to self-isolate a second time because I had contact with somebody on a Sunday, which I notified the House about. So I have had to self-isolate on two occasions.

People have had to spend more time in homes that are overcrowded, damp or unsafe. The economic fall-out of the pandemic may lead to an increase in evictions. The Government have helped a wee bit with that. The implications for people potentially facing evictions from poor-quality homes with rents that are just too expensive, and with their jobs on furlough—or perhaps even lost—are massive. We should all be worried and concerned about that.

These housing problems can be focused on in multiple ways, including the increase of supply to the detriment of other objectives and sustained reductions in housing benefits. There is not a day when we do not do a housing case for someone back home and deal with their housing benefit as well. We deal with other things, but more often than not the housing benefit comes off the back of that.

I could give examples of issues for an entire day, but I will give just one: people in low-income care jobs going to work in a nursing home and coming home to a house with two families because they could no longer afford the £750-a-month rent on their low income. It is the issue of low incomes and very high rents that both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady referred to. People had no other option but to move in with someone else but it meant that two nursing homes were affected by a diagnosis of coronavirus. I know that happened back home. A number of people were working in a nursing home, but when one person came in with coronavirus, everyone in that home had to self-isolate as a result. Coronavirus therefore has effects far beyond people’s living locations. It is definitely a disease that is seeking them out.

I finish with this. Covid has merely put a lens on the problem of affordable housing that has existed for some time. The right hon. Gentleman was right when he said in setting the scene that it was a problem beforehand, and it has been exacerbated by where we are. We need to take steps to address it. Mental health, family relationships and now physical health are at stake.

Mental health comes up in every debate we have because it is real and everyone deals with people affected every day. The hon. Lady asked whether the Minister was available to come down to her surgery and meet some of those people. I am sure the Minister is meeting those people in his surgery, just as we are. I do believe we must act, and I look to the Minister to see his plan of action to provide more social housing, more support for private rental and greater ability for people to be removed from unhealthy living conditions throughout this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I am pleased to participate in this important debate on household overcrowding and the covid-19 outbreak. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for bringing the debate forward. As we have heard, there is no doubt that housing and health outcomes are inextricably linked and that those living in poor housing are more likely to suffer from poor mental and/or physical health.

Covid-19 has indeed thrown into stark relief the existing and ongoing housing challenges that need to be addressed. It seems self-evident that household overcrowding is associated with greater risk of transmission of the virus because self-isolation, as we have heard, becomes much more difficult, as does shielding. That may well have contributed to a higher death rate.

Analysis carried out by Inside Housing shows a clear correlation between overcrowding and covid death rates. In addition, lockdown forces us to spend much more time at home, and doing so is much more challenging for those living in those overcrowded conditions. One study shows that nearly 20% of those in overcrowded conditions during lockdown have experienced mental or physical health problems due to a lack of space.

To return to the overcrowding example given by the right hon. Member for East Ham in his constituency, I know all too well what that is like in normal times: I grew up in a small three-apartment flat with my seven older siblings, my mother and my stepfather as my mother waited an astonishing 28 years for the council to allocate her suitable accommodation. It finally did in 1982, on my 14th birthday.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents do not have to wait quite as long as my family did for suitable accommodation, because I know the damage caused by living one on top of the other with no space and no privacy in such overcrowded conditions. However, even I cannot imagine how people can possibly cope well with such overcrowding during lockdown and how much more challenging lockdown makes such terrible living conditions.

We cannot change the past, but the focus now must be to ensure that more affordable homes are built. In Scotland, the SNP Government have built 97,000 affordable homes since 2007. In the four years to 2020, the SNP Government in Scotland have delivered over 75% more affordable homes per head of population than in both England and Wales. The Scottish Government have recognised the positive social and economic impact that investment in social housing brings, and remain committed to expanding the social housing stock.

In Scotland, the £30 million rural and islands housing funds support the delivery of affordable homes and are to be continued beyond March 2021, with the affordable housing supply programme having already delivered 5,000 affordable homes in rural and island areas in its first four years. There is still more to do.

In its “Building more social housing” report, the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government recommended that

“A social housebuilding programme should be top of the Government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of Covid-19.”

The report went on to say:

“The crisis has exposed our broken housing system. Families in overcrowded homes have faced worse health outcomes.”

In the first instance, the Government need to help those living in overcrowded accommodation. Investing in more social housing is an obvious way to do that. It is also vital to reverse effective cuts in local housing rates and scrap poverty-inducing policies, such as the hated bedroom tax, which the Scottish Government have completely mitigated in Scotland.

The decision to maintain local authority housing rates in cash terms in 2021-22 represents a freeze for private renters and puts at risk all the work done by the Scottish Government to support homeless people, and it potentially makes private sector tenancies unsustainable for some. Indeed, there are examples where the temporary restoration of local housing rates has facilitated moves out of temporary accommodation. The freeze on local housing rates for a Government who want to be taken seriously on tackling homelessness was not considered in last week’s Budget.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government have an estimated spend on the discretionary housing payment for 2021-22 of £82 million—an important tool used by councils to safeguard tenancies and prevent homelessness—with £71 million of that used to mitigate the bedroom tax for more than 70,000 households in Scotland, to help them sustain their tenancies, with another £11 million spent on mitigating other cruel welfare cuts, such as changes to local housing allowance rates.

Long before the pandemic hit, the policy of no recourse to public funds was pushing working families into abject poverty, forcing them into unsustainable debt and into homelessness, or unsafe, overcrowded and insecure housing. The Children’s Society highlighted last year that families with no recourse to public funds, without access to housing benefit or social housing, find it immensely difficult to shelter their children properly. That matters because covid-19 is no respecter of immigration status and everyone needs help to get through and survive this crisis.

The Scottish Government cannot change those policies because 85% of welfare expenditure and income replacement benefits remain reserved to Westminster. All the Scottish Government can do is try to mitigate the worst impact of those policies, bearing in mind that they are required to present a balanced budget every single year, so that the huge sums of money spent trying to protect Scots from the regressive policies of this Government mean that less money can be spent on other areas. I hope the Minister will reflect on that.

We know that there are real housing challenges across the UK. The Scottish Government have a demonstrable record of trying to tackle them; the UK Government, not so much. Covid has thrown those challenges into stark relief. The Minister knows that the solutions here are not brain surgery. We know what needs to be done to tackle overcrowding, which, there is little doubt, is directly linked to people catching and dying of covid in this pandemic.

I urge the Minister to be more ambitious about plans for building social housing—not just through announcements, but through actual building. The Government also need to abandon the effective freeze on local housing allowance, to facilitate more secure tenancies, and help more people move from temporary to more settled and suitable accommodation, which we have seen can be done.

In addition, the UK Government need to abandon their bedroom tax, which in effect prices people out of their homes. They also need to look afresh at the inhumane policy of no recourse to public funds and at the real damage that that has done and continues to inflict on families. That has not been the case just during the pandemic, but it has certainly shown a clear vision of what that policy means.

We have suffered a global health pandemic, and it is not over, but we can already start to learn the lessons of how we can do better in order to tackle deep-rooted and long-standing housing challenges such as overcrowding and poor living conditions, which have a genuine impact on the mental and physical health of too many people. The word “home” should indeed conjure up images of safety and warmth—a place you want to be. For too many families, poor and overcrowded conditions mean that that is simply not the case. We know what the challenges are and what measures are needed to tackle and mitigate those challenges. I hope that the Minister today will tell us how he and the Government intend to just get on and get down to that important work.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair for this debate, Sir Edward, and to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), the SNP spokesperson. First, I send heartfelt congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on initiating this vital debate. He set out eloquently and in clear and moving terms just what is wrong, why it is so relevant to the impact of covid and what we need to do to solve it. He also gave the truly human consequences by reading out a very upsetting letter from one of his young constituents, who is spending years in overcrowded conditions.

I also welcome the characteristically well informed and passionately expressed speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who is such an inspiring campaigning MP, and the speech from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who does such excellent work with the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings.

The English housing survey found that 4% of households in England are overcrowded. That is about 829,000 households—just think how many children that comes to. Overcrowding is more common for renters than owner-occupiers: it affects 1% of owner-occupiers, compared with 9% of social renters and 7% of private renting households. Overcrowding is at the highest rate in both the social rented and the private rented sectors since records began.

From my own constituency, I can give numerous examples of the real hardship—the reality—of overcrowded homes. People have been waiting for years and struggling for so long, and this last year has been truly awful. Covid has exposed the consequences when people do not have decent housing. Living in overcrowded homes hampers people’s ability to self-isolate when they have covid-19, but even before this time, overcrowded housing had been associated with respiratory illness in children. Now, it is so much worse.

The National Housing Federation found that 85% of overcrowded families have seen their mental health negatively affected by the overcrowding. Adults in 81% of overcrowded families—four out of five—have seen their personal relationships negatively affected. And it is no surprise, if we try to imagine that.

The former Children’s Commissioner found that poor housing conditions disrupt children’s education, affect health and wellbeing, and leave children with no safe space to play. That compounds the existing inequality between children who are in overcrowded housing with parents struggling to make ends meet and those who have had plenty of space throughout the crisis and good facilities and whose parents have been able to manage well financially. There has been suffering on all sides, but that inequality and the inability to make up that gap have been devastating for so many families.

The Resolution Foundation reported last July on the impact of housing circumstances on people during this crisis and identified how the risk increases for lower-income and ethnic minority families—often, the working poor. I am sure that the Minister will have read that report, but if he has not, I hope he will.

Increased covid risks for black, Asian and other ethnic minority people are compounded by poor housing. As Baroness Lawrence said in her recent review for Labour, not only are black, Asian and minority ethnic people dying at a disproportionate rate; they are also over-exposed to the virus and more likely to suffer the economic consequences, and that is multiplied, as others have said, by poor housing.

The Government response has been inadequate. The Women and Equalities Committee found a lack of clear guidance for those trying to self-isolate in overcrowded accommodation. That has been remedied just today, but the focus has been entirely on the individual rather than any sort of Government support. High rents in insecure housing, with poor living conditions, put millions of people in debt just when their income fell. Local authorities did all they could to support people in challenging living situations throughout the pandemic. The Government promised to do whatever was necessary—whatever it takes. How often did we hear that phrase? They said they would support councils during the pandemic. I am afraid to say that the Prime Minister has not kept to that promise. His council tax hike is an example of that.

We need a vision for our country. We need a vision that is better than what we had when we went into 2020. It is unacceptable that we came into the pandemic with so many people exposed through overcrowded housing. It would be unforgivable if the Government did not learn from this and rebuild better, but the only references to housing in the Budget speech were about a stamp duty holiday and 95% mortgage schemes. These short-sighted interventions do nothing to build the kind of good quality, truly affordable homes that we need to tackle overcrowding, and also to boost jobs and growth. There was no mention of the massive increases in council housing that we need now to deal with overcrowding. There was nothing about dealing with the crisis in the private rented sector, with so many people struggling with drops in income as a result of the crisis, and nothing to create more truly affordable homes. Proposed changes to permitted development will only make it worse. A Government-sponsored review of permitted development found that it leads to a higher risk of overcrowding—a Government-sponsored review.

As we all know, overcrowding causes both physical and mental health problems. That situation has been getting worse rapidly over the last few years and now we are in a health crisis, so there is also a cost to the NHS—a significant cost. As the Government have failed to deal with the gaps in financial support or the impact of a flawed universal credit system, too many families have been forced into arrears this year. The fear of losing their home and increased debt has pushed many into overcrowded conditions.

Decent, affordable, warm, healthy, net zero carbon homes should not be too much to ask for everyone in this country at any time. Covid has shown up starkly not only that that does not happen, but what happens as a consequence when such homes are treated as optional by the Government.

The then Children’s Commissioner wrote to the Secretary of State one year ago:

“The government needs to provide local authorities with the resources to source these homes and combined with a clear expectation that homes need to be sourced quickly. I would like to see this combined with clear messaging to landlords: co-operate or the government will act. It would be a particular disgrace to have closed down apartments – many run by businesses which will be receiving government funds in the next few months – while close by families are homeless. I would urge you to commit that any hotel or property business receiving government support, or wage subsidies, in the next few months will have to commit to housing families at cost. If local authorities are supported by the government with both resourcing and clear messaging I believe we can get these families a decent home to call their own – at least for the next four months.”

Those were the words of Anne Longfield a year ago.

In December, the Woman and Equalities Committee said:

“The guidance that the Government has produced for those in overcrowded housing is substandard. There was no clear guidance in one place from the Government on how to overcome the practical challenges of living in overcrowded, and in some cases multigenerational, accommodation. This continues to be the case nine months after the country first entered lockdown. We recommend that the Government should, within the next four weeks”—

bear in mind, this was in December—

“publish clear, culturally competent guidance with practical recommendations on how to self-isolate for people living in overcrowded, and/or multi-generational, accommodation…We further recommend that the Government by the end of summer 2021 produce a strategy to reduce overcrowding due to its poor health impacts.”

Just today, the Minister has produced guidance on overcrowding and covid. I am not surprised, but I am saddened, to see that the Government’s emphasis is solely on what individuals need to do—individuals forced to live in overcrowded accommodation. That reflects the answers to other parliamentary questions. There is no sign of any Government strategy.

The Confederation of British Industry, the Local Government Association, trade unions, the Church of England, housing and homelessness charities, numerous think-tanks and other specialists all agree that we need massive increases in publicly owned, truly affordable housing. Why do the Government not believe in that? Where was that in the Budget last week? It would boost the economy and give us jobs that we really need—good, secure jobs—as well as dramatically improving living conditions, education and the health of hundreds of thousands of our citizens.

I ask the Minister: why have the Government not taken a public health response to overcrowding in housing? How and when are they going to do so? Does he acknowledge that allowing a large number of people, including children, to live in overcrowded and unhealthy accommodation is detrimental to their health, education and socialisation? Does he agree with the former Children’s Commissioner when she challenged the Secretary of State at the start of the crisis or not? If not, why? If he does, what plans does he have to meet some or all of her recommendations now? It is not too late.

Has the Minister read the briefings from the Resolution Foundation that were published last July? What lessons does he intend to take from them? Has he met the foundation? Has he read the report by the Women and Equalities Committee? Has he discussed it with the Chair? How will he implement the recommendations, and on what timescale? Will he commit to the timescale recommended by the Committee—the end of summer this year—for a clear strategy? Will he consider asking the Office for National Statistics to collect data on overcrowding, because we do not have the data that we really need?

Will the Minister acknowledge that if the Government want to solve that problem, they have to ensure that there is a massive increase in truly affordable and secure council and housing association homes? Will he address directly the young person whom my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham quoted at the start of his speech? Will the Minister explain directly to that young person why the Government have not acted for her so far? My right hon. Friend is correct: now is the time for a moral imperative to ensure that there is decent housing. Everyone should have a decent home. The covid crisis has reinforced that, and the Government must commit to end overcrowding and do it today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, not least because, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, this is my first debate as Minister. It will possibly be more memorable for me than for you. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing the debate and other hon. Members for their important contributions to it.

Covid-19 has brought unprecedented changes in how we live and work, with people’s experience of their housing conditions brought into strong focus as never before. Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided unprecedented economic support for households and businesses up and down the country. In the Budget, the Chancellor set out a £65 billion three-point plan to support jobs and businesses as we emerge from the pandemic and forge our recovery. Housing is a key part of that picture, from protecting tenants and landlords to ensuring that our house building sector remains open and active.

For many people, the pandemic has been made tolerable, at least, by a good home and garden shared with the people they care about, but for too many people—examples were movingly set out by the right hon. Member for East Ham—in cramped and substandard accommodation, or unable to walk to shops, green spaces or services, their experience of the pandemic was exacerbated by their housing conditions. Spacious, well-equipped homes that offer green space and access to vital amenities must be the standard if we are to recover from the social as well as the economic effects of covid.

As the right hon. Gentleman outlined, the evidence suggests that housing conditions can play a role in the transmission of the virus and in people’s ability to self-isolate safely, including those living in overcrowded conditions and multi-generational households. We know that black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to live in overcrowded conditions and are disproportionately impacted by the transmission of the virus. The Government are hugely grateful for all the research that has been undertaken—by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Public Health England and the Women and Equalities Committee—which demonstrates that. The Government are absolutely steadfast in our determination to make the housing system work for everyone, including by tackling overcrowding and supporting vulnerable people to live in safe and decent homes.

Members have rightly spoken today about the prevalence of overcrowding. Between 2019 and 2020, as the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) said, the recorded state of overcrowding across all tenures in England was 4%, and that rate requires action. In many parts of the country, including in the constituency of the right hon. Member for East Ham, the situation is far worse. Newham has the highest level of household overcrowding in England, with 28,000 households on the waiting list in the overcrowding “reasonable preference” category, as of 31 March last year. We know that for some of those people in substandard housing conditions—especially in built-up areas with high deprivation, such as Newham—the pandemic has been particularly difficult.

The Government have responded at pace since the onset of the pandemic to provide a range of guidance to support and advise people who live in poor housing conditions, including overcrowded housing. We have kept our guidance under continual review in response to the latest available evidence, stressing the importance of ventilation and cleaning. We have made information available on people’s rights as tenants, and on how to work with landlords and local authorities to address hazardous issues.

I believe that our measures are the right ones. Where vulnerable tenants are living in overcrowded accommodation, local authorities can use their enforcement powers to require a landlord to remedy a serious overcrowding hazard. For shared houses and flats occupied by people who are not related—homes in multiple occupation—the Government have clarified the minimum room sizes in shared accommodation, making it illegal for landlords to let out a bedroom that is smaller than 6.51 square metres to one person.

HMOs are at increased risk of overcrowding, and the occupiers are likely to be vulnerable. That is why we require that all larger HMOs—those with five or more tenants—must be licensed with their local council. Under the HMO licensing scheme, a local authority can set conditions that landlords must follow to improve the quality of the accommodation, and the local authority has the power to inspect properties without notice and order improvements to conditions and any health hazards, including gas and electrical safety.

We are determined to crack down on the smaller number of unscrupulous landlords who neglect their properties and exploit their tenants. We want such landlords either to improve the service that they offer, or to leave the business. This is why we have strengthened local authority enforcement powers, introducing financial penalties of up to £30,000 and extended rent repayment orders for landlords and agents who break the rules, with banning orders for the most serious and prolific offenders.

Local authorities also have a duty to take enforcement action if they find seriously hazardous conditions. That is why we are overhauling and simplifying the housing health safety rating system, which is the tool used to assess hazardous conditions in rented homes. If a HHSRS assessment identifies a serious hazard, which includes overcrowding, the local council must take enforcement action against the landlord. That includes banning orders for the worst offenders, and it applies to all privately rented properties. We also brought forward legislation on letting homes fit for human habitation, empowering tenants to take their own action against landlords who let unfit properties.

I am sure that the Minister would not wish to take credit for a piece of legislation that was introduced by our great colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck).

Under no circumstances was I attempting to take credit for that Bill, and I was delighted to be in the House when it became law. I completely endorse it, and I understand the comments of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).

I thank the Minister for the points that he is making. Can he tell us whether the Government will accept the recommendation of the Women and Equalities Committee and bring forward a strategy to tackle overcrowding by the end of the summer?

The Government are already doing things to tackle overcrowding, not least with our substantial investment in new house building. The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of points in his speech, and I will cover some of them. He asked if we expect a new wave of investment in social house building. We need house building of all tenures, and the Government have demonstrated their commitment to increasing the affordable housing supply. We are investing more than £12 billion in affordable housing over five years—the largest investment for a decade. That includes the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme, which will provide up to 180,000 homes across the country; and a further £9 billion for the shared ownership and affordable homes programme, running to 2023, which will deliver 250,000 new affordable homes. The affordable homes programme will deliver more than double the social rent of the current programme, with around 32,000 social rented properties due to be delivered

Are the Government committed to co-ownership—to helping those who want co-ownership homes, and supporting the building projects? The co-ownership scheme enables people who have maybe 50% of the value, or a small portion of it, to get a home earlier. Are the Government committed to that?

I will have to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific scheme that he is talking about. The Government are certainly aiming to do things to help people. For example, we have 95% mortgages to make sure more people have the opportunity to buy their own home. I will come back to him on the scheme that he mentioned.

The right hon. Member for East Ham asked about prioritising the building of three-bed properties and above. When the national planning policy framework was revised in July 2018, it set an expectation that local planning authorities must put in place planning policies that identify the size, type and tenure of homes required for different groups in the community. We have not changed that, and we would therefore expect it to be a key consideration when planning housing at a local level.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about local housing allowance. During the pandemic, the Government increased the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile, which meant that 1.5 million people were able to access that additional payment, which averaged £600 annually.

I appreciate that we are unrelentingly miserable in our stories about our constituents’ terrible housing circumstances, but will the Minister join me in thanking Channel 4 and journalist Jackie Long for helping one of my families? Jackie Long visited my constituent, who was going out to be a carer, to see the circumstances in which she was living during the lockdown—in one room with her son. Jackie Long and the viewers were so moved by my constituent’s story that they collected a deposit, and that woman is now in a flat of her own with her son.

That sounds like a particularly moving case. During the pandemic, we have seen society pulling together in incredible ways, and that is a great example.

I will move quickly.

We welcome the report from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission, and we will continue to work with all organisations, such as the Church of England, to develop affordable housing programmes. The Government are reviewing our own land ownership to ensure that it is put to good use.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned people in temporary accommodation who have not registered with their GP for a vaccine. I urge them to do so urgently. We are doing great work to ensure homeless people have access to the vaccine across the country, and I want to ensure that those in temporary accommodation have access. Regarding the invitation to her advice surgery, I have good examples in my own constituency of cases such as the ones she raised.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for his kind comments at the start. I was lucky enough to attend a number of meetings of the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings, and I value the great work it does.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned a social house building programme. As I said earlier, I feel that the Government are already committed to a strong investment in building houses of all types and tenures.

The hon. Member for Bristol West mentioned the idea of the Government doing whatever it takes. I feel that councils up and down the country will be incredibly grateful for the investment that this Government have made—we have provided un-ring-fenced money for councils to use at their own discretion. Finally, we have the £50 million social housing decarbonisation fund through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which will be looking at ways of not just decarbonising social housing, but reducing the cost of fuel and therefore fuel poverty.

I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made a characteristically powerful contribution, as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am grateful to them both, and to the Front Benchers.

The real housing crisis is about people trapped at the bottom end of the rental market, paying unaffordable rents in overcrowded, inadequate homes. As we have been reminded, there was absolutely nothing in the Budget to help. It may well be, as it was in the 1960s, that we have to wait for a Labour Government, and for my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) to become the housing Secretary, for us to get the programme of investment that we need.

I would just say to the Minister, as he takes up his role—I know that he is very enthusiastic—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).