I beg to move,
That this House notes the significant increase in the numbers of people housed in non-commissioned exempt accommodation under successive Conservative Governments; regrets the opportunities that this increase has provided for unscrupulous operators to exploit vulnerable individuals for financial gain at the taxpayers’ expense; recognises that a range of factors have driven the marked growth of this sector including a chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing, reductions in funding for housing-related support, new barriers to access for single adults requiring social rented housing or mainstream privately rented housing, and a weakening of regulation and oversight; further regrets the detrimental impact that the growth of poor quality non-commissioned exempt accommodation is having on the health and well-being of those vulnerable individuals placed in it and on the public purse; and calls on the Government to introduce a package of emergency measures designed to secure immediate improvements in the quality of non-commissioned exempt accommodation and associated support, to ensure claims for exempt Housing Benefit consistently provide value for money and to drive unscrupulous operators out of the sector.
We move from the global to the very, very local. There is a scandal quietly unfolding in communities across this country, and today we set out our determination that the Government will finally take this seriously and act to put it right. Across Britain, from Blackpool to Birmingham, houses are being bought or rented supposedly to house vulnerable people in accommodation with extra care and help. Instead, these shameless profiteers are leaving vulnerable people languishing in disgusting, unsafe housing, and people who badly need our help are denied it. The taxpayer is paying for all of this and it is blighting entire neighbourhoods.
It was right to ensure that those who genuinely provide or need supported housing could access enhanced housing benefit, because the cost of housing vulnerable people who need care and support is undeniably higher. Before I came to this place, I worked for Centrepoint, whose work with care leavers, and young people with mental health problems and addiction issues is second to none. It takes time, care and commitment to help those young people build the lives they deserve. But it is utterly wrong that we have allowed this system to be abused and used by people who are destroying entire communities.
Very many good organisations do provide proper support through supported exempt accommodation, and they are as appalled as we are at this scandal—it cannot continue. Colleagues on the Opposition Benches have raised this issue time and again with Ministers. How can it possibly be that nearly 18 months after the Government recognised the problem and commissioned pilots to consider how to solve it, this is still going on? Over the past few years, this problem has skyrocketed. More than 150,000 households in this country are living in exempt accommodation—that is a 62% increase in five years. Not all of them are bad placements—some of them are a lifeline—but it is crystal clear that there is an growing scandal of rogue operators, who know how to cheat the system, and are making life a misery for the people they are supposed to care for and the people who live in these proud communities. They deserve so much better and we are determined that they are going to get it.
I would like to thank colleagues from across this House, and particularly Members from Birmingham and Bristol, who have long recognised the growing scandal and campaigned hard to make it right. They are here today and I am sure that they will have plenty to say to the Minister about it. Many of our local councils, too, are doing great work to address the problem head-on. For example, Birmingham City Council has introduced greater scrutiny of new exempt benefit claims and encourages all providers to sign up to a set of quality standards for exempt accommodation. It has joined a partnership of voluntary and statutory agencies to produce a charter of rights for residents of supported exempt accommodation. But such efforts are thwarted by weak laws and a Government that will not grant them the powers to take action.
This Government have not even given us the information that we deserve. It took a Freedom of Information Act request from the charity Crisis to tell us how many tenancies there are—we do not know where they are. There has been no announcement about the pilots for several months. We have not even been told whether they have ended, what they have concluded or the timetable for when action is going to be taken. But we do know this: the law is too weak. It says a provider must deliver care, support and supervision that is, in legal terms, “more than minimal”. But “more than minimal” has no firm definition, test or criteria It could mean having a manager who visits the property once in a blue moon or installing a CCTV system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) told the Minister in a recent Westminster Hall debate, in one shocking incident a key worker visited a property where the tenant had just been murdered, mistook the murderer for the victim and told her mother she was fine—she was dead.
We will hear many terrible stories today from colleagues in this House that show that this “more than minimal” definition is allowing these disgraceful firms and individuals to milk the taxpayer at the expense of some of the most vulnerable people in our country; they are destroying neighbourhoods and we are determined that the stories of those people affected will be heard in the highest levels of Government today.
They say, “Give us the powers to act. Give us the powers and the laws that we need and we will take action.” The people who lead authorities throughout the country have skin in the game: they live in these communities. These are not just the people they are elected to represent; they are friends, family and neighbours, as well as constituents. The people who lead authorities care deeply about taking action but simply do not have the power to do so.
Analysis carried out by the homelessness charity St Mungo’s estimates that between 2009 and 2018 funding for single homeless people fell by a shocking £1 billion—a cut of more than 50%. Does my hon. Friend agree that 10 years of devastating Conservative cuts are the cause of the growth in exempt accommodation and that the Government must now properly fund local authorities so that they can provide the homeless accommodation and build the council homes that we need?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly on the latter point about building social housing. She is right, too, to say that it is a symptom of a housing market that is fundamentally broken. The warning light is flashing on the dashboard, but for too long we simply have not recognised it. It was precisely in the city of my hon. Friend, a superb MP for Coventry, that the Prime Minister launched his levelling-up agenda and created the levelling-up Department, promising to wrap his arms around people and communities and to help them to level up. What we are talking about is precisely the opposite.
The issue raised by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) is not right, because once a person comes to an area and offers themselves as a person in need of services, the council has obligations under legislation to provide services. It is not local authorities but the Government who have not sorted this issue out.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work to draw attention to this appalling scandal.
As the Minister knows, it is not unusual to find properties in complete disrepair that would not be considered fit for human habitation in any way. It is not unusual for vulnerable women to be housed in properties with dangerous men and for them to be at risk of attack or to have been attacked.
Many years ago, I was prompted to enter elected politics as a councillor in the London Borough of Hammersmith, where I then lived, by the story of a 16-year-old girl in bed and breakfast accommodation at the height of the housing crisis at the time. She told me she had been raped by the owner of the property and nothing had been done—she was still in that accommodation. I went to see Hammersmith Council, which was superb and acted to close the facility down, but it had the powers to do so. I thought we had left those sorts of days behind. When I heard from my hon. Friends the stories about what is happening in their communities and how many times they have raised issues to no avail, I simply could not believe that in 2022 we stand here and allow this to continue.
With one particular problematic property in Bristol, we found we could get only so far with the Charity Commission, because we had questions about the management structure; we could get a little way in trying to enforce planning permission, because too many people were living there; and adjustments kept being made to housing benefit—if we said that they were not offering more than minimal support, they would add a little bit of support. It was so frustrating and we were going round and round the houses. We need a set of regulations that we can go in and enforce straight away.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on this issue. It was clear from the recent Westminster Hall debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) that there was a particular problem in Birmingham, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) did a sterling job in that debate of reminding us that this is a problem not just in Birmingham but in Bristol and right throughout the country. All the Members who contributed to that debate spoke with one voice: we know what the problem is and what needs to be done; all we are lacking is a Government who will get behind what needs to be done and make sure that it happens.
The hon. Lady says that she entered local government to deal with this issue. She entered local government in 2006, following a housing crisis after eight years of Labour Government. Does she not agree with me that the real, fundamental issue, under parties of all shades for too many years, is the lack of homes being built? There has been a massive increase in the past few years, but is that not something we need to do more fundamentally for the entire housing sector?
Let me just say that I really regret this partisan tone. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that I entered local politics in 2006 having worked not just with children in care and young homeless teenagers at Centrepoint, but with child refugees, campaigning against practices such as those at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre that had happened under a Conservative Government but were also happening under a Labour Government. I will fight injustice wherever I find it and whoever is responsible for it, and I will stand up for people who do not have a voice. That is the great gift and privilege of this place. We are handed a megaphone through which we can shout loudly and make things change for some of the most vulnerable people in this country, and that is what we should do. I gently remind him, too, that the record under this Government has been appalling. Social housing builds have fallen off a cliff and housing-related support has been stripped away. Talk to any of the organisations, including Centrepoint, which I was proud to work for, and they will tell you that that situation is causing enormous harm not just to the people affected, but to many of the people who live in those communities, and it has to change.
I do not mind being partisan on this issue. Although the Labour Government, between 1997 and 2010, should have built more social housing, the absolute brutal fact of the matter is that the number of social lettings available for tenants has fallen from just under 400,000 to 300,000 in the past decade, and that is on this Government’s watch and they must take responsibility for it.
I defer to my hon. Friend on that. She has been a superb champion for housing reform in this country over many, many years, including under the last Labour Government, and particularly in the past decade when we have seen exactly what she describes unfold. She has done more to reform and tighten up the law in this area through the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 than the Government have done in the past 12 years, so, absolutely, I defer to her on that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she also agree that one problem with the shortage of housing supply is that Government support goes in completely the wrong direction, particularly in terms of buy to let, which I will speak about later if I get called, whereby billions of pounds are going to support private landlords?
My right hon. Friend is right: it is a waste. It is a waste of human potential, a waste of good, thriving neighbourhoods, and a waste of taxpayers’ money. It is more than that actually. The distortion in the housing market in these communities means that working families are being priced out of good, viable family homes. Other social tenants cannot access them either; when a person cannot get enhanced housing benefits, they are subject to the local housing allowance. The regulation is non-existent. Providers are exempt from planning and licensing laws that enable councils to limit the types and proliferation of houses of multiple occupation. The social housing regulator does not have the powers to deal with rogue operators as they set themselves up as small operators outside the direct oversight of the regulator. The effect of all of that is that whole streets and communities become saturated with family homes that are converted into HMOs, providing exempt accommodation and housing vulnerable tenants who are left without support. That creates problems for the whole community, and it is all happening in plain sight.
What is worse is that the people who are most affected—as I said to the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden)—are those who cannot do anything about it. Only the Government have the power to make changes for the better, which is why today we are calling for a package of emergency measures to set this situation right.
I am a fellow Greater Manchester MP. We have the “Places for Everyone” scheme that has been submitted to the Government. I am very sympathetic to a lot of what the hon. Lady has been talking about. In Wigan and Bury over many, many years—from the way that the hon. Lady is looking at me, I think she knows the important point that I am making—there has been a dearth of action by Labour-controlled councils to build and to provide affordable social housing. Does she share with me a disappointment that there is no plan within “Places for Everyone” to deliver that?
The hon. Gentleman should spend some time with my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), because she would set him straight very quickly. I know his community very well—it is where I grew up and went to college, and it is where my mum lives—and he has a superb Labour council that backs its community at every turn and was part of dramatically improving the life chances of young people in its community and supporting the community. When Bury Football Club was collapsing, much to our desperate regret, it was his Labour council who stood by the community, while the Government stood and watched as the club fell apart.
I think the hon. Gentleman should listen for once. His Labour council has stood in as a lifeline for people as support was stripped away over 12 years of Tory Government. It is about time that he not only acknowledged that, but got behind his local community and started standing up to this Government.
The regulation is non-existent. This is all happening in plain sight. The regulations must be toughened up. We need a proper test for what counts as care, support or supervision set out in law. It is right of the Minister to say, as I heard him say in the Westminster Hall debate, that that must be done thoughtfully and with care, but that is no excuse for inaction. Surely it is not beyond the collective wit of Government to come up with a scheme that roots out the bad providers and protects the good.
We need a regulator with the full range of powers needed to deal with the problem, with a fit and proper person test that must be passed before any provider can set itself up to care for vulnerable people. Local authorities need the power to reject applications on grounds of saturation or oversupply in a specific area and to insist on community impact assessments that have the power to prevent such over-saturation.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a former local Labour councillor who tried to deal with these issues in our communities. Those powers are there, but does my hon. Friend agree that central Government frustrated local councils from using article 4 directions, for example, to manage that saturation, and that we need to move beyond that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Local councils cannot do this on their own. That is why we have brought the issue to the House today and why my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood brought it to Westminster Hall a few weeks ago. It is why we will keep going and keep on until councils have the powers and the support they need to end this scandal for good.
We need an inspections regime to keep providers on their toes and a regulator that has full powers of enforcement, both to clamp down on those who will still try to flout the system, and to destroy the business model of the rogue operators who know that they carry on in plain sight and get away with it. I know the Minister cares about this issue—he spoke very movingly about it in the Westminster Hall debate—but caring is not the same as acting.
These rogue operators have effectively been handed a licence by the Government to exploit people, abuse public money and destroy neighbourhoods. Bobby Kennedy once said that,
“there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay.”
We cannot continue to be violently indifferent to what is being inflicted on communities up and down this country.
What is worse about this situation, for me, is that it is overseen by the Government Department that was created to support and rebuild proud neighbourhoods, towns, villages and cities—the places that once powered this country and built our wealth and influence, and could do so again. The Prime Minister stood in Coventry and promised to give us the tools to change our areas for the better. He said that,
“all they need is the right people to believe in them, to lead them and to invest in them and for Government to get behind them, and that is what we are going to do”,
but they have not.
I ask the Minister today to set this right. Can he tell his boss that this is not like the fight he just had and lost with the Treasury? He does not have to beg the Chancellor for funds and permission that are not forthcoming. He simply has to get his own Department in order and deliver. Otherwise, what is the Department for, if it cannot even get behind our communities when the power to do so lies squarely within its remit?
What were once modest, quiet residential streets, home to tight-knit communities, are becoming no-go areas, plagued by rogue operators, some with links to organised crime. People who work hard and try hard are left, for all their efforts, watching their community go to rack and ruin. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood has said many times, people are in utter despair. They are faced with a choice between leaving the places that they have always loved and called home or tolerating what is now an intolerable situation. That is no choice at all. We should not ask them to bear this for a single day longer. I commend this motion to the House.
I think it goes without saying that the matter we are here to discuss today is one of the utmost seriousness and utmost importance. It has far-reaching implications that go beyond the housing benefit bill and impact on the lives of hundreds of people who are among the most vulnerable in our society. There is no greater priority for any Government than protecting the welfare of our citizens and, wherever possible, preventing people from finding themselves living in accommodation that is poor in terms of quality and security.
During my years working for YMCA Birmingham, I saw first-hand just how tough and life-limiting it can be for people living in these kinds of homes, but I also saw the transformational difference that genuinely good-quality supported exempt accommodation makes to people, so, to put it mildly, I have a strong personal interest in us getting this right.
The fact that this debate is about non-commissioned exempt accommodation goes to the heart of it, because in an ideal situation Bristol would be able to commission all the supported housing that it needed to look after people in need within its own city boundaries. The situation we are getting now is suppliers moving in and buying up housing in inner-city areas, with other councils not taking responsibility for their own residents. If the Minister speaks to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), he will find that there is a massive issue with people being sent there. Does he agree that this housing ought to be commissioned, if possible, rather than leaving it to the private sector?
I strongly suspect that during the course of my speech there will be many interventions that I find myself in agreement with, and that is one example. Speaking personally, I have heard of people parking up outside prisons waiting for prisoners to leave and then taking them off to non-commissioned exempt accommodation. It is beholden on all of us to try to make sure that there is good-quality accommodation, that people are appropriately signposted to it, and —the hon. Lady is absolutely right—that wherever possible it is commissioned rather than non-commissioned accommodation.
I guess my job, and the job of this Government, is to improve the life chances of people living in these kinds of situations, and that is one of the main reasons that I came into politics. However, poorly conceived quick-fix answers are not going to help us to solve this problem. We are all in agreement on the urgency of the issue and we all share a determination to change things for the better, but if we want to tackle the problems that plague this sector, then the way to do it is through considered and meaningful reforms. What the sector needs is not sticking plasters but more support for the high-quality supported housing providers who are delivering services that are genuinely changing people’s lives. The whole country is facing difficult economic headwinds, and those providers who are fulfilling their roles and helping to protect people by keeping a roof over their heads during this time of difficulty need support. I am therefore glad that this issue is drawing considerable interest from parliamentarians. Every single Member of this House will have constituents affected by it, and I am certain that through our collective efforts and collaboration we can work together across the House to solve these problems.
This kind of accommodation often acts as a safety net for people who have fallen on hard times. It helps them to get back on their feet and gives them the platform from which they can rebuild their lives. Its importance is difficult to overstate. Despite that, however, there are flagrant examples of rogue providers who are abusing the system and misusing taxpayers’ money by not providing anywhere near the right standard of services for their residents. This failure is intertwined with the harsh reality of the concentrated proliferation of exempt accommodation in specific areas and cities. That is bringing its own set of challenges, with pockets of neighbourhood issues, antisocial behaviour and criminal behaviour, which is completely unacceptable.
We are not sitting on our hands. We have introduced a range of curbs to stem the growth of these organisations in areas right across the country, including in Birmingham. The Housing and Communities Research Group have combined with the Birmingham Safeguarding Adults Board to play a pivotal role in highlighting the growing number of shoddy, second-rate units that have been allowed to develop unchecked in Birmingham. Off the back of that, officials in my Department have worked tirelessly with Birmingham City Council and local charities to unpick these issues and to enhance our understanding of them. That work is already beginning to bring to light the full scale of the problem, its underlying drivers and, more importantly, the impact it has on residents and their communities.
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but we leave those decisions to councils that are commissioning locally. I guess it is up to us to try to ensure appropriate standards against which such accommodation is measured and then to give them the necessary powers to enforce that. Personally, I think that councils already have a considerable number of powers. I am not disagreeing with Opposition Members about what powers are required; I am just saying that I would like to see the existing powers used to the absolute max before we necessarily go reaching for others. If people feel they do not have the necessary powers, I would consider it not inappropriate for the Government to legislate, but we need to consider that carefully.
We are committed to finding the right approach to this issue, and we invested £5 million in a number of pilots in recent months to support the worst-affected areas, including Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Bristol and Hull. Through the injection of those funds, we have been working with local authorities to test approaches to improving the quality of this type of accommodation. We chose these specific areas partly because of the existing commitment to tackle these issues, and I pay tribute to the local authorities, which have worked collegiately and collaboratively with us during the pilots.
To take Bristol as an example, it has been conducting thorough assessments of new schemes and providers for some time. The council was able to use its funding to complete its work in summer last year. Meanwhile, Hull’s supported accommodation review team was implemented in 2019, and the council has already shown a strong commitment to making the changes needed to solve the problems besetting exempt accommodation. Through the pilot, it was able to fund a large part of its programme and to take its approach to that programme one step further. As the House would expect, we know that the need stretches beyond these pilot areas and that local authorities in other parts of the country want to invest in tackling these problems, too.
This is a little frustrating, because there is a strong sense that we agree about this, yet it is difficult to work out why nothing yet has been done. The pilots were initiated in October 2020, so why have they not concluded and reported, and why have we not got a timetable by which action will be taken? Perhaps the Minister can give us that today.
I have a horrible feeling that I will mention this point now and repeat it subsequently if I am not able to recalibrate in the course of my speech. We have the report from those pilots, and we are working with authorities and officials in my Department to unpick it and to ensure that we completely understand what the information we have gathered is telling us and that any changes we deploy in the future are appropriate. I completely accept and understand the hon. Lady’s frustration. I am keen to see that report published as quickly as possible, and I am sure I will repeat that point later in my speech—my apologies for the duplication.
Some places have taken their inspiration from the work of those pilots and have set up teams bringing together different expertise, including housing benefit and environmental health officers, to focus on emerging issues. We have heard of, and been inspired by, the initiative shown by local authorities such as Nottingham, which have implemented multidisciplinary approaches to supported housing within the council and with key external partners that have a critical role to play in the experience of supported housing tenants. That set-up enables local authorities to keep a constant stream of information going about rogue providers and to conduct consistent and thorough assessments of those organisations and their ability to deliver good support and good outcomes for tenants.
My Department has also been speaking to local authorities in Derby, Cannock Chase and Staffordshire, and to councils across Greater Manchester and Lancashire on those issues. We are engaging with them on how they are progressing. On top of that, I am delighted that work is taking place across boundaries as we are encouraging councils to share good practice so that others can apply it. For example, in Blackburn, housing benefit officers have been working closely with other local authorities in Manchester and Lancashire, discussing and learning from each other’s experience while sharing their knowledge on the common issues that they are encountering locally.
The local pilots have been critical to helping us to understand how the issues are playing out in different places, but we know that they will not solve the issues on their own. At a national level, the Government have continued to act and to raise the bar on the standard of accommodation across the board. In 2020, the Department published the “Supported housing: national statement of expectations”, which was vital in setting out the Government’s vision for better ways of working in supported housing and for introducing much higher minimum standards in accommodation.
The guidance gave providers and councils a clear vision from the Government of exactly what good looks like while highlighting where providers and councils are working in a joined-up fashion to drive up quality. Ministers and officials have also engaged with councils, housing providers, the regulator of social housing and other regulatory bodies to help us to improve our understanding of the issues and to refine our approach.
Although I have not yet received the report, I assure hon. Members that the work of the pilots has already delivered, and is delivering, real results by creating the kind of models for best practice that councils will be able to adopt. In Birmingham, a charter of rights for residents of supported housing has been developed along with a programme of support reviews and scrutiny of housing benefit claims. In Blackpool, the council has carried out a review of the support provided in accommodation for victims of domestic abuse to ensure that it is sufficient and tailored. We have seen great examples in other pilots of local government and the community working together to improve supported exempt accommodation.
Once published and made available to interested parties, the evaluation report will help us to tailor what action is needed and will be taken in future, but this is a complex area. It is important to take the time to consider the next steps carefully to ensure that we get them right. We must be careful to avoid knee-jerk measures that could have unforeseen consequences and only serve to make life harder for residents and the majority of good providers, who we would not wish to see inadvertently pushed out of the vital work that they do in the area.
I hear the good work that the Minister is doing on the pilots, but what is to stop a rogue landlord, who wants to just take the cash and provide no services, carrying on as before in the pilot areas that he is talking about?
The hon. Lady gives me the opportunity to make an important point. The “more than minimal” line was not prescribed in law—to a degree, one might say that it is even worse than that, because it came about through case law and legal challenge. Landlords and the services that they provide are a difficult area and are difficult for councils to challenge.
Fortunately, through the pilots, we have been able to help to educate council officers and explain best practice so that they have been able to challenge. The problem is that that needs to be focused and done all the time. Obviously, any council can challenge the support that is being provided, but that requires the council to put in the effort—perhaps to go round and visit the property and speak to the tenants to understand the support that is being provided—and determine whether it feels that meets the threshold and subsequently challenge. Part of the problem is that councils have done that, but because of the low level, they have lost such challenges. We need to ensure that we are helping those providers because there are a lot of good providers out there. We need to do our best to support and encourage them and then, I hope, signpost people to the appropriate accommodation for them. I appreciate and accept the difficult situation, but as I say, I hope that we will understand best practice better from the pilots and share it more widely. As I have said, should legislative changes be required, that is not something we would shy away from.
But this is bigger than just the regulation. What we have in the most deprived communities, such as Walton and Anfield, is property management companies in London, Milton Keynes and other parts of the country buying up swathes of property to run a supported housing racket. It needs intervention from Government.
Just as a particular example, it is possible for councils to investigate such properties, and where landlords are seen to be letting out unsafe properties, they can apply for banning orders and fines of up to £30,000 are available, so powers are available—
The Minister is well aware that, if councils make a decision not to provide housing benefit and they are challenged in a court of law, they will lose such cases because the law itself is not sufficiently tight to prevent the abuse that is occurring. I would like to push the Minister: he has implied that he does not want to move quickly on tightening up the regulations because he is concerned about the impact that would have on the good providers, which we all agree are trying to do the best they can in difficult circumstances, but what is it about tightening up the regulations that would be so onerous for the good providers and take out the bad providers? The way I see it, the good providers are doing what they should be doing anyway, and it is only the bad providers that would be targeted by tightening up the regulations. I really do want to hear from him what he thinks would be onerous on the good providers if he tightens up the regulations.
I agree largely with what the hon. Lady says, but on what other burdens we may place on people to meet the barriers to entry or the conditions we set, we are talking about providers that work on very low margins, and any further legislative burden placed on them may just push them out of the market. On my reservation to act quickly, I am very keen to deal with this problem as quickly as we can, and I strongly suspect that she and I will be having many conversations in the coming weeks and months. I am hoping that progress will be made—so we will talk again.
It is interesting that the hon. Lady intervened at that point, because I was about to refer to the Westminster Hall debate she held recently. One of the things that struck me about that debate was that very well-tempered, very well-informed and very passionate contributions were made across the Chamber, and it feels to me as though the spirit of that debate will be extended today in the way we discuss this problem and tackle it in the future. I think we should continue in that tone, because this is not a political issue. It is something we all care about passionately, and we can all see that rogue landlords are taking money and using it inappropriately when we are talking about some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Finally, there are some exceptional providers out there that provide great-quality accommodation. They have very passionate and dedicated staff, and I would hate to think that they were in any way tarred with the brush of these rogue providers. As well as dealing with the rogue landlords, we should celebrate the success and the great work that is done by others for some of the most vulnerable in society. I look forward to the rest of the debate.
I thank the Minister for the tone of his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). Perhaps we can wait to see whether the actions match that tone. I take issue with him on a point he made a few moments ago, which was that this is not a political issue. For as long as this issue exists, without any further regulation or resources to resolve it, it is political. We are not necessarily trying to turn it into a party political issue, but we need a political solution to sort it out.
I rise to support the motion in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan and others. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan put the case with characteristic clarity and force, so I will not repeat her arguments. I do, however, support the approach of the homelessness charity Crisis, which calls on the Government to outline when they plan to publish the findings and evaluations of exempt accommodation pilots in Birmingham, Hull, Blackpool, Bristol and Blackburn. The Minister referred to those pilots a few moments ago in his speech, and I did not see in anything he said any reason why their findings cannot be published. Will he reflect on whether it would be helpful if a lot of other organisations had the opportunity to look at those findings and make helpful suggestions?
Secondly, Crisis calls on the Government to identify ways to close loopholes in the regulatory frameworks that oversee the provision of exempt accommodation, while at the same time ensuring that local authorities are adequately resourced and supported to implement that oversight framework. As others have made clear, local authorities cannot do what they do not have the powers or resources to do. Thirdly, Crisis calls for an improvement in the data captured about exempt housing benefit claims, so that future statistics can provide an accurate picture of the scale of the provision and trends. Finally, it calls on the Government to develop and strengthen the national statement of expectations for supported housing, so as to provide an effective quality assurance for all forms of exempt accommodation. If the Minister has not already read those recommendations, I hope he will look at them and consider where he can go with them in the short term, because they are important.
For the remainder of my speech I want to deal with the broader context of the problem as referred to in the motion, such as the way the private rented sector is regulated, buy-to-let support from the Government, and how financial support is given. There are currently—even I was shocked by this—4.4 million households in the country who rent their homes from a private landlord. That figure is from 2019-20, so it is likely to be an underestimate of the true scale. The English housing survey of 2019 estimated that 23% of homes in the sector—about 1.1 million—do not meet the decent homes standard. That compares with just 12% of homes in the social rented sector, which is still unacceptable but considerably lower. There is genuine cause for concern that local authority enforcement powers cannot be used as consistently and forcefully as they should be, because of the resources and appropriate regulations. As the Marmot review concluded, that has an impact on the health, safety and wellbeing of those who rent from private landlords. In Knowsley, we have about 7,300 private renters—people who rent from private landlords—who are a considerable source of complaints that I have to try to deal with, as the local MP, along with local councillors. I am sure that other colleagues find the same.
A report by the Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence published in August 2020 made these recommendations, which I fully support. First,
“advice and guidance available to local authorities on regulating”
the private rented sector should be improved. Secondly, local authorities need better data on the private rented sector in England, so
“a national registration system of all landlords and letting agents should be introduced”
—and that should be done quickly.
“Local authorities should receive, and allocate, adequate funding to develop appropriate and effective responses to the changing nature and context of the PRS.”
“Clearer sentencing guidelines need to be provided to criminal courts and tribunals to ensure that punishment is proportionate to the nature of the offence.”
“Trading standards should have the power to serve civil penalties against the company directors who are the controlling figures behind a non-compliant company.”
It is fair to conclude that the power imbalance between tenants and private landlords puts tenants at a risk of eviction or rent rises when they legitimately seek repairs and maintenance to their homes. The same concerns apply to exempt accommodation, where people are in a vulnerable situation and unable to use the resources available to them to pursue that.
There is also concern about a lack of understanding of rights and responsibilities on the part of landlords and tenants. Research commissioned by Citizens Advice in 2019 entitled “Getting the house in order: How to improve standards in the private rented sector” highlighted the lack of understanding and knowledge of housing in the private rented sector. It found that nine out of 10 tenants did not know whether a repairing responsibility was theirs or their landlord’s—how can they assert their rights when they do not know what they are? One in four landlords were unable to correctly identify any of the potential outcomes of failing to meet their obligations towards tenants, and one in three landlords found it difficult to keep up with rules and regulations. If the people letting properties do not understand, what chance have the tenants got?
I return to the buy-to-let scheme and its effect on the sector. What public policy objective does the scheme and increases in the private rented sector serve? It is worth noting that the number of people with property wealth outside their main residence rose from 3.6 million in 2001 to 5.5 million in 2014-15. I have been unable to find more up-to-date figures, but, again, that almost certainly underestimates the picture now. Buy-to-let is the largest contributing factor to the growth of private landlords. The system is attractive for landlords because they get mortgage interest tax relief on private rented property and, tragically, because shorthold tenancies enable them to evict tenants easily. But it is hardly a panacea for giving tenants more security of access to decent homes.
In the eight years from 2008 to 2016, additional properties, which includes second homes—people have them for all sorts of reasons; I do not question that—accounted for £6 trillion of property wealth. That is a staggering sum—we talk about international conflicts costing that sort of money—and that requires us to pay serious attention to it.
According to the English Private Landlord Survey, there are some 1.5 million private landlords, while other studies put the figure as high as 1.7 million. Either way, it is a source of prolific growth that has led to further intergenerational inequality. Second homes are owned by some of the wealthiest members of each generation, including private landlords, and predominantly by those born in the 1950s and 1960s. The net effect is that more of today’s young adults will not be able to become homeowners and will have no choice other than to rent in the private rented sector.
The policy implications of those trends are that additional properties should be taxed at least as heavily, if not more so, than primary residences. The Resolution Foundation’s commission on intergenerational inequality recommended: halving the rates of stamp duty on main properties at a cost of £2.7 billion across Great Britain in 2020, with existing first-time buyer reliefs retained; introducing a time-limited capital gains reduction for owners of multiple properties looking to exit the market when they sell to a first-time buyer; and replacing council tax with a new progressive property tax, which I think is widely accepted as important and necessary.
As I move towards the end of my speech, it is worth returning to the question I posed earlier: what public policy objective does the buy-to-let scheme and the consequent growth of private landlords serve? Given that a decent home should be a right, it cannot be the case that in a prolonged period of a national shortage of housing, which was referred to earlier, the source of additional housing should be through private landlords who, at best, see them as a source of profit and, unfortunately, in some cases, as a way of laundering dirty money, whether from home or abroad. From my own city region and my own constituency, I know that a lot of drug money is being laundered into private landlord lets. In some cases—the Government really should be worried about this—I suspect they are being subsidised by the Government through the buy-to-let scheme. That, surely, cannot be an acceptable way to deal with things.
The Government should be helping people in housing need into either the social rented sector or owner occupation. That applies equally to exempted property. As a country, we urgently need to change direction, so that the right to a decent home is a primary policy objective and that the onward march of the private rented sector is halted in its tracks.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth), who made a lot of important points. I agree with him and I welcome the tone of the debate. This is an incredibly important issue and I welcome the consensus we are hearing. A lot of Members mentioned big cities, where there is clearly a very big problem, but I would like to flag that it is not limited by geography, social class or anything like that. So-called wealthy areas still suffer from pockets of deprivation. People in those areas still have vulnerabilities—mental health and domestic abuse know no dividing lines—so there is a wider application that makes it even more important that we discuss this issue, and that consensus is very useful.
It is almost a truism to say that everyone deserves a stable, secure and supported environment in which to live and thrive. That is a human right and when people do not have that, it makes everything else worse. This affects the most vulnerable in our society doubly because they already have needs, and then not having that environment impacts on them in a different way. I saw that time and again in my decade as a magistrate. People came before us with complex support needs and them having the right support, including housing and supported housing, was a big part of that.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points. In a previous life, I was a criminal defence solicitor for 16 years. I used to stand up and say, as the main point of my mitigation, “Can you sentence this person to a house?”, because a house is stability. Does she agree that some of the problems that we have heard today mean that rehabilitation and some of the real issues that go the heart of the criminal justice system are ignored?
I thank my hon. Friend; I am trying to make exactly that point. Having a revolving door in the criminal justice system does not help anyone. It does not help victims or perpetrators. Supported housing and getting people the right support at the right time, in the context of secure, safe and decent housing, to a decent standard, is very much part of the solution. I welcome the Minister’s comments because he recognises that, as do the Government. It is important to recognise that there are many organisations out there providing caring support and working tirelessly to do so in conjunction with local councils. I am sure that we all welcome that across the House and want to expand the cohort of good, responsible, caring providers.
We must focus on the rogue providers that we are talking about, because they are a scourge on this activity and on the efforts of so many good providers. Rogue providers profit on the back of the most vulnerable in our society, and that damages not only the most vulnerable, but taxpayers and our society in a wider context. We have heard from the Minister and seen from Government actions that that has been recognised. We recognise how important that is and how important it is to drive up standards.
I welcome the Minister’s extra detail about the five pilot projects and the more than £5 million that has gone into supporting them. This is about learning the lessons, not putting on a sticking plaster. It is about bringing innovation, new ideas and experience to how we tackle this issue across the country. The national statement of expectations, setting minimum standards, helps in that regard. I hear comments about the flaws in them but that is an important concept that we need to focus on and constantly review to improve those standards all the time.
When I was a magistrate, I specialised in domestic abuse courts, and I was privileged to sit on the Bill Committee last year for what became the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. I want to emphasise how important that Act was in bringing together so many different elements that recognise women and children—the whole family—as victims of domestic abuse and in bringing into that equation the importance of safety, security and protective accommodation for women and children affected by domestic abuse. That exemplifies the Government’s commitment, because that issue was intrinsic to the Bill, and that lifeline was supported by £125 million of funding.
During the pandemic and since we have seen a focus on rough sleeping from the Government. The fact that this area involves domestic abuse, mental and physical vulnerabilities and rough sleeping shows us how complex it is, with multifaceted approaches needed to different problems. We have invested more than £200 million to deliver the commitment to provide 14,500 bed spaces, plus another £433 million for the rough sleeping accommodation programme. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but the actions of the Government prove that there is a commitment not only to improve, constantly change and review where we are, but to provide the funding that goes along with that. I welcome the debate, welcome the Minister’s comments and welcome the consensus across the House.
At any one time, there will always be tens of thousands—probably hundreds of thousands—of people throughout our society who need help and support, including housing support. They are the most vulnerable people any of us will deal with. They include people leaving prison, people leaving the National Asylum Support Service, people fleeing domestic violence, and people whose homelessness is made worse by factors such as substance dependence or mental health needs. Without the right housing support and the support that wraps around housing, the circumstances that leave them vulnerable will be made dramatically worse.
I do not believe that there was a golden age—there is a degree of consensus in that respect. However, I do not think it is possible to argue that there were not conditions in place years ago whose absence has led to the present situation, which in some parts of the country is nothing less than a crisis. Many people at a point of vulnerability could once have accessed social housing and/or intervention and support from local authorities, including through schemes such as Supporting People that simply no longer exist. As a consequence, many of those people are left adrift, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) said, at the bottom end of a private rented sector that is unregulated, as has been well documented, or in conditions that are now classified as being part of exempt accommodation.
If we get this right, and many providers do get it right, the experience of supported housing will transform people’s lives and give them an opportunity. Often, their needs are transitional and they are able to get back on their feet after fleeing domestic violence or coming out of prison. That is exactly what we want—again, there is cross-party agreement. I commend the many individuals, charities and other organisations working in the field; they are often underpaid, and they deserve all our thanks for working in extremely challenging circumstances.
If we get this wrong, we will find that we are wasting public money at scale—as I believe we are doing—and letting down extremely vulnerable people. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that in some cases we are casting them back into the kind of crisis of physical or mental health from which we are notionally trying to help them escape. As I am sure hon. Members who represent constituencies more directly affected than mine will say, the situation is also causing a crisis in neighbourhoods because of the over-concentration of some of the poorest types of accommodation. This has been happening at an escalating pace over the past five or six years. There are now 150,000 people in the sector: the numbers have gone up by well over half in the past few years.
I am well aware, and want to hear from colleagues, that exempt accommodation and its associated problems are overwhelmingly concentrated in areas such as the midlands and in cities such as Leeds and Sheffield. In a way it is no surprise, because the landlords and providers who see an opportunity to make money—this has been described as a gold rush—will exploit cheap accommodation, particularly houses in multiple occupation, that they can buy cheaply and rent out at the maximum level they can extort from the state, providing next to no services in exchange. They walk away rich, and their tenants and residents are left in terrible circumstances.
Central London has largely escaped the worst of that, simply because it is clearly less profitable for landlords to move into that market, and less easy to buy up and make a killing. However, it is striking that some of the largest apparent increases—here I must sound a note of caution about the data that we should all be able to share, data that I would love the Government to have more of and to be able to tell us more about—are now occurring in inner London, including my own borough.
We do not know for certain whether all the accommodation in this sector was classified on the same date—the information is not always comparable or reliable—but I can say that while there is a clear economic argument for exempt accommodation to be based in cheaper areas, some of this appears to be less about the economic drivers than about landlords and providers talking to each other, seeing opportunities in a particular area, and then piling in and exploiting those opportunities. Sometimes when the market becomes saturated, or a local authority such as Birmingham starts working effectively to clamp down in a particular area, they will up sticks and move somewhere else where they think they can make a killing. Some of that is likely to happen in London, but it could happen anywhere in the country. There is a danger that a bit of a whack-a-mole is going on, and that the whole process is too slow for anyone to keep track of what is going on in the real world, because it is likely that the crisis currently affecting cities such as Birmingham will be somewhere else in a few months’ time.
Why have we seen this situation emerge, and what do we need to do about it? The first point is that we know very little. We need more information from the pilots; we have had too little, too late. The truth is that a deregulatory approach in areas where we should not have deregulated has left the Government in the dark, and that needs to change.
Secondly, it is clear that the decade-long local authority funding crisis plays a major role. Supporting People was a valuable programme, and the ring fence was lifted during a time of reasonable economic success when local authorities were being properly supported for the work that they were doing. However, as a result of the removal of the ring fence combined with the crisis in local authority funding, we saw £1.6 billion disappear from the sector as local authorities had to deal with the crisis in statutory services, particularly care services, and a number of people with significant but less often statutory care needs were neglected as a consequence.
If local authorities cannot provide funding for support services, that will inevitably have an impact on the quality of care that residents receive. It means that the only funding available to cross-subsidise service costs comes from the profit that landlords make on rents. The end of the Supporting People programme and the quality assurance framework that accompanied it, subsequently compounded by reductions in social security after 2011, created the conditions that led to the emergence of some of the poorest-quality services and the consequent risk to residents. It is worth pointing out that Supporting People had a built-in regulatory framework because of the nature of the contracting system, and of course that went too. The decade-long downward pressure on other housing options, about which we have already heard, was another factor. The social housing grant was halved in 2010, and housing support for renters was also slashed, which left hundreds of thousands of people in housing need competing at the bottom of the private rented market.
Thirdly—and, in my view, most importantly—there are significant gaps in the relevant regulatory systems which the ruthless and the indifferent will always exploit to their own advantage. As Inside Housing makes clear in a characteristically excellent analysis,
“case law states that there only needs to be a ‘more than minimal’ level of care and support to qualify as ‘exempt’, meaning some providers can reap huge rental yields”
while providing almost no support.
So, we have a situation where exempt accommodation is not required to meet any specific property standards or standards of management and where many properties are exempt from the licensing requirements that otherwise apply to houses in multiple occupation.
The Minister was keen to stress the role that local authorities should have in inspection and regulation, but it is worth noting that environmental health services on the frontline of this kind of regulation have taken a major hit from 10 years of reduced spending in local government. Not all local authorities will apply the same degree of rigour and interest in this field, but there is no doubt that the lack of resources available for environmental health officers is a critical part of the problem. So, once again we find ourselves in a situation where those most in need receive some of the weakest protection, with consequences for them and, where concentrations of these properties build up, for their neighbours. Moving away from a regulatory framework that is enforced by the Government and by local government to a situation in which the subsidy applies to individual residents through the housing benefit system means that we are relying on those very vulnerable people to exercise some degree of control themselves and to try to enforce standards on their own. When they have so little bargaining power, that is not going to be realistic.
There is much that can be done to improve the situation, not least through the better management of housing stock through licensing, through the requirement for providers to meet a fit and proper person test, through better information sharing and through tougher penalties being used against landlords who breach the rules or who get around the rules by setting up a new company after having been found to be in breach. But changes to the regulatory framework have to backed by inspection and, where necessary, enforcement. It is simply no good, as we have seen so clearly in recent years, to set new rules and simply hope that everyone will behave themselves. Some of the providers operate with goodwill, but they will always be undercut by the rogues. The fact is that the issues in the exempt accommodation sector do not exist in a vacuum. If we undermine support and housing services generally, this is where we will inevitably end up. The Government need to bear down on what has been a regulatory failure, but also to look at the bigger picture; otherwise, they will be shutting more stable doors for many years to come.
It is a genuine honour to follow the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). We have sat through many meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid over many months. She personifies the best of this place, in that what motivates her is hopefully what motivates all of us here: the desire to find solutions. Solutions are never simple, however, and this is a very important debate on a hugely significant issue.
Many different strands feed into the solutions that we need to address this issue, but the underlying problem—dare I say it—is one of levelling up. The sector contains accommodation that is provided for those with support needs. It is the aim and desire of this Government’s policy, of the Opposition and of every politician here that the solutions to those support needs are bespoke and are seen to help, to drive forward change in a person’s life and to give them the best chance to enrich their life with positive experiences. However, that is not happening. In certain parts of the country, rogue landlords are charging the taxpayer a fortune and essentially providing no support whatsoever. That is absolutely morally bankrupt.
We are very lucky, in that the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), is a genuinely good man. Having spoken to him about this, I know that the words he says are genuinely meant. He wants to find a solution. He wants to work with the Opposition, and I am delighted by the tone of this debate. He is a good man and I know that he will work to ensure that we have a response that is appropriate to address some of these needs. We have heard a number of interesting speeches, and the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) made a very good speech highlighting the housing market and buy to let. He asked what we as politicians wanted to do to set up a housing market that worked for people. I think he was suggesting—he will correct me if I am wrong—that we should ban second homeowners.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a fair point.
As I said in my intervention on the shadow Secretary of State, the motion says the sector is being impacted by
“a chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing, reductions in funding for housing-related support, new barriers to access for single adults requiring social rented housing”.
I agree. For a single person in my borough it is nigh on impossible to get any accommodation whatsoever. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), I battled for 16 years to get housing for clients with the most acute social problems. I told court after court that unless these people were put somewhere with appropriate support and stable accommodation, the sentence imposed by the justice system would be pointless, because they would come back. I said the same thing time and again, and nothing ever changed.
We must be open and honest, and we must not be critical. We have to think about how we can improve the housing stock in all our boroughs. When I start my contribution by saying that we do not have enough housing for people in my borough, there is clearly something wrong and we have to do something about it.
We have a plan called “Places for Everyone” on Greater Manchester’s strategic housing need. It has been submitted to the Secretary of State, and I am sure it will come across the Minister’s path at some point. Such documents will affect all our areas, and certainly the areas that the shadow Secretary of State and I represent, for years to come. In a document of well over 300 pages, I can find virtually no reference to social housing or social rented housing. This is our strategic housing plan to meet the needs of individuals in Bury and elsewhere.
Throughout my 10 years as a councillor in Bury, I said that our housing stock is far too expensive. It costs more than £300,000 to buy a three-bedroom house in the vast majority of my constituency in the north of England, which is beyond people, certainly people with support needs. There is a glaring and obvious need to build social rented housing and genuinely affordable housing in Bury. There are brownfield sites in the borough that could be used for this purpose, and we still do not have it. We can talk about sticking plasters to address the problem, but we also have to focus on the long-term strategy to overcome it.
The only such provision in Greater Manchester’s strategic plan for the next 25 years says:
“Make provision for affordable housing in accordance with local planning policy requirements, equivalent to at least 25% of the dwellings on the site and across a range of housing types and sizes (with an affordable housing tenure split of 60% social or affordable rented and 40% affordable home ownership)”.
In a document of many hundreds of pages, that is it. That is literally it. There is no bespoke plan—the shadow Secretary of State has disappeared—whether it is in Wigan, Rochdale or wherever it may be. Unless we have that plan, social rented housing will not be at the centre of public policy. Local authorities cannot run away from this. The temptation of local authorities of all political persuasions is always to blame the Government for everything.
Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that local authorities cannot put anything about social rented housing in their strategic plan without a Government commitment to fund it? My council, Hounslow, is building 1,300 council homes, almost all of it from the council’s own proceeds. That is it, and the council is doing it at a slower rate than the right to buy. Even at this rate, the council is losing council homes because it does not have the funding from central Government. We were building hundreds of thousands of new council homes in previous decades because they were funded by Conservative and Labour Governments, and he needs to be challenging his Government to do that now.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but, in respect of Greater Manchester, I think she has answered her own question. If what she says is the case, what an indictment it is of the Labour councils in Greater Manchester that they have not even bothered applying for the Government funding that would underpin that long-term strategy. I have been a councillor for a long time and we have been asking them for that strategy, in order to take advantage. I could cite the billions of pounds that are available to support these strategies, but Labour councils in my area—[Interruption.] Heads are being shaken, but Labour councils in my area have made no effort to address this problem. I want to take this opportunity in this Chamber to encourage my local councils to be as proactive as the hon. Lady’s.
My hon. Friend rightly mentions housing supply and making sure we have a balance on that, as well as having affordable housing for people. Does he agree that the proposals in the recent White Paper on levelling up and looking at what more we can do with brownfield sites give local authorities more of an opportunity to explore that, think outside the box a little and provide the kind of homes he has mentioned?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The desire and policy of this Government is to ensure that we have beautiful homes developed for the benefit of everyone in our country, and there is money behind this: a £12 billion boost for affordable homes, including social rented homes, to help those with physical or mental challenges; and £5.4 million of additional funding for a pilot scheme in key areas, helping us to understand the most effective interventions for future national policy. We are also introducing a higher minimum standard for supported accommodation. So the money and the desire are there, and the policy direction from central Government says that local authorities come to us—[Interruption.] I am answering the point that has just been made. We want to support councils on this. We want to provide the funding that is going to develop those brownfield sites in their boroughs, but what are the Government to do if local authorities do not even have that conversation with the Government? I am assuming that the councils have not had it with the Mayor of Greater Manchester. What is the point if they do not do that? I am known as a collegiate parliamentarian, and I am simply here to encourage my local authority in Bury to work with the Government, who want to work with it to ensure that we get the housing stock that is absolutely needed in our borough. I am proud to be part of a Government who have this strategy, want to support local accommodation and do not take the view of my local authority. This is a difference of opinion. My local authority, in terms of prioritising social need, social housing or social rented housing, believes in the policy document, and believes in building four-bedroom and five-bedroom houses on the green belt. That is its choice, as a local Labour authority. I believe, and support this Government’s intention, that we should be prioritising the development of brownfield sites, and ensuring that people have access to a home and that those support services are in place. In my local authority, over the 18 months of the pandemic, over £180 million was provided, on top of the normal grant funding, to support important services—
Fewer than 6,000 homes for social rent were built last year. The homes in the “affordable homes” programme are not affordable at all—it is a skewed, vandalised definition of “affordable homes”. Local councils, certainly in Greater Manchester, and up and down the country, have their hands tied behind their back; they cannot build those social rented homes. They cannot do it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the definition of what “affordable housing” is in respect of the percentages in new housing developments. The hon. Gentleman, whom I like very much, puts the point on this. Sadly, my local authority shares that attitude of not doing anything and being beaten before it starts, rather than looking at the relationships with Government, in order to provide the funding and the vision, which has been offered by Bury Conservatives for many years. That is the vision we need.
Birmingham set out its own house building programme, but it has not been able to provide the volume of housing that it needs because of the Government restrictions. It is not that Birmingham does not want to build houses; it does want to build houses itself, but it was not able to do it.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will speak to the Labour leader of Bury Council and encourage him to set up his own housing company, as we have been suggesting, to address some of the needs and provide the housing needed for people who come into the sector. I agree completely with the sentiment that has been expressed in the debate.
I know that you would not wish me to sit down, Mr Deputy Speaker, without correcting a comment made by the shadow Secretary of State—I am sure inadvertently—about Bury football club. I refer to Gigg Lane, which relates to this discussion in that one way we sought to ensure that Gigg Lane was truly representative of the community was to investigate the possibility of putting social housing there. Over the two and a half years since September 2019, when I first stood up in Bury Council and addressed the matter, we have been looking to those types of conversations and actions to improve housing and support services. During that period, Labour-controlled Bury Council has provided no help, assistance, money or contribution whatsoever for the purchase of Gigg Lane. I just wanted to make that correction. Gigg Lane, as part of the levelling-up agenda, was paid for with £1 million provided by the Government, to make it a central part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
I am pleased to contribute to such an important debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), is aware of my long-standing interest in this subject and I look forward to the further discussions he alluded to that will take place as the pilot reports are all completed and we think about the next steps, particularly in respect of the legislative framework.
We should be clear that we are talking about a situation unfolding throughout the country, as we all speak, in which rogue landlords, total cowboy operators and some with links to organised crime groups and established criminal enterprises, are getting their hands on taxpayers’ cash—our constituents’ money—and not using it for the purposes for which it was intended but simply lining their own pockets, and they are able to do so with absolute impunity. That situation is the subject matter of this debate: the fact that so many people can do such terrible abusive things, well within the rules, and totally get away with it. No criminal enterprise is going to get done for abusing taxpayers’ cash in this way, and that is a problem of the law.
I take issue with the Minister’s saying earlier in the debate that
“this is not a political issue”.
I agree with him in that I do not wish this to be a party political football with which we play knockabout in the Chamber, but this is a deeply political issue. It is full of political choices. We have talked a lot about local authorities, what local government can do or does not do and all this “he said, she said” about local government powers, but the fundamental problem and the failure in respect of the subject matter of this debate is one of the law itself, and only the Government have the power to change the law of this land. This is an arena of politics, but it is also the UK legislature. We are pushing the Government today not because of matters of party politics but because only they can act to prevent the abuses that we are all seeing unfold across our constituencies.
There is no point in my going to the chief constable of West Midlands police and saying, “I know that a drug dealer is basically setting up as a housing provider in my constituency, is going to get enhanced housing benefit payments, is going to line his own pockets and is probably going to abuse some of the poor, vulnerable constituents who end up in the property he manages,” because I know the chief constable can do nothing about it—not a single thing. That is the problem that I and all Members in this House with experience in this matter are desperate for the Government to fix. The problem is the law and only the Government can fix the law.
I fully take the hon. Lady’s point about rogue landlords, whom we absolutely must tackle. Does she agree that the way to do so is through making sure that higher minimum standards are in place? For example, the national statement of expectations is there. Does the hon. Lady agree that is the best route to make sure that standards are adhered to?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I accept that it is meant to be in the spirit of being helpful and adding to the debate, but the idea that criminal enterprises currently lining their pockets with our constituents’ money will be put off exploiting this business model because of a national statement of expectation is absolutely for the birds. I am sorry, but that will not work here. If it did, I would support it, because I want this problem fixed. I am desperate to see vulnerable people no longer being exploited and communities no longer being destroyed, but that measure will not cut it. These are proper operators and they have spotted a loophole in the law. They have calculated correctly that, instead of going further into the drugs business where they might have to do 20 years in prison, they can just get into the housing sector and no one will put them away for it—at all. In fact, they can do so in plain sight and nobody can do a thing about it. That is what I want the Government to take action on, because that is what I have seen in my own constituency of Birmingham, Ladywood. That is what my colleagues in Birmingham have seen in their constituencies, and some of them have truly horrific examples of abuse of vulnerable tenants.
We are seeing that problem all across the country. I was very grateful to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) for saying that this is national issue. It can become a little too easy for Members in this place to think that this is a problem for some cities—let us be honest, if we are to be party political about this, it is problem for some Labour-run cities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said, piecemeal action—a pilot here and a little bit of a change there—just creates a whack-a-mole system. A problem that starts in Birmingham will soon spread to Sandwell, to Stoke and then to Dudley, and to other places too, unless we have a national change in the law of our land that stops the problem dead for everybody. Then, a Member whose constituency is currently not afflicted by it would not have to worry about a proliferation of exempt accommodation taking place in their patch. If they do have it in their constituency already, they could at least see that there was an end in sight to this absolute abuse of the system, which, as Mr Deputy Speaker can tell, leaves most of us utterly impotent with rage because, unless the Government change the law, we can simply not fix this problem.
The first area of the law that requires change is the “more than minimal” test, which has been discussed today. The Minister made the point that the “more than minimal” requirement for the access to enhanced housing benefit regulations has come about as a matter of case law. He is, of course, right; that was done by a housing benefit tribunal. In this country, though, we do not distinguish between case law and Acts of Parliament or statutory instruments. The law is the law and if a judicial authority—a judge or a tribunal—comes to a clarification or a statement of the law that is against what the Government expect to happen, all that creates is a system that is open to abuse. It is the job of this legislature, this House of Commons, to put it right, and only the Government have the power to introduce that legislation to make it so. That rule—the “more than minimal” requirement—must be changed. It must be tightened up.
I do not buy the argument that, somehow, tightening up the access to enhanced housing benefit will somehow drive the good providers out of the sector. That is also for the birds. Those providers are already doing the things that are required in order to help vulnerable people turn their lives around. In the end, that is the thing in which we should all be interested. These are people who have escaped abusive relationships, who have come out of the prison system and are desperate to turn their lives around, and who have had addiction issues and need help to turn their lives around. They need good quality housing in order to do that. The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) was right when he said that people should be sentenced to a house so that they can have stability—the stability that is required to help them turn their life around and become a citizen able to play their full part in society once more. That is not possible if the rogue operators get their hands on these people first. The good providers, who have a moral and a social mission when it comes to supported housing, will already be doing the right thing. I do not buy the idea that they will be pushed out of the system if the regulations for access to the cash in the first place are tightened up.
The Government and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in particular, rather than the Department for Work and Pensions, need to tighten up the broader regulatory framework. It should not be possible to be providing housing to some of the most vulnerable people in our country and to not even have to pass some sort of character test. The idea that the good providers who are operating will fail fit and proper persons tests is a joke. They will pass it because they have a social, moral mission and they can prove their track record in helping people to turn their lives around. If they do not pass it, they should not have access to vulnerable people in the first place. We know what happens when vulnerable people get into bad accommodation: they are ripe for further abuse, ripe for further grooming into drug activity, and ripe for further grooming into sexual exploitation. We should not allow any provider who cannot pass a fit and proper person’s test to get anywhere near some of these people because they will exacerbate the problem rather than alleviate it. Frankly, I have no sympathy with anyone who we currently think of as a good provider but who ends up failing that test, because it proves they were not a good provider in the first place.
We also need more powers for local authorities—a point that was also raised earlier in the debate—to prevent the dumping of problem people from one part of a country to another. I accept that there are some classes of vulnerable individuals who need to break the link with their local area if they are going to turn their lives around, but that is not the case for the vast majority of people who have ended up in exempt supported accommodation.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. She speaks from deep experience and her legal background stands her in good stead on these important matters. Does she agree that this is part of a series of problems where the Government have got the emphasis quite wrong in their housing policy? They have not given enough powers to local government, they have not regulated the system enough and they have allowed exactly the wrong type of landlords to drive a coach and horses through what limited regulation there is. In many ways, that reflects a bigger picture, not only of the poor vulnerable people who are being mistreated, but of a lack of emphasis on council housing and a lack of regulation of private rented accommodation. The whole system needs a complete rethink and Ministers need to listen to what my hon. Friend is saying.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that we need a system-wide approach. Local authorities need the power to reject applications for exempt accommodation on the grounds of saturation or oversupply. We must break the habit of putting huge amounts of need into already stretched areas and then wondering why those areas can never recover. We wonder why people who have raised their families and committed themselves to stable communities in modest properties that they are proud of, whether they are socially renting or have managed to become owner-occupiers, are so desperate to leave the areas that they were committed to, when we have loaded all sorts of high need into those areas and provided none of the services to support them.
People dumping has to stop, over-saturation has to stop and local authorities need the power to prevent an over-saturation of supply. We need community impact assessments before we get large numbers of exempt supported accommodation across our different communities, to ensure we are not loading more need into already difficult areas.
As I said earlier, the vast majority of tenants in exempt accommodation should be able to demonstrate some sort of local link to the area. Unless it is a requirement because of a prison or domestic violence-related issue, most people need some such link in order to have the stability to turn their lives around.
Finally, we need an inspections regime. We need to keep providers on their toes so that it is not the case that once someone has accessed the system, nobody will ever ask them questions again. There should be at least an annual check to ensure that people who have access to vulnerable tenants and taxpayer cash are doing the thing they said they would do and fulfilling the promises they made.
Only with Government action can we turn the dial on a huge problem that affects not only my constituency, but people all across this country. Our communities deserve nothing less. When the Minister stands to close this debate, I hope he will not simply say, “We’re watching, and we’re waiting and seeing, and we’re going to think about what we’re going to do,” but give us a legislative timetable for making the changes that are needed.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I wanted to start with a small tribute. In the weeks before he died, exempt accommodation was one of the last campaigns I was working on with my dear friend the then Member for Birmingham, Erdington, the late Jack Dromey. Parts of Stockland Green in his constituency had been saturated with HMO-style exempt conversions and caused serious issues with crime and community unrest.
Jack spent his career fighting to improve the lives of his constituents in Erdington. Sorting out the scandal of exempt accommodation was the kind of campaign he lived and breathed. That is why, working with his local inspector, he was able to get an extra 24 officers deployed to Stockland Green to address the antisocial behaviour and crime associated with some of this transient accommodation. All of us have lost a great champion with his passing, but for his sake and for the people of Erdington it is important that we fix this issue once and for all.
Birmingham has the most units of non-commissioned exempt accommodation in the country, with some 20,000 units and more than 4,000 properties registered as exempt. As we have heard, safety and quality concerns are widespread. Several of my city’s largest providers have been issued regulatory notices by the Regulator of Social Housing for finance and governance issues. Hundreds of exempt properties in our city have been found to be unsafe. For this, literally millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being shovelled to the operators of these properties without apparent due diligence or scrutiny.
Over the past few years, I have worked closely with providers, residents, the police, the sector and community groups to get to the bottom of why this sector has doubled in our city in just a few years and why so much of this accommodation is substandard and badly managed. I have had first-hand experience of dealing with this myself in the case of Saif Lodge in my constituency. I had been aware of some of the issues at Saif Lodge for some time since I was elected, but after my constituents alerted me to the shocking rise in crime surrounding this property, I carried out a spot check to see for myself what was going on. I was shocked by what I found—25 men and women, including ex-offenders, housed with severe issues ranging from addiction and substance misuse to mental health problems.
Just one solitary support worker was on duty, who told me that the hostel was manned only on weekdays, with residents otherwise left to their own devices. The conditions were utterly substandard—cold, filthy and cramped. The downstairs toilet had broken and flooded and been left unfixed. The smell was hair-raising. Access to the property was via a code that was regularly shared with strangers who were always in and out of the property. Communal spaces were in a horrible state. No wonder residents were frequently found spilling out and loitering outside. This was not a place where any of us could happily live, let alone get a life back on track following a crisis.
I commend my local community, especially the residents on Fountain Road; Birmingham City Council; its leader, Ian Ward; and West Midlands police, including my local Inspector Lee Trinder and Sergeant Bushra Zarif. They have been absolutely brilliant in working with me on this campaign. Jane Haynes from Birmingham Live has been diligent in raising awareness of this issue for many years. Over many months, we were able to gather the evidence we needed to take the case to court, and finally, last year, we succeeded in shutting Saif Lodge down—the first order of its kind in the country. That was a great achievement, but there can be no doubt that this is not evidence of a system that is working. The resources from police and ambulance call-outs, and the misery inflicted on residents and the community alike, have been immense. We cannot shut down every Saif Lodge—there are far too many. Shutting down Saif Lodge did not stop the same people setting up another exempt property in another constituency down the road. Actually, it was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), who made such a passionate speech.
That brings me to the need for reform. Bad landlords are exploiting this system for a profit while our communities and vulnerable people pay the price. I say to the Government today: care cannot be provided on the cheap. Last year Birmingham City Council inspected over 400 exempt properties, in which they found over 1,000 category 1 hazards that posed
“a serious and immediate risk to a person’s health and safety”.
As part of these inspections, the council found a further 600 category 2 hazards, which include fire safety issues, asbestos, and excessive heat or cold. This is from just a fraction of our stock in Birmingham.
Of the 21,317 exempt accommodation properties identified by Birmingham City Council as part of its investigation, about 20,000 are not commissioned by the local authority. Landlords who apply for registered provider status seek referrals for vulnerable people beyond the city’s boundaries, bringing people with support needs to Birmingham where they are remote from their natural support networks. The truth is that too many bad landlords are getting into this sector for precisely the wrong reasons. They are exploiting a toxic cocktail of under-regulation, a Conservative housing crisis, and an epidemic of unmet need after years of council cuts. There are good providers, even brilliant ones, operating in Birmingham who are trying to do the right thing, but, as we have heard, there is a growing underbelly too.
The definition of what support residents receive in exchange for higher rents is far too vague and open to exploitation. In fact, there is no statutory definition at all. The ambit of the Regulator of Social Housing is too narrow and too passive to pick up the exploiters, its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to look only at providers with more than 1,000 units of exempt property has become a loophole for exploiters, and our local authorities do not have the powers or resources to crack down on antisocial behaviour and the oversupply of exempt accommodation in certain areas. I have talked to the campaign groups working on this in our city and heard that whole roads of family homes are being converted into HMOs to cash in on the higher levels of rent that these properties can yield. People are gaming the system and making money off the backs of vulnerable people, and this Government have put off the job of reform for too long. Exempt accommodation cannot mean “exempt from responsibility”. That is why it is important to note that there is no statutory definition of what care, support or supervision is in the context of exempt accommodation. Landlords are getting away with providing either nothing or variable ad hoc support to those who need it most.
Since previously mooted reforms of the supported housing system were shelved in 2018, the exempt accommodation sector has grown by 62% across the UK. The sector is now worth more than a billion pounds, yet in November, at an all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness event, the Minister’s team said that they were too “light on data” to get on with reform. In recent years, we have had reports from Prospect Housing and Spring Housing and policy recommendations from Crisis, Commonweal Housing and Birmingham City Council. In 2017, the independent chair of the Birmingham safeguarding adults board commissioned a study into the experiences of vulnerable adults living within exempt accommodation. The findings highlighted issues relating to poor quality of accommodation and variable experiences of the quality of support provided and risk management processes. In 2019, a report commissioned by Commonweal Housing set out the issues clearly, concluding that the non-commissioned exempt sub-sector
“embodies a range of social injustices; the most salient of which are the risk of social harm, absence of user voice and barriers to employment and social integration.”
Several pilots and reports from multiple community groups are all pointing in the same direction, yet the Government have failed to publish their findings from the pilots or even to act on the recommendations. Lives are literally at stake here. Survivors of domestic violence, prison leavers, care leavers and people with mental health and substance abuse issues deserve a supported housing system that supports their transition to happier, more independent lives. Our communities in Birmingham deserve neighbourhoods that are peaceful and safe, not a magnet for crime. The taxpayer deserves to know that their money is going to support people who need it, not lining the pockets of criminals.
Enough is enough. We need a statutory definition of care, support and supervision, and resources for local authorities to fund inspection programmes for exempt accommodation in their region. We need to ensure individuals and families housed in exempt accommodation have a link to the area they are placed. We need to give local authorities and the social housing regulator greater enforcement powers and to strengthen the vetting process. Birmingham has called for the Government to align the existing planning and HMO licensing policies to capture supported housing provision that is currently exempt and to give local authorities powers to reject applications in a specific area on the grounds of oversupply. Our communities want action now.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), who represents the constituency I grew up in. More importantly, she made such a powerful point to illustrate the importance of this debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who is temporarily not in her place, for bringing this debate about, and the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who is also not here at the moment, for his response. I listened to him carefully. He certainly understands the issues, because of his former roles at Birmingham YMCA and in the housing movement before he entered this House, but we need more than his understanding and his pilots.
MPs have raised so many examples of the poor standards, the poor support and the lack of regulation faced by too many tenants living in exempt accommodation or supported housing across the country. We must not forget that almost all those living in exempt accommodation are the most vulnerable and the most in need of care and support, almost by definition. They include those with mental health needs, those recovering from serious addiction, those fleeing domestic abuse, those leaving prison or the care system and those with other vulnerabilities. What they have in common is that they need and deserve to get their lives back on track and to move on, but for many, the abuses of exempt accommodation prevent that from happening.
There are many good examples of supported housing and exempt accommodation, such as Look Ahead, which provides housing and support for 18 to 25-year-olds with complex needs in my constituency. When I visited last autumn, the residents told me about the help they were getting from Look Ahead staff with their benefits, with getting on courses and into work, with having meaningful activities to occupy them when they were not able to study or work, with support with parenting and with the other basics of day-to-day life that these young people are not able to get from their parents for a variety of reasons. Look Ahead, like other charities and community interest companies, is set up to support vulnerable people, as well as to provide a roof over their heads, and not to make a profit. Staff told me that cuts to funding and universal credit mean that they struggle to provide the level and quality of support that they are set up to offer and want to be able to provide for these youngsters.
There are also rogue landlords, however, who exploit the system permitted by the exempt housing benefit provisions. They are making obscene profits at the taxpayers’ expense and then costing taxpayers more in the long run through the price of neglect of those vulnerable people. We have heard many examples in the debate.
Not all exempt accommodation has been exported from London. I am aware of several such houses in my west London constituency. A constituent with mental health problems was placed in a run-down house with no support for his needs and was living in fear of another resident with aggressive and violent behaviour. Constituents living near such supported accommodation have been affected by antisocial behaviour and racist, sexist and homophobic abuse from the residents. Those residents have no meaningful activities to keep them occupied or sanctions on their actions, as they would if the supported accommodation was properly run.
This is yet another example of the wider trend that we have seen under the Government of the most vulnerable people in society being a mere afterthought. The sweeping cuts to local authorities such as Hounslow, which has lost £150 million in grant funding since 2010, have had an impact. Funding for social housing nationally has seen huge cuts, as has already been raised today. Support services have been shredded before our eyes.
The safety nets provided by local authorities, Government agencies and the always-valuable third sector have fallen away. The cumulative effect of those cuts has had an impact that hits the most vulnerable hardest—including those living in exempt accommodation owned by rogue landlords. We are talking about people who are vulnerable now, some of whom are a risk to themselves or perhaps those around them. Most want to move on with their lives, but the support that they need to do that is no longer there.
Exempt accommodation appears to exist in a vacuum largely outside regulations or the control and influence of local authorities. We have the Care Quality Commission to regulate the quality of care in our health and care settings, and the prisons inspectorate for those in custody, but nothing to ensure that such landlords are providing the care and support that the residents badly need. The limited powers that councils have to regulate HMOs do not apply to exempt accommodation and the schemes that we have heard about from the Minister are merely discretionary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who is no longer in her place, reminded us of Supporting People, which was a good model of providing support for people in need. It was introduced by the Labour Government and ended by the Conservative Government. Now, 11 years later, the Government must act, and soon. We need stronger regulations, not just discretionary standards. We need a social housing regulator with powers to deal with rogue landlords who are not only ripping off the taxpayer but putting the most vulnerable people in society at risk.
We need providers to pass a fit and proper persons test before they are allowed to provide exempt accommodation. We need a stronger inspections regime to keep providers on their toes and a regulator that has full powers of enforcement to clamp down on those who still flout the system. That is the least that the vulnerable residents of exempt accommodation and their neighbours deserve. When I intervened on the Minister, he conceded that he would not shy away from further regulation if a case was made, and I hope that he does not shy away from it.
We are here because, as other hon. Members have said, we have seen a rise in unscrupulous landlords taking advantage of registration loopholes for exempt housing. In many cases, exempt housing is designed to give refuge to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, such as rough sleepers, refugees and those facing domestic abuse. It should maintain a strong focus on the care, support and supervision of its inhabitants.
Exempt housing certainly has a legitimate and well-intentioned use, but the intentions do not match the reality. Due to a lack of oversight, unscrupulous landlords are buying up large swathes of housing in densely packed neighbourhoods. They claim that they are establishing exempt housing so that they can charge and pocket extortionate levels of rents while providing minimal levels of support for their vulnerable inhabitants, and we have heard numerous examples today of how landlords have done that. These landlords are incentivised because flawed housing benefit provisions allow landlords to receive higher rents than what is the norm for social and privately rented housing in a given neighbourhood. These landlords have been able to take advantage of this system because there is far too little oversight or regulating of who qualifies for it.
I know that my neighbours in the west midlands are certainly suffering the consequences of this massive and disgraceful loophole. For example, in Birmingham some landlords were charging as much as £200 per week, despite the cap for shared accommodation being placed at just £57. This is completely appalling. While landlords are lining their pockets, vulnerable claimants are not receiving the care they so desperately need, and many are forced to live in inhumane conditions, which certainly has a wider knock-on impact on community cohesion and safety.
Department for Work and Pensions data shows that the exploitation of this loophole has been growing. In fact, exempt tenancies grew by 62% between 2016 and 2019 alone. I know that my neighbours in Birmingham have had to bear the highest brunt of this increase. I was in Birmingham, Erdington earlier this week, and from talking to so many residents I know that they are just completely fed up with this. They really want this mess to be cleared up as quickly as possible because they have just had enough.
We urgently need action to stop landlords from taking advantage of the exempt housing system, and I really urge the Minister to take immediate steps to root out this corrupt practice in the west midlands and in the rest of the country too. I also ask the Minister to speak to his counterpart in the DWP to institute a proper legal test for access to enhanced housing benefits from the DWP. What we really need is to enshrine a proper checklist of what counts as care, support or supervision in law.
Finally, from what we have heard from so many speakers, we know that urgent action is really needed, and I ask the Government to step up and take action as soon as possible because so many people are suffering from this.
I am privileged to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi).
Before I start, I want, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) did, to pay tribute to Jack Dromey, the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Erdington. He fused us all together on this issue because of the huge concern that exists, to the extent that a Sky News broadcast was based in his constituency. It was about the appalling way in which his constituents were treated, with single parents—single mothers—living in atrocious conditions, and all sorts of fly-tipping taking place, essentially making the whole place look like a tip. He was very vigilant in fighting against that, and I certainly hope that Councillor Hamilton, who will replace him after 3 March, will continue that fight along with us.
The leading housing organisations Commonweal Housing, the National Housing Federation, Crisis, Women’s Aid and Housing Justice have all expressed serious concern on this issue, and they are quite right to do so because the people they serve are the most vulnerable people in our community and society. These people are being abused—physically and mentally tortured—in the places they have been put, putting a huge burden on them. People who initially sought refuge because of the abuse they suffered have been further abused, as have those who are under strain because of their own condition.
I have a constituent with seven children, one of whom is very severely disabled, and the only thing that could be done was to put them temporarily in a hotel that is not fit for habitation. They were put in two rooms—one room for her children down the corridor and one room for her—but in the end she had to put them all together because, quite rightly, she did not want to leave her children on their own.
One of my constituents has people coming on prison release next door to her, and her life has been turned completely upside down. When she came to see me at the surgery, one would not believe that she was living in her own property with a reasonable job, but she has suffered a huge amount of torture from the antisocial behaviour going on there. The manifestation that has taken place is predominantly in the non-commissioned exempt housing sector, which feels that it is totally lawless. People feel that they can do whatever they want, and they tend to do what they want. They know that they will not be stopped from making millions of pounds on the back of our poorest people, and that should not be allowed to take place.
We should provide secure accommodation for those who need it. As has been said, we have no inspection regime. That is a huge problem because the sector is taking money from the Department for Work and Pensions, and for social care for which it is not providing a service. That is stealing money from the taxpayer—that is what is happening—but people know they will get away with it, because nobody is there to chase them up and see what is going on, or look at how to deal with it. Those issues are hugely important.
There is a huge issue about article 4 directions. In my constituency I have essentially lost a community environment because there are so many cases of exempt housing being taken over. People have moved out, and unscrupulous people have bought up those properties. That has led to a huge amount of antisocial behaviour, to the extent that on Oxhill Road in my constituency, a huge brawl blocked the road and the traffic on it. The brawl damaged people’s property in the surrounding area, and people were attacked in different houses, leading to a huge fight on the street. That could have had a huge effect on anybody who was driving past and trying to get through without knowing what was going on. There could have been very serious incidents.
The one big issue on which I wish to concentrate is the amount of money laundering, and the use of money from drugs and the proceeds of crime that has entered the sector. The pilot scheme in Birmingham acknowledged that that was taking place, which is a very serious charge. Not only are people exploiting and taking money from us, but they are then cleaning up money that is ill-gotten and from criminal proceedings. We should not allow that to happen. We must work with local authorities, and with the people who matter and the communities that want to make a difference. We must deal with this issue.
I know the Minister, and I have met him both socially and professionally. We have a good relationship, we have good friends in common, and we work together on this issue. I know he is a decent man and that he believes in this. I know that when he says he wants to support some of those good landlords with good practices, he is right to do so, but at the same time we must not drop the ball, because there are unscrupulous people holding the entire exempt housing sector hostage through their work. I urge the Minister, as soon as possible, to consider how we can regulate this industry and move forward, and ensure that those who are vulnerable have some dignity brought back to their lives. We are the people who are supposed to be looking after their interests, but at the moment we are not doing so.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood). I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), who made a tour-de-force contribution to the debate. The Minister could not do better than getting her into the Department and taking some of her sage advice. It is reassuring to hear us debating exempt accommodation in the House of Commons, because in recent weeks I have visited constituents of mine who are neighbours of some of the rogue providers. It is a dominating issue, because it is about vulnerable people, often with significant challenges, and they are losing out in all of this. Exempt accommodation should be a vital function, helping the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in society, but instead all too often it seems to be making up for the chronic shortages of affordable social housing.
We see social housing now at its lowest rate in decades, and there is an annual net loss of 24,000 social homes. One outcome is that we are now over-reliant on exempt accommodation, often at extortionate costs. Supported housing commands far higher rents, which is one of the reasons why it is not under the housing benefit cap. Landlords can demand higher rents than for social or privately rented housing. Of course, there could be a legitimate reason for that, and there are good providers delivering quality services, but let us be under no illusions: unscrupulous agencies are exploiting the enormous gaps in the regulatory regime to rake in higher rents while providing minimal support and, as is too often the case, substandard housing.
In theory, transitional forms of supported housing should be a bridge to independent living. They should be a way for vulnerable people to have a safe place that they can call home where they receive the support that they need to regain their independence. There are shining examples. Damien John Kelly House in Picton in Liverpool—a home for men in recovery from addiction—is one such place. It is a fantastic community that supports, inspires and allows for transformational change. The difference between substandard housing and a good provider is that the good provider offers a community and support work, including support for mental health, while a bad provider might only give someone a key for a cupboard in a shared kitchen and an extra lock on their door. The difference is so significant, and it either makes or ruins people’s lives.
People in my constituency have written to me for help. They live in what they thought was supported housing only to realise that the support package they were promised does not exist and might consist of as little as a CCTV camera in the hallway. The reality of the supported housing racket is vulnerable residents with complex needs living in squalor, isolated, without access to local services, sharing a house with residents who all require specialist support. What is bad for those people living in the properties can quickly escalate to blight the lives of their neighbours and the local community. That experience is all too familiar for my constituents in Anfield and Walton and those further afield.
While vulnerable residents and the community around them suffer, rogue landlords and agencies collect rents from the taxpayer far in excess of allowance rates and without proper regulation. They game the system easily and without consequence. It is a lucrative enterprise for some, operated and funded by the state, and it is almost completely unaccountable. Liverpool has seen a recent influx of these properties, because we have many larger properties that are ripe for conversion to HMOs or exempt accommodation. They are targeted by investment companies from far and wide who buy up cheaper properties in the most deprived areas and lease them to umbrella management companies who moonlight as supported housing providers. The result is that rents are set artificially high to maximise the yield for investors. The net cost to Liverpool after receipt of Government subsidy has risen year on year, to £4 million in 2020. As profits for landlords increase, so do reports of poorly managed, unsafe accommodation that provides threadbare support.
There are so many loopholes that allow for that profiteering. Registered providers are not even subject to the most basic licensing requirements that HMOs must legally comply with. That must be unjustifiable. In 2020, the Government introduced the national statement of expectations for supported housing, so they have tried to deal with this problem fairly recently. The statement sets out standards for the accommodation element of supported housing. However, it is a reference tool—a polite suggestion at best. It must be developed, toughened up and put on a statutory footing. The standards must be legally enforceable. The statement does not even include minimum quality standards for the support, care and supervision that these companies are being paid inflated rents to deliver. It is so poorly defined that an extra lock on a door would pass the test every time. Local authorities could be given the powers to regulate the sector, but that must go hand-in-hand with proper funding and support.
Finally, I see providing a decent home for every person as the most important challenge facing our country. The public pays in the region of £20 billion each year in housing support—money that more often than not lines the pockets of property investment companies and landlords. The reason we are not building decent homes for all has nothing to do with constraints on public spending, It is a free-for-all when public spending lines the pockets of profiteers—we see it time and again. It is this Government’s choice not to invest public money in public provision and that is unjustifiable. It would cost the Government half of what they pay in housing support each year to return us to the spending levels on housebuilding of the post-war Governments of the 1940s and 1950s who strived to make this a country that works for all its citizens, and from which we have today diverted so far away.
I would like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) for her excellent contribution and for securing the Westminster Hall debate a few weeks ago, and by noting the work done by the late Jack Dromey, the former Member for Birmingham, Erdington, on the issue of exempt accommodation in Birmingham.
As the Minister is no doubt aware, Birmingham has seen the largest increase in exempt accommodation outside London, with housing benefits claimants linked to the sector increasing to around 21,000. Birmingham City Council has done a great deal of work investigating and attempting to tackle this issue, but an overall lack of regulation from the Government is creating a massive influx of exempt accommodation in Birmingham, for the reasons set out by previous speakers.
Exempt accommodation often appears in residential areas without any community consultation. Neighbours wake up to find exempt accommodation established in their street and before long reports of anti-social behaviour, drugs, prostitution, exploitation and other serious issues emerge. I have been approached by many constituents across Birmingham Hall Green who are concerned with the significant increase in this type of accommodation in their local areas. Some residents have even reported being threatened with physical violence by tenants of exempt accommodation. That is why I applaud the efforts of local campaigners, councillors and parliamentary colleagues from across Birmingham who have worked so hard to secure an inquiry into exempt accommodation, which is now being undertaken by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee. I sincerely hope that the Government take note and pay close attention to that inquiry. It is evident that certain landlords are taking advantage of the current system to set up housing without providing any support to tenants, security for neighbours, or accountability for the social issues which may arise.
The serious reform of exempt accommodation is therefore necessary, with increased regulation across the sector. A fundamental part of that change must be to establish meaningful community consultation on this issue, so that residents are no longer ignored about what happens on the streets in their neighbourhoods. Those residents suffer the brunt of the problems associated with exempt accommodation, so they should have the greatest say in whether exempt properties should be established in their neighbourhoods. Residents need to be heard. Their views must be taken into consideration and more regulation is needed.
Furthermore, we need to see tougher regulation of exempt accommodation by a social housing regulator that can perform a fit and proper person test, and give local authorities the power to reject exempt accommodation in specific areas because of over-saturation.
I will declare an interest—I believe that the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) has already declared a similar interest. I used to be a provider of exempt accommodation, much like him. My brother also lived in exempt accommodation in Birmingham—this seems a very Birmingham issue—as well as in some Conservative constituencies, including, I think, Weston-super-Mare and Blackpool. We traffic vulnerable people around this country to places where there is somewhere available for them to go, far away from their families and people they may need.
My brother’s experience is of being a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. He was actually the first person who alerted me to the problems in exempt accommodation. He saw things such as women being pimped out from the accommodation that he stayed in, women who were substance-misuse dependent, and the use of some of the people living in the accommodation to run drugs around. That is now, I realise, not just what happened in my brother’s account, because I see it every single day in the constituency that I represent.
It was unacceptable for my brother to be shifted around the country, but we do that all the time. A bloke recently got in touch with me and asked whether I would give my backing as a Birmingham MP with an expertise in providing supported accommodation to what was basically a Tinder-style app, so that vulnerable people from around the country could be matched up with a local authority of their choosing. I expressed to him that that would be trafficking and that I would rather die than help him do that.
The reality is that I know what it is to provide supported accommodation, because I have done it, and I know that the Minister knows it, too. I have worked in refuges that were entirely funded by advanced housing benefit, and I am not just talking about commissioned services. Obviously, I worked for a provider that had lots of commissioned services. I saw the level of detail that a provider has to go through to get a commissioned service. If it wants to be the locally commissioned domestic abuse service or the locally commissioned substance misuse service, it will probably have to go through an eight-month process. I literally had to get down to the minutiae of the detail of exactly which sort of thumb-turn screw I would have to use to make sure that it was completely acceptable. I had to have safety planning put in place with the police in case people’s perpetrators turned up. I had to sit on the children’s safeguarding board. I had to take part in lots of statutory requirements, such as domestic homicide reviews. We had to sit on the multi-agency risk assessment conference for both children and adults. That is the level of detail that is gone into to become a commissioned service, but guess what: you can call yourself a refuge and just apply for advanced housing benefit and you will get exactly the same funding as really decent providers.
I stand here as a representative of decent providers and with the backing of Women’s Aid, which has sent briefings around to all of us today, to say: “Do not think for one second that regulating this is going to push decent providers out.” I would gladly have taken a fit and proper person test. I would gladly have been investigated every single year and had somebody come and look round one of my refuges—without question.
As well as having run commissioned services, I was also a commissioner on Birmingham City Council for a spell. I think our budget for commissioning domestic abuse accommodation services was about £4 million. The amount currently being spent in Birmingham on exempt accommodation is £100 million! That would be manna from heaven to decent organisations. I tell you what: the Government just need to give me half that—not even half; a quarter—and I will commission brilliant providers who will not bed-block people because they are a nice little earner, and who will not be washing their dirty money and failing to look after people in their accommodation.
If Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid, St Basils in Birmingham, local refugee provision services or the brilliant substance misuse service in my constituency, which was actually the one that saved my brother’s life, had even a quarter of the money that we are currently giving to dodgy landlords, they could provide a service for everyone.
I went on a ride-along with the police. The day we give to policing is my favourite day of the year—honestly, I am going to be a copper when I give this up. Maybe I will be the Met commissioner. Every single call-out that I went on with West Midlands police that day was to exempt accommodation. Because I am much more expert in it than the police, it got to the point where they just sat in the car and I went in, because I am a properly trained support worker who knows how to work with people who are very vulnerable and calm down the situation. When I said, “Where’s your support worker?”, they said, “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him for a while.” One of the people had paranoid schizophrenia. The lad who eventually turned up was about 19 years old, bless him. A fracas had broken out between the residents, so I said, “Can I please see what medication he is on?” He went to a cupboard in the kitchen and opened it up in front of me. He was like, “I don’t know which one’s his—I can’t find the medication—I’m not sure.” That is cracking medicines management! It would never have happened in a refuge that I ran.
Think of the cost to West Midlands police, who are currently providing the state service of security. I never needed to call out the police to any refuge that I ran, because I had proper support plans in place, and I am sure the Minister would say the same about those that he ran. We are probably talking about another 20 million quid—and every time the police are called out to this crappy accommodation, they cannot go out to domestic abuse calls or have specialist training on sexual violence. It is such a cost.
As for the level of scrutiny in order to get that money, disabled constituents in Birmingham, Yardley face a more rigorous test to get funding from the Department for Work and Pensions than any of the landlords operating in my constituency. The landlords never even sit in front of anybody, yet my constituents have to prove whether they can undo their buttons or walk as far as the centre. Vulnerable people in my constituency are literally put through more rigour by the Department for Work and Pensions than people who are taking tens of millions of pounds off the taxpayer. As a taxpayer, I do not want to pay for it any more. I am not going to sit by and see my hard-earned taxes funding things that are harming my constituents. The Government quite simply have to step in.
That is before I even start on the dreadful cases of violence against women and girls that are going on in these environments. About nine months ago, I wrote to the Secretary of State for “levelling up” about a case in my constituency, which I will keep on raising, of a 19-year-old rape victim living with people who are perpetrators of violence against women. She locks herself in her room every night. She is frightened to live there, and that is where she has been placed.
I know that the Minister has daughters. He would not for one second allow his daughter to live as my constituent is living—I know he would not, ever. I would never let one of my children live in these places, ever, so I have to fight for everybody’s children not to have to live in them. What is happening is totally unacceptable.
I have been told that we do not have the parliamentary time to act. The Secretary of State has not even written back to me about the case. I was told, “We do not have the parliamentary time”, weeks before we went into the conference recess to drink warm wine in crappy meeting rooms. My reaction was “Bring us back! This matters!” I like the Labour party conference—I was pinged, although I can’t say I was that upset—but I would rather be here, sorting out the lives of my constituents. We can act now. There is time; there is plenty of time. The Labour party will work with the Government to facilitate that time, to make sure that this can happen. It should happen now, because we are funding dreadful behaviour.
I will end with a story about the former Sheldon police station, in my constituency. There was a proposal to convert it into exempt accommodation. I was sent a request for support, which said, “We are going to house domestic violence victims alongside people with substance misuse and people who are coming out of prison”—to which I obviously replied, “No, you’re not.” The local people all said, “No, you’re not.” The local council said, “No, you’re not.” When the planning application reached those in the Department of the Ministers who are sitting opposite me, what did they say? Even though the application had been turned down every single time in the local area, they overruled us, and allowed it to pass.
If Ministers are not willing to stop this on an individual basis, I beg of them: make the regulation exactly as it has been called for by the Labour party, and do it today.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow that powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips).
This has been an excellent debate, featuring a great many thoughtful and impassioned contributions, and I thank all the Members who have taken part in it. As would be expected, there have been points of contention throughout, but there is clearly agreement across the House that far too many people find themselves living in unsafe, poor-quality shared housing without the support that they need to get back on their feet and improve their lives, and that the beneficiaries of this arrangement are the unscrupulous providers who, by exploiting gaps in the existing regulatory regime, have extracted—and continue to extract—significant amounts of public money through the “exempt” provisions relating to housing benefit.
As we have heard today from Members in all parts of the House, those who are suffering so that rogue landlords of this kind can get rich are some of the most vulnerable people in our society: those fleeing domestic abuse, those who have served their time in prison and are trying to make a fresh start, those with severe mental health needs, those battling addiction and substance dependence, those leaving care, and those who have sought and secured asylum in our country and are starting the process of building a new life for themselves. The impact of poor-quality, non-commissioned exempt accommodation on vulnerable individuals like those can be devastating, whether it is the physical and mental consequences of living in squalid conditions, the risks that arise from the absence of effective supervision and safeguarding arrangements, the money gouged from hard-up residents through service charge costs that are ineligible for housing benefit purposes, or simply the inability to sustain an exempt accommodation tenancy, or to move on from one, because of a lack of care or support.
Sharp practice in this sector is causing real harm, and, as we have heard today, it is not only causing harm to the vulnerable individuals placed in this type of housing. Communities with large numbers of badly run exempt-accommodation properties are struggling to cope with the impact of concentrated numbers of people whose lives are, by definition, challenging and often chaotic, and who are not being given the supervision, care and support that they need in order to manage. Most gallingly, it is taxpayers who are subsiding this exploitative arrangement, and are thereby indirectly facilitating its social consequences. This is a situation that cries out for urgent reform, and the motion therefore seeks to ensure that the Government end the exploitation of vulnerable individuals at the hands of unscrupulous agencies, and at the taxpayer’s expense, as a matter of urgency.
I want to respond to a number of the points that have been raised in the debate, and to explain why we believe that a package of emergency measures is required to end this profiteering. Today we have heard numerous accounts of the detrimental impact of poorly managed, poor-quality non-commissioned exempt accommodation across the country. That attests to the scale of the problem, and to the fact that it is not an issue that affects only some cities and towns or only a select number of local authority areas. It is obvious that some parts of the country are more badly affected than others, and we have heard how and why cities such as Birmingham have become hotspots for poor practice in this sector, but it is a problem affecting every corner of the UK. Given the steady increase in the number of exempt tenancies over recent years, it is likely to become more widespread and more acute in the years to come if the Government fail to act quickly to stop rogue providers gaming the system.
Today’s debate has also made it clear that this is a complex problem to which there is no simple single solution, and the necessary first step to addressing it is that the Government accept that it cannot be tackled simply by incremental improvements at local level. Local discretion is of course vital, and there is no doubt that individual local authorities have been able, by their own efforts, through measures such as enhanced scrutiny of benefit claims or the use of voluntary codes of conduct, to reduce their reliance on the exempt accommodation sector and to drive up standards within it.
However, leaving this problem purely to councils, even with additional support, is not a solution, because it fails to address the fundamental causes of the problem. It is akin to asking the passengers of a ship holed beneath the waterline to do their best to bale the rising water out with their hands rather than seeking to repair the damage at source. Because it does not address the fundamental causes, any progress made in one local area will inevitably mean rogue providers simply pick up sticks and move to prey on another. If the Government are truly committed to bearing down on this problem wherever it arises, it must be a question of how, not if, they should intervene at national level to support the efforts already being undertaken by individual local authorities across the country.
We know what underlying factors have combined to drive the marked growth of this sector under successive Conservative-led Governments: a chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing; reductions in funding for housing-related support; and new barriers to access for single adults requiring social rented or mainstream privately rented housing. If we are to stand any chance of reducing reliance on non-commissioned exempt accommodation over the long term, the Government must take meaningful action in those areas.
However, those individuals and communities that are already suffering at the hands of unscrupulous exempt accommodation providers do not have the luxury of time. They cannot wait for patient reform over many years to reduce overall dependence on the sector and limit the opportunities for rogue operators to take advantage of it. They cannot wait for the Government to get around to analysing the results of local pilots that finished long ago. They require Ministers to act now—in a considered way, yes, but at pace. I have to say that the lackadaisical tone adopted by the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), in his response suggested that the Government had not yet properly taken this on board.
We must act at pace, and that is why the motion specifically calls for a package of emergency measures to bring an immediate end to sharp practice in the sector. There are two obvious ways in which the Government could act swiftly and decisively to achieve that outcome. The first is to introduce some form of licensing regime, including fit and proper person requirements for providers of exempt accommodation. Ultimately, it is the exempt provisions of housing benefit that enable and encourage rogue providers to enter the sector and exploit vulnerable individuals at the taxpayer’s expense. There is therefore an overwhelming case for better regulating the eligibility for, and therefore access to, exempt benefit claims, to ensure that high-quality supported housing providers are the norm. Just as care home providers need to register with the Care Quality Commission and be subject to regular inspection, an effective licensing regime would see exempt accommodation landlords screened and monitored so that new unscrupulous providers were denied access to the system and the existing ones were progressively weeded out.
The second change would be to introduce a robust framework of national standards for the sector while ensuring that councils had access to the resources necessary to tailor that framework to local circumstances and enforce standards on the ground. At present, what qualifies as the more-than-minimal care, support or supervision to be provided by an exempt accommodation landlord is incredibly vague. As a result, local authorities are unable to judge effectively whether claims are valid and eligible. The reforms proposed in the social housing White Paper should make a difference to exempt homes that fall within that category, and we urge the Government to bring forward the legislation to enact them as soon as possible. Even if those proposals lead to an improvement, however, they do not cover all kinds of exempt housing, as the Minister well knows. Anyone who examines how rogue exempted accommodation providers are taking advantage of existing regulatory loopholes cannot but conclude that we need a new regulatory regime to drive up standards for supported housing across the board and to give all local authorities the tools they would need to make the regime work in their area.
These are only the two most obvious changes that are needed if we are to begin effectively bearing down on the problem that the House has debated today. Many other smaller changes are required to bring this scandal to an end. The motion deliberately avoids setting out an extensive shopping list of specific proposals, leaving it open to this House to debate at greater length, on another occasion, precisely what would be included in the kind of emergency package that the motion calls for in principle.
What is important today is that Ministers accept that the current state of affairs must be brought to an end, that what is required is for this House to enact urgent and fundamental reform at a national level, and that they must commit to bringing forward an emergency package of measures to that end. Anything less is tantamount to accepting that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are not worthy of immediate protection, that unscrupulous operators can continue to exploit them for financial gain and that taxpayers will continue to pick up the bill.
It is a pleasure to take part in this important debate in my new role. I sincerely and genuinely thank all hon. Members on both sides of the House for their frankly powerful contributions.
I know the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), takes this issue very seriously, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have fairly commented. I have seen how passionate he is about this in just the few days that I have been in the Department, and I will do everything I can to support him in his work to tackle this issue.
It is abundantly clear that the problems affecting the supported accommodation sector are having a very real and serious impact on hundreds, if not thousands, of vulnerable individuals in many parts of the country. That, in turn, has knock-on implications for the housing benefit bill, but there is a human cost, too.
Several hon. Members rightly raised the criminality and antisocial behaviour in their constituencies that stems from people not receiving adequate support and the accommodation that they not only need but deserve. The Government and I are unequivocal in stating that everyone in our society deserves to live somewhere decent, safe and secure, which is why my hon. Friend said in his opening remarks that we have been working relentlessly to crack down on rogue accommodation providers who are exploiting exemptions that were designed to benefit the most vulnerable. Importantly, we have also been working hard to support the high-quality supported housing providers who deliver life-changing services to those who need them most.
Many of this afternoon’s contributions struck a chord with me, and it was particularly important to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), who rightly said that this is not just an issue for cities because, as other hon. Members said, it will start spreading out to the rest of the country. She was also right to praise the good providers, as it is important that we recognise there are excellent providers out there and that we give them that support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) talked about the Government’s £12 billion affordable homes programme, and it is right that we build beautiful homes for people, including council homes. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) has been passionate about this subject, and we could just feel from her speech that she has done a tremendous amount of work on it. I know that she will be rightly keeping us at pace on the issues. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) spoke movingly, from a very personal perspective, about the experiences of her own family; those contributions are incredibly valuable for us to hear, as we realise that this is about real people.
First, I would like to take the opportunity to clarify some of the issues raised about the exempt accommodation sector as a whole, because there is a problem with some but by no means all exempt accommodation. The term “supported exempt” is used to define accommodation for housing benefit purposes and covers a wide range of accommodation provided by different providers. So although the term “exempt accommodation” is increasingly synonymous with housing that is of poor quality and poor value for money, we need to be clear that this issue does not apply to all supported exempt providers. More specifically, they should not be tarred with the same brush as the rogue landlords that I, along with many other hon. Members, want out of this system.
Several hon. Members have highlighted examples from their constituencies of accommodation providers gaming the system, claiming for services that they never provide and then walking away with exorbitant amounts of money. Although we know that only a minority of supported housing landlords are behaving in that way, there is clearly evidence that some accommodation providers are exploiting housing benefit rules for their own financial gain. Obviously, that amounts to an egregious abuse of the supported exempt accommodation system, and we have been taking concerted action to stop it. As we heard, the Government have invested more than £5 million in support, which has gone to places such as Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Bristol and Hull, areas that we know have experienced acute difficulties with the local exempt accommodation sector. This funding has been used to crack down on rogue providers, while trialling new and innovative approaches to improve quality and value for money across the board.
I apologise for not having been here for the whole debate, as I have been speaking at a conference on private renting this afternoon. The Minister has just said that we know that only a minority of providers are operating in this unacceptable way. Given that the system is unregulated and the Government do not collect the information, how does he know that it is only a small minority doing this?
I suppose the point I am trying to make is that an awful lot of people out there are doing an enormous amount of work, and although it is important that we highlight where the rogue landlords are, we must not tar everybody with the same brush. There is a danger that schemes could be tarred with being known as inappropriate when we know that some of them, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, have turned people’s lives around. I want to see more of that, I really do. I want to see people who are coming out of prison being able to get back into the workplace. I want to see people who have been victims of domestic abuse living in safe accommodation and feeling confident in their lives again. So it is important that we tackle the issue but we do not tar everybody with the same brush.
The other thing I wanted to say was that we are awaiting the final report from the independent evaluators, who are working very hard. I say to the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) that they are working with urgency and at pace so that we can get that fully reviewed as quickly as possible.
I just wanted to speak to the point about lots of providers being very good. Those good providers have written to all Members of Parliament about this debate to say that they want to see the exact regulation that the Labour party has called for today. They are on the side of wanting this regulated, and that is because they are good providers.
I take the point on board entirely.
Several Members have spoken about instances of antisocial behaviour and crime in their constituency that have been directly associated with this sort of accommodation. No one wants to see the proliferation of substandard housing and substandard services bringing down neighbourhoods and, in some cases, even acting as a magnet for antisocial behaviour and criminal behaviour. That is why we are working hand in hand with local authorities to help tackle this issue head on, while championing what we know works and, more importantly, what works well. For example, Hull City Council, one of the five local authorities I mentioned, decided to address the issue by tasking a dedicated antisocial behaviour liaison officer with improving community cohesion by working with landlords and tenants alike.
Other Members mentioned concerns about links to organised crime. It is extremely concerning that criminals may be exploiting vulnerable people and the benefits system. Any such instances much be reported quickly by the appropriate authorities and dealt with swiftly.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is doing work on the private rented sector, so there is more work to come on that issue.
On rogue domestic abuse provision, I was shocked and appalled to hear the examples of poorly managed, poorly run and poor-quality refuge shelters for women fleeing domestic abuse. It is clear that such places have been anything but shelters from harm. Women fleeing violence have been deliberately misled to believe they will be offered real support and a safe roof over their head. It is not just morally wrong; it is often also illegal. I assure Members that my officials are engaging with councils on all such instances. Through the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, we have given councils new powers and money—£125 million of Government money in 2021-22. That funding is provided specifically to boost the vital support that victims and their children need.
I just want to point out that some of that money, which we all fought for and wanted to see—we should bear in mind that it is £125 million for the entire country, when we are currently giving the majority of bad landlords £100 million just for Birmingham, to put that into perspective—will absolutely go into the pockets of exactly the providers we are talking about.
Well, I am afraid just making it up can sometimes have unintended consequences. Members said that the good providers are ready to go on this; if we do not look at the detail and do it properly, we could introduce real obstacles for some of those good providers. I do not want to do that; I want to get this right, as I know my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does.
Let me move on to future action. As I have mentioned, we have already invested more than £5 million to support areas that are grappling with poor supported exempt accommodation. The pilots have been independently evaluated, and while we wait for the report the Government continue to work closely with local authorities on the provision of best practice and guidance. I assure Members that we are considering all options available to us, including further regulation. However, as I said, we need to be absolutely sure that any further changes to the rules do not put off responsible providers so much as to throw out the good with the bad. I believe that Members—
That this House notes the significant increase in the numbers of people housed in non-commissioned exempt accommodation under successive Conservative Governments; regrets the opportunities that this increase has provided for unscrupulous operators to exploit vulnerable individuals for financial gain at the taxpayers’ expense; recognises that a range of factors have driven the marked growth of this sector including a chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing, reductions in funding for housing-related support, new barriers to access for single adults requiring social rented housing or mainstream privately rented housing, and a weakening of regulation and oversight; further regrets the detrimental impact that the growth of poor quality non-commissioned exempt accommodation is having on the health and well-being of those vulnerable individuals placed in it and on the public purse; and calls on the Government to introduce a package of emergency measures designed to secure immediate improvements in the quality of non-commissioned exempt accommodation and associated support, to ensure claims for exempt Housing Benefit consistently provide value for money and to drive unscrupulous operators out of the sector.