Motion to Annul
Relevant Document: 15th Report from the Merits Committee.
My Lords, the two Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper relate to two instruments to change housing benefit regulations. The instruments seek to cut the housing benefit bill by around £1 billion per year by 2015 by cutting what can be awarded under the local housing allowance arrangements from April through: first, the removal of the five-bedroom local housing allowance rate so that the maximum level is for four-bedroom properties; secondly, the introduction of absolute caps so that local housing allowance weekly rates cannot exceed £250 for a one-bedroom property, £290 for a two-bedroom property, £340 for a three-bedroom property and £400 for a four-bedroom property; and, thirdly, the removal of the £15 weekly housing benefit excess that some customers can receive under the local housing allowance arrangements. Fourthly, there is an additional measure, which we welcome, relating to an extra bedroom for those with care needs. However, the final—and, I argue, most damaging—measure on which I shall focus is the setting of local housing allowance rates at the 30th percentile of rents in each broad rental market area rather than at the median. The Government are increasing discretionary housing payment funding to local authorities by £130 million over four years to enable councils to try to mitigate some of the effects of these measures.
These instruments amount to little more than an attack on the poorer people of this country—those who have no choice but to rent and who are either low earners or on out-of-work benefits. Since the publication of the Government’s impact assessment last summer, many organisations with expertise in housing, homelessness and poverty, such as Shelter, Crisis and the Residential Landlords Association, have raised serious concerns, shared by the Opposition, about these amendments to the housing benefit regulations.
The Government’s changes to housing benefit were expertly summarised by the noble Lord, Lord Best, in his speech to this House on 2 December last year, when he said that,
“the intention is to reduce the housing benefit bill by some £2.25 billion per annum by the end of this Parliament. That is £2.25 billion a year that will not be paid through housing benefit to landlords. There are only two parties from whom this money can come; one is the landlord by accepting a lower rent, and the other is the tenants finding the balance from their own resources, including other benefits—since most are on benefits of different sorts, or pensions. Which of these two parties is most likely to take this very substantial £2-and-a-bit billion hit?”.—[Official Report, 2/12/10; col. 1656.]
That is a good question, and half of that sum is to be found from the changes that we are debating today. The answer to the noble Lord’s question comes in part from the Residential Landlords Association, the representative body of more than 9,200 private landlords. Its briefing on these regulations is clear. Its landlords panel survey found that 71 per cent of respondents would not lower rents. In fact, in light of the proposed changes, 46 per cent of landlords surveyed indicated that they would look to re-let properties away from local housing allowance tenants, reducing the level of private rental stock available to claimants and potentially forcing households into homelessness. Not only have the Government offered no evidence to support their assertion that rents will be lowered to meet lower housing benefit levels, but they cannot counter the evidence that points the other way. It is clear that the bulk of the savings from these measures will come from the pockets of the tenants.
The measures have serious implications for hundreds of thousands of honest, hard-working and vulnerable people. We should bear in mind the fact that 4.7 million people receive housing benefit in this country. Of those, 2 million are pensioners on pension credit guarantee, 500,000 are people on jobseeker’s allowance and 700,000 are people in work in low-paying jobs. The Government’s own impact assessment of the regulations as a whole predicted that almost 1 million families would be affected, with an average weekly income loss of £12 nationally, rising to £22 in London.
The intention of course, as Homeless Link points out, is to make life in receipt of benefit “uncomfortable”, as a way of driving the jobless back into work. The popular rhetoric from the Government has been around the assertion that those claiming housing benefit are accessing accommodation that their working neighbours cannot. However, researchers at the University of Birmingham have found that this claim is out of step with reality. Housing benefit claimants receive a rent set at median market rates and so cannot live just anywhere. Furthermore, their findings suggest that, despite infrequent, extreme anomalies, 40 per cent of lower-income working families pay more in rent than they would receive in housing benefit.
In truth, the Government’s posturing over extravagant benefits sends a clear message: that the rationale behind these ill conceived reforms is founded on the excesses of a relative few. Their application would be tantamount to collective punishment—penalising the many vulnerable people for the excesses of the very few. From data compiled by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research at the University of Cambridge, it is estimated that these cuts will force many more claimants into severe poverty, with the weekly income of 84,000 households dropping below £100 per couple after housing costs. Incidentally, these households are home to more than 54,000 children.
On the local housing allowance cuts as a whole, the Social Security Advisory Committee, in its withering verdict on these regulations, stated that,
“these measures must impact disproportionately on those low-income households with the least financial resilience and the fewest options for managing their lives and their finances”.
Critics unanimously agree that the change to a 30th percentile in LHA calculations, along with the caps on housing benefit, will result in a significant drop in income for hundreds of thousands of households. Of these, an estimated 269,000 will fall into what Shelter calls “serious difficulty”. Unable to negotiate a reduction in rent, they will have just three options: hoping their landlord will forgo a proportion of the rent; moving into cheaper and probably overcrowded accommodation; or becoming homeless.
The removal of the five-bedroom rate will act as a disincentive for families to come together. Why would two single-parent families with, say, three children each come together when they would be better off apart? Many tenants will run up arrears, making them “at fault” for their eviction and perhaps not entitled to emergency accommodation. It is expected that half of those households in serious difficulty will have to move or become homeless. Some 72,000 of that number are families, equating to 129,000 children potentially made homeless.
These changes will affect households in rural as well as urban areas and particularly those with high rents, such as Oxford, Edinburgh and Brighton, but they will be felt most acutely in London. Here, house prices are more than double the average for England and Wales, and private rents carry a 50 per cent premium, leaving only the worst-maintained and overcrowded accommodation available to housing benefit claimants under these proposals. The same research from the University of Cambridge estimates that, within five years, almost the whole of inner London will be unaffordable to those in receipt of benefits. Poorer residents will move to more affordable housing at the periphery of the city. With demand for private rental stock so high here, there is little incentive for landlords to reduce the cost of renting, so LHA claimants currently living in boroughs such as Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster, Islington or Camden, where it is expected that no affordable stock will exist, will be forced into moving or into homelessness.
London borough authorities expect that, with the caps in place, 82,000 families will face losing their homes in London. The Mayor of London described it as a “Kosovo-style ethnic cleansing”. The poor will be pushed out of the capital; people in work will be pushed further away from their place of employment, their place of worship or the support networks of friends and family on which they rely. Children will suffer the upheaval of changing schools. It is all in the impact assessment. Information from London Councils shows that families will be moving into boroughs where there is already a shortage of early years school places. The children may not have anywhere to go to school.
Further still, individuals requiring specific educational facilities, care or assistance may not be able to access the types of service available to them in the borough in which they currently live. Those families will be moving into local authorities in such numbers that the existing public services there may well be unable to cope. I gather that boroughs such as Haringey and Newham are already looking at how to recruit more social workers to help them to cope. The Social Security Advisory Committee remarked:
“Enforced relocation to cheaper areas entails not simply upheaval, cost and stress to the households involved, but also the transfer of public service obligations and costs which the receiving areas are likely to be ill-equipped, unprepared and unresourced to handle”.
It has been estimated by Shelter that some 35,000 households will approach their local authorities for advice and assistance on homelessness. Many of these will be families with dependent children and as such considered to be “priority need”, to whom the local authority has a statutory duty to provide housing. Crisis believes that the likely result will be that single homeless people, who are already not a priority for housing, will become even less of a priority for assistance.
The estimated costs attendant on these housing dilemmas is not insignificant. It is estimated that £120 million will be required to satisfy temporary accommodation needs. Going even further, Homeless Link has identified the regulations’ tipping point—the figure at which costs begin to outstrip any benefits or savings derived—as £1.77 billion, equivalent to 106,070 homeless people. That number represents just 28 per cent of the estimated households at severe risk of homelessness as a result of the proposed changes. The most pessimistic forecasts suggest that these amendments could cost the state in excess of £6 billion. These regulations are in danger of increasing the deficit, not reducing it. Far from supporting people into work, breaking the cycle of dependency or ending the benefits culture, the principal effect of these amendments looks to be the ghettoisation of the capital’s disadvantaged—forcing families from their homes, forcing children into poverty and homelessness and overburdening already stretched public services, all at a potential cost of three times the estimated savings.
Your Lordships will be relieved to hear that I do not think that the Government should do nothing about the rising cost of housing benefit. The Minister will undoubtedly claim that these are unfortunate changes forced on him by the economic legacy left by the Government of which I was a member. I absolutely reject the notion that there is no alternative. There is an alternative economic policy, which starts with stimulating growth and then has prudent cuts following behind. I will not rehearse that argument now, but suffice it to say that he could do things differently with these measures.
The Government have got it half right. Within the package, the largest block of saving is made by abolishing the £15 excess. They should do that and go ahead with the payment for an extra room for carers. That package would save half a billion pounds per annum. However, they should suspend the other measures. The removal of the fifth bedroom saves them £15 million a year at most and carries the risk of costing much more than that in the cost of homelessness. Capping the rates generally should be dealt with through the wider cap that they are proposing on benefit income, which would retain much greater flexibility to deal with individual needs.
The move to reduce affordability from half of houses to rent to 30 per cent needs more debate, as it raises huge concerns, especially combined with the move to constrain local housing allowance increases to the CPI measure of inflation, which is proposed elsewhere. I therefore suggest that these should be tackled in the context of the forthcoming welfare reform Bill, which would allow time to address the large risk of homelessness from these measures with the associated social and financial costs that go with them. That would allow all Members of this House to amend and properly debate these measures.
I have sought to be constructive and there is one other thing that I will do to be constructive and helpful to the House tonight. I am clear that it is in order to move the Motions in my name, given that the Cunningham report of 2006 said:
“It is consistent both with the Lords’ role in Parliament as a revising chamber, and with Parliament’s role in relation to delegated legislation, for the Lords to threaten to defeat an SI”—
for example, in the exceptional circumstance of the Merits Committee drawing it to the special attention of the House. That is what has happened in this case, with the 15th report of the Merits Committee in December last year. However, I am mindful that there is an alternative Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. That would not stop these damaging regulations but would send a very strong message to the Government from your Lordships’ House. The Government should listen and act if the House supports the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, as I hope it will. Therefore, in keeping with the constructive nature of this Opposition, our respect for convention and our desire to be helpful to the House, I intend to withdraw my Motion at the end of the debate. In the mean time, I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to all three of these Motions, but in particular, to the third one standing in my name. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, that the changes introduced by the regulations and the order are likely to have very serious consequences. The Government expect the cumulative effect of the eight caps, reductions and restrictions on housing benefit and local housing allowances, of which two are the subject of regulations before us today, to achieve savings of over £2 billion each year by 2015. What is not certain is where the impact of these changes will fall, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, indicated.
The charities working in this field have produced excellent briefings for us. Those have come from Shelter, Crisis, Citizens Advice, Homeless Link, Barnardos, Family Action, along with the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation, with support from the Local Government Association and some impressive work once again from the Greater London Authority. These bodies all note the likelihood of several thousand tenants facing homelessness. Apart from this wrecking the life chances of the families concerned, the charities point out that the extra costs of homelessness could more than outweigh the housing benefit savings. Homeless Link notes that, on conservative estimates, if even one quarter of those identified as at severe risk were to become homeless, then all the gains from the housing benefit cuts would be lost.
The charities also point out, as has the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that a greater number—over 900,000—of tenants who stay put when their benefits are cut could be forced to find the balance from their very low incomes: state pensions; incapacity benefits; jobseeker’s allowance; or, for a fifth or so of these tenants who are in low-paid work, from their very modest earnings. I do not believe it is the intention of Ministers to increase the number of homeless households, which would, in any case, be self-defeating and counterproductive, nor do I believe that the Government intend to impoverish nearly 1 million very poor households with the equivalent of a cut in their pensions and other benefits of an average of £12 a week for each household. If that was the outcome, set against the coalition Government’s commitment that the effects of reducing the deficit should not fall disproportionately on those least able to take the strain, then the housing benefit changes would have to be deemed a terrible failure.
Rather, it is hoped that, away from the very high-value areas that claimants will have to leave, landlords will reduce rents to accommodate all or most of the fall in housing benefit/LHA payments. If so, to a large extent it will be landlords not tenants who take the hit. This would certainly be a desirable outcome where landlords are abusing the HB arrangements. The analysis by the Department for Work and Pensions suggests that 13 per cent of the rise in housing benefit is attributable to greedy landlords increasing rents to squeeze more out of the system. Thirteen per cent is not a huge proportion of the rise in costs, but nevertheless, it is worth addressing.
I think the new measures will indeed lead to some landlords reducing their rents. In some parts of the UK, particularly where unemployment has been very high and may go higher, a very high proportion of tenants are in receipt of housing benefit. If landlords are not to risk serious arrears, they will have to adjust to lower rents. In some places, current market conditions mean that the alternative of selling the rented property into owner-occupation will not be an option. Landlords may be resentful, they may even lose money—I fear they will not be investing and improving their properties—but, like it or not, they will have to go with the lower rents if that is all the tenants can pay.
Just how widespread will this be? In how many cases will it be the landlord not the tenant who absorbs the cost of the cuts? Talking to private landlords from different areas, I think there are opportunities for rent reductions where the local housing allowance is paid direct to landlords—as is facilitated by these regulations, avoiding the danger of arrears, which can lead to evictions that are costly for landlords as well as traumatic for tenants—and where the required reduction is relatively small, say 5 per cent of the rent. In such cases, good will toward good tenants, combined with the hassle and costs of replacing tenants, will incline many landlords to make modest rental concessions, particularly in not raising rents as soon as the opportunity arises, but there are definitely finite limits on the extent of this restraint. Even a 5 per cent rent reduction will be a problem for a lot of landlords. Five per cent of rent might exceed the margin, the profit from letting, after taking account of mortgage repayments, management and maintenance costs, an allowance for vacancies and so on. Some buy-to-let landlords with relatively high debts on their property could be in difficulty if they were to cuts rents by 5 per cent. Moreover, the figures in the DWP's impact assessment indicate that a 5 per cent rent reduction would not be enough to close the gap, to remove the new shortfall between benefit and rent, in the great majority of cases. It would appear to cover less than 90,000 cases out of a total of well over 900,000.
There is another reason to fear that landlords will not implement the hoped-for rent reductions. Since demand outstrips supply in so many areas, landlords can simply opt to reject those on benefit. Already a high proportion of landlords and their agents will not accept those on HB. These tenants cannot put down a deposit or pay rent in advance. Local authorities, unhappily, often take some time to process HB applications and early arrears can mount. Rent is paid on a four-weekly basis while landlords expect it on a calendar monthly basis and, however unfounded, there are fears by landlords and their agents that those on HB will be troublesome tenants. The compensation has been that LHA can pay up to the level of the middle rent for the area, the 50 per cent marker, but now that the maximum is to be reset at 30 per cent, this advantage is lost. Where they can, it seems likely that more landlords and managing/letting agents will avoid letting to those in receipt of HB. I am told by the staff in local authorities who seek to secure privately rented accommodation for vulnerable households in their area that previously helpful landlords are already pulling back, even where the council guarantees the rent and gives back-up support for tenants.
The underlying problem is, of course, the overall acute shortages of available homes. With more demand than supply, experts, such as Professor Michael Ball at Reading University, predict rent rises, not rent reductions. Until mortgages are plentiful again without requirements for large deposits, the private rented sector will have a ready market of young people who cannot buy. If landlords stop letting to those on benefit, properties will be available to absorb some of this growing demand, but that would, in the absence of sufficient housing, exacerbate the problems for those reliant on benefit.
It is very far from certain that many landlords will reduce rents, and it is possible that more landlords will withdraw from letting to those in receipt of these lower benefits. Since we now rely on the private rented sector to house nearly a million poorer households, this would be very bad news, but, as the Merits Committee notes, the DWP's impact assessments states that,
“it is impossible to quantify the indirect impact of the measures with any degree of certainty as it is not possible to predict the behavioural effects on tenants or landlords.”
It is for this reason that I have brought forward the resolution in my name that is before your Lordships today.
The resolution proposes a wholly independent, rigorous review reporting to both Houses of Parliament on the impact of the HB changes: on children; on homelessness; on whether mitigating measures, including the modest sums available in discretionary housing payments, are making a difference; on whether local authorities are being put under intolerable pressure, not least in handling the extra social and welfare costs if there is an influx of low-income households into their area; and so on. Thankfully, existing tenants are being given an extra nine months before facing these HB changes, with none affected before December 2012, so a first review one year from now can cover only new lettings, not the existing stock. The feared mass migration out of central London will not have begun in earnest before 2013 but I suspect it will become apparent quite early if landlords are not reletting vacant properties to those on the new benefit levels, in which case the review would enable Government to take corrective action. We know from the concessions made in response to the highly critical Social Security Advisory Committee’s report that swift action can be taken if required.
Last week I met the Minister and I believe he shares some of my concerns. I am hopeful he will be willing to make a significant statement today in response to the proposition in my resolution. An independent report next year could provide the basis for the Government to make “in-flight” corrections to amend or suspend some of these regulations and to prevent the dramatic changes to the HB system, leading to a potential national tragedy for so many low-income households.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for his agreement that he is not going to pursue the annulment and also for his support of the noble Lord, Lord Best. The Motion will meet the problem we are all facing—what might happen in the future. In some ways, it is like trying to judge between those who know the next winner of the Grand National and those who believe that it is an art form to study the form and decide which direction to take. Essentially, this whole issue rises or falls on an assessment of how the market will behave.
I want to consider the agreement between the former Labour Government and what the Government are trying to do today. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, said that we should go ahead with the £15 that was made available to people who could negotiate a smaller rent and we should take that away. That was a proposal that he quite rightly made while in government. There is a general agreement that the costs of local housing allowance and housing benefit must be reduced and contained. There is a question which we are all struggling with about the speed with which we do it. There probably will be a consensus in the overall ambition but a difference in the speed by which we achieve that.
There is an agreement that the current expenditure trends, as shown in the impact assessment by the DWP, are unacceptable and unsustainable. Continuing as we are from the evidence that we are given, private sector rents will be driven up, the gap between housing benefit paid in social housing and in the private housing sectors will be extended, and the difference between average earnings and private sector subsidised rents will be widened. That is unacceptable. We know from the figures that the average impact of these measures on households in the private sector will be £12 a week, but of course there are great disparities in that. The figure is £12 a week across the whole of Great Britain but if you look at the difference between Blackpool and London, you get a huge variation. That was a figure which the previous Labour Government alighted on as one of the reductions they would make, but for a much smaller group of people than that which is proposed now. So it sounds remarkably like we are moving in a direction in which people want to travel but not necessarily at the speed at which everybody wants to go.
There has been the critical Social Security Advisory Committee report and its priority is the impact of the regulations. That is its job, not dealing with deficit reduction. Nevertheless, the report quite rightly said, “Do not implement this, but if you are choosing to implement it, here is a range of things you should do to make these changes work”. I am pleased that the Government have accepted the majority of these, in particular the delaying and phasing for current recipients of housing benefit.
There is a quite distinct issue relating to London in this variation. One in four of housing benefit households in London is affected by these measures and the primary impact in London is that the average figure across London for the change in rent to be paid by these allowances is £22. However, 17,000 of the 21,000 losers as a result of a cap on the rent are located in London, so there is a London issue which is almost unique within Great Britain. I read in the other place the evidence given in the form of the committee report and the committee discussion and there was a sense that people were seeing the whole of Great Britain through the prism of London. That is a dangerous process and we may have to look at London separately because in the rest of Great Britain the average impact of these changes on rents is £9.84 a week. In a period when landlords have low interest rates on mortgages, this may be the right time for them to absorb this change.
I will return to the London problem later. First, I would like to look more closely at the impact this figure of £9.84 will have on household rentals around the rest of Great Britain. Essentially, the difference of view which I hear on this issue is around this central question. The noble Lord, Lord Best, said it just now. Will landlords reduce their rents to meet the new levels set by Government? This is fundamentally an issue about the operation of the private rented sector market.
The Government essentially influence about 40 per cent of rents in Great Britain. In terms of pure economics, the state must surely have a prime influence on the level of general rents because it pays the rents of 40 per cent of the properties. It is not quite a monopolistic situation, but the Government are a major purchaser of tenancies in the country.
How has this market operated until now? On the one hand, it seems that tenants have found properties for rents at levels which they know the Government will pay; on the other hand, landlords have set their rents at the level which the Government will pay. There is no incentive on either side to adjust or to deal with this matter. In straightforward terms, it is a market in which the principal and largest purchaser has not really had much influence over the price paid.
Will the changes make a difference? I sincerely hope so, but we are talking of market behaviour. It cannot be an exact science. That is why it is essential that the spirit of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best, is followed and a full evaluation and measurement of the impact are carried out just as soon as the first complete annual cycle of the new regime has ended. We need to know whether the desired changes which it is assumed will be brought about as a result of the measures have taken place.
The market is more likely to work in the direction that the Government want if the state enters the market as a negotiator. Currently, there is no incentive for the state to get the best rental price. We are talking about an incentive that is, first, a copper-bottomed guarantee of rental income, which the Government can provide—the Government are backing the money being provided—and, secondly, a direct payment to the landlord if they accommodate the changes. That is an important concession which the Government have made as a result of the report by the Social Security Advisory Committee.
I welcome the additional funding for housing benefit specialists to intervene in negotiations with landlords, but I have to ask the Minister two questions. First, do those people have the right skills to enter a negotiation market where previously they dealt with a different set of criteria and a different environment? Secondly, is the funding which they are making available to enable the negotiation to take place sufficient?
The big question for London is: is there a ready supply of non-housing benefit tenants ready to fill the properties if landlords are not prepared to reduce their rents? That is why I suppose that such a huge portion of the new funding for discretionary housing benefit and assistance is going to London. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and recognise the distinct market pressures which make London so different?
I accept, of course, that there is mobility of tenancies in London. As a relatively new Member here who has had to seek to rent a property in London during the week, I have found that tenancies move very quickly—you will not expect to take a long time looking over a property as you might normally do in other parts of the country. A quarter of a million moves take place each year in inner London alone, which demonstrates to me that people seem to want to move rapidly. Having moved several times in my life, I must say that it has been the most horrendous part of my life that I can remember; I would prefer not to move at all because it is such an unpleasant exercise. I suppose that there is a different quality to life in London which means that people like to move around more rapidly.
However we judge this matter, we have to recognise that the reason for pressure on the funding of private sector rents is a shortage of social housing in this country. I hope that the Government’s ambitions for the net number of new properties in the social sector will be achieved, but much more can be done in this field by way of other arrangements with private funding. Much more imaginative use of private funding can be made to create more units of social sector housing. We need to dwell on that matter because this is an equation. If we want to make sure that the balance of the equation is right, we need more social housing in our country. We must remember above all else that people need and deserve a proper roof over their heads. In all the initiatives that we take to keep public expenditure under control, we must not lose sight of this fundamental aspect of a decent society.
My Lords, I recognise with others who have spoken a need to reform the present arrangements for housing benefit but I also express my concern about the measures that are before us. The noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Knight, presented some alarming figures which, even if we perhaps dismiss the more extreme end, nevertheless give rise to considerable grounds for concern.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to a number of charities that have supplied him with briefing papers; I have been involved with a number of others. Housing Justice expresses fear that the arrangements being proposed would significantly increase the number of homeless people, particularly within London but elsewhere in the country as well.
A reduction in housing benefit at a time when we are facing all the uncertainty and the outworking of the comprehensive spending review compounds the complications of the system and risks therefore greater harm being done to those who are most vulnerable. It is so difficult, as I think everyone who has spoken already acknowledges, for us to assess the outcomes of the proposals both for those on housing benefit and for others in the system.
The noble Lord, Lord German, focused very much on the financial aspects of the market and what would happen to rents, and the effects therefore on the families who might have to bear the extra costs of the £22 here in London or the £9.84 elsewhere in the country. I have two comments to make about that. First, £9.84 may not sound a lot of money. Certainly, some on housing benefit are in employment, and perhaps some of them could stretch to that amount—but “stretch” would be the operative word. Many others are not in employment, and the amount of disposable income after they have met their outgoings and the demands on them is very limited. They are stretched already. We need to be sure that we have some imagination as to the impact—if I can put it to noble Lords like this—even of £9.84 a week, and how disastrous it could be for some households. It could be met only by them eating less or having less on their fuel bill, or doing without some other major thing that they need in their lives.
My second point is that money of course drives this, but the focus must not be just on the money. We must also understand and try to see through the consequences of these changes, which might be driven by finances but will have a huge impact on families, relationships and social groupings. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, one consequence of the proposals would probably be that a lot of families would have to move from their existing houses to other areas. If they did so with young families and small children at a point when they needed stability in their lives, that could be very damaging—and not only to them; it could have longer-term consequences. It could be damaging, too, in that they may no longer be able to work where they were working before.
This could have a double effect by creating more monochrome areas of our society. The areas that they leave might become more monochrome, with more expensive homes and more rental homes for those who can afford them and who move in. Similarly, the areas to which they go might become more monochrome. The big society at its best is also a very healthy society, which also means a mixed society. If the consequences of the movements that might come about because of this are that different groupings become more monochrome, that is retrograde and potentially harmful and damaging to the societies and communities in our land.
I was grateful that the noble Lord, Lord German, referred to the provision of social housing. I wanted to stress that as well, because part of the problem with high rental is demand. If we are to address one piece of the picture, as we need to do to find a different way in which to organise and provide housing benefit, we must look at the totality of the picture. That is why I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Best. Part of the totality must be the provision of more housing and a greater emphasis on the supply of that housing.
In conclusion, I recognise the wisdom of the proposal and am grateful for it, and I hope that it will find favour because it will help us to address complex issues. We must let our judgment be driven not just by the finances but by the family and social needs, and we must emphasise the need for an increase in the supply of housing.
I shall pick up precisely where the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford left off in looking at the impact on children and communities. In preparing for this debate, in common with other noble Lords I read briefings from a wide range of charities and was very grateful for them. I also read the excellent report from the Social Security Advisory Committee, but probably the single most informative document that I have read so far has been the impact assessment from the DWP. I even thought of simply reading out sections of it in place of a speech, until it occurred to me that noble Lords might have read it already, but it is probably the most damning impact assessment that I have ever read.
Rather than repeating the comments that other noble Lords have made far more eloquently—my noble friend Lord Knight did a beautiful job of setting out the detail on this—I want only to look at what that might mean for a family, because it is very easy for us to consider the policies without understanding the impact on individual families.
I spent some time running a charity that worked with single parents. A lot of the single parents who came through the door would phone up when their world had suddenly fallen apart. Perhaps the husband had left, or something had happened and the marriage or family had broken up. Often, a pattern would follow from that. Usually, the mother would end up with the children. She would often have been working, as would the father. When she had to do the childcare alone she would find that she could not manage it and do the same job, because that simply did not work, so she would often then give up the job. The pattern would be that she would often move to be closer to her own family—perhaps her own mother or father—who would help to share the childcare. Over time, she would rebuild her life and often end up getting a part-time job with childcare and being helped by the family and friends in the neighbourhood. She was usually able to do that only because of tax credits and housing benefit. Suddenly, the family would begin to be back together again.
Imagine what happens to that lone parent in that situation if she suddenly finds that the rent on the family home which she has managed to establish can no longer be met by the local housing allowance. What does she do? The landlord might be kind enough to drop her rent, but what if he does not? She then has two choices. Should she try to stay put and make up the difference, when we already know from Crisis that 48 per cent of people on the local housing allowance already face a shortfall? She might already be trying to top up the rent as it is. Even if the difference is only the £12 a week which the noble Lord, Lord German, mentioned, that is a lot of money to someone on that kind of income. If you shop around, £12 a week can buy a pair of children's shoes or put a lot of food on the children’s table. At that level, £12 a week might simply be beyond her reach; it might as well be £1,200.
What does that lone parent do? Does she decide to move to a different area? In doing so, if she moves from inner to outer London, for example, the children will certainly have to change schools, if they can find a place. In doing that, their schooling is disrupted and they lose contact with their friends. In many cases, the woman loses contact with her family. She might then not be able to travel back to the job. The travel costs might be too great or her own mother cannot mind the children, which means that she cannot risk being late back as she has to be there in time to pick the children up from school. We can end up in a situation where the children's lives have been disrupted, the mother might be forced back on to income support, the family has been fractured and the children will suffer. The consequences are potentially significant.
I do not want to wave a shroud; that is not my intention. I want to try to dismantle a policy from its larger scale to see what the impacts might be on an individual set of families. In fact, the impact assessment makes it very clear what the consequences are of some of that dislocation. It talks about the evidence of what happens to the educational attainment of children who are moved—about the impact on the GCSE points of those who are moved at key stages. It talks about the dangers of overcrowding, because the alternative for our lone parent is to stay put or perhaps to go to a smaller house, squeezing a family into a tiny flat. But then where do the children do their homework, as the impact assessment points out? What are the consequences for that family?
The other issue is the other wider impacts of a choice such as this. What happens to the families who have traditionally lived in a very mixed area, in the way that the right reverend Prelate described? I visit people who live in Islington—I went to a church there—and have always been hugely impressed that in so much of London there are such areas, where rich and poor live side by side. But where do they mix in practice? I remember the vicar of Islington walking me down a street to show me a beautiful Georgian terrace on one side and an interesting and challenging 1960s council block on the other. He said, “You know, the joy is that the people in the Georgian terrace look out on the council block and the people in the council block look out on the Georgian terrace”. The real joy was in fact that their bins were emptied by the same council service, that they went to the same GPs and that they shopped in the same local neighbourhood stores when they needed to. In other words, they shared local services. One thing that has long been observed is that services for poor people become poor services, while one thing about having people in mixed areas is that you have what I think a government Minister memorably described as the sharp-elbowed middle classes, who are there to make sure that those shared services are available to all and are protected and developed.
The case that I have described might be just one family, but the impact assessment says that 450,000 of the households affected contain children. If 450,000 households with children are affected by these changes, I very much hope that the Minister will be able to consider the sensible suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Best, and take his time to consider the impact of two things. First, what will the impact be on families with children? He should track what has happened to some of those families and look at how their lives have changed. Secondly, I strongly urge him to consider how this interacts with the many other measures that the Government have taken through.
That single parent will already be facing cuts from the Government in her childcare help and in the amount of money that she is allowed to earn on her tax credits. She could already be facing a range of other cuts and benefits. She is already in a context in which inflation is rising and the local housing allowance will be uprated only in line with the CPI, while VAT and fuel bills have just gone up. These families are much squeezed already. The very least we owe them is to make sure that we do not take a step such as this without properly understanding the implications.
My Lords, I support the very sensible proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Knight. I spent a good chunk of my career working in housing, on estates and in homelessness, and I am very concerned about the impact of these changes on poverty and on the Government’s attempts to reduce poverty and reduce the Government’s deficit. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, set out very clearly the impact on individual families, and we know that transition affects poor families disproportionately more than richer families. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford made the very strong point that these proposals not only have a financial impact on poor families; they also have an impact on social services and neighbourhoods, crime, mental health and substance misuse. Throughout my career I have seen this impact walk through the doors with the homeless and with those at risk of homelessness.
While I understand that the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, stand no chance of going anywhere, they are actually worthy of careful consideration. We have not thought through the impact on families and on the societies in which they live—on social services, on health, on mental health and on employment. Given that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, will not go through, the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Best, is second best—no pun intended. Actually, it was intended. If you happen to be one of the families at risk—the majority of which, by the way, are in employment, low-wage employment though it is—it is not much comfort to be told, “Hang on a minute, you will suffer for a year and then someone might pop along and do some research into the impact”. Frankly, it is one of those amendments that I am forced to support. In conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, some time ago, I expressed my concern that the Government have no plan B. It is no good making these swingeing cuts on the poor, who do not have the broadest shoulders to carry the impact of the deficit, and not have a clear plan B.
Even if we accept that we will not know, as the noble Lord, Lord German, pointed out, what the impact of these cuts will be on actual families—no-one can see into the future—we know that the poor will suffer. We know where they will suffer, we know how they will suffer and we know what the impact on public services will be, but we do not have a clear plan B. At best—that is another pun—the Government need to commit fully to the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Best.
Many of the changes seem to be almost arbitrarily imposed. Why reduce local housing allowance to the 30th percentile, when in many areas the proportion of private sector properties rented by tenants receiving the LHA is well over 30 per cent? The average is estimated at 39 per cent. Why cut LHA payments by 10 per cent for people on jobseeker’s allowance for over a year when those who are in social housing or are supported by other members of their household will be unaffected? All this has one key purpose, to save money, but little thought appears to have gone into the multiple transferred costs that could be incurred by evicting up to 185,000 households. The cost in legal aid alone is estimated to reach between £3 million and £5 million per year, while the demand for temporary accommodation is likely to cost between £61 million and £121 million. That is before we even consider the impact on schools and social services in the areas that will have to absorb tenants who are priced out of parts of the country, particularly London. I thank Alex Fenton of the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research for those figures. Homeless Link has calculated that if a mere quarter of those who are identified as being at severe risk of homelessness lose their home, all estimated savings to the state will be lost.
It is very easy to assign the cruelty to—and it is cruel if you are on the receiving end of these cuts and of the complexity that will be imposed on already stressed families and individuals—and to pray in aid, the Government’s and the country’s financial position. Frankly, it is not good enough, especially a week or so after we watched the chief executive of Barclays Bank in effect put two fingers up to the poor and to the rest of us. It is not acceptable. One group is being treated very differently from another. We need some equality of debate and of access to the good things in life, and I hope that the Government will at least support with enthusiasm the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best.
My Lords, it is no secret that when these regulations were first announced I had deep concerns about them, as I made clear in the housing debate that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, introduced at the beginning of last November. When the Social Security Advisory Committee’s very critical report was published, the Government modified their original proposals in two important ways, as we have heard: in relation to the timing of the changes and in allowing direct payments to landlords in certain circumstances.
The nine months of breathing space for existing claimants is welcome to give them more time to find alternative accommodation if necessary, although it will be paid for by bringing forward the moving of LHA rates from the median to the 30th percentile for new claimants. Also delayed is the introduction of the cap on LHA payments and a reduction in the maximum number of bedrooms that a claimant is entitled to, from five to four. Overall, the change in the phasing means that some claimants will be hit by the cut a year earlier than they might have expected, while others will have a bit more time before the cuts bite.
Turning to the other concession, direct payments to landlords, I am glad that the Government have now agreed to widen the criteria that local authorities should consider in order for this to happen, although I find the wording of this concession quite convoluted—perhaps deliberately so, in order to give some flexibility—so perhaps the Minister can help me. The wording is:
“From April 2011, in cases assessed under the local housing allowance arrangements, local authorities will be able to pay housing benefit direct to the landlord where they consider that it would help the customer to secure a new tenancy or remain in their current home. It follows that the rent must be at a level that they can afford. We will work closely with local authorities to ensure that this provision is used in very specific circumstances where landlords are reducing rents to a level that is affordable for customers”.—[Official Report, 14/12/10; col. WA 170.]
I am glad that the Government are providing guidance to local authorities because to me these three sentences could mean three different things. I am not an expert in these matters, but they do not quite seem to hang together.
While I am talking about welcome news, we must not forget the two provisions in the original announcement of, first, an additional bedroom to be included in the size criteria used to assess HB claims in the private rented sector for an overnight carer of a disabled person or someone with a long-term health condition and, secondly, a large increase in the discretionary housing payments. Both those measures are very welcome.
The $64,000 question remains, however, as all the speakers so far have said: will these housing benefit regulations mean that landlords will reduce their rents, thus bringing the huge housing benefit bill down, to general rejoicing by taxpayers and the Government, or will it mean that not enough landlords will, or can afford to, reduce their rents low enough for LHA claimants, that the discretionary housing payments will be spread too thin to make much difference and that therefore thousands of people will face eviction, child poverty will increase and local authorities will eventually have to pick up a very large bill?
Many statistics have already been given and I will not add to them. We all know why the bill for housing benefit has ballooned—there is nowhere near enough social housing throughout the country and so councils have turned to the much more expensive private rented sector, with buy to let becoming a popular way for people with capital to cash in on the shortage of rental accommodation. While there may be a percentage of greedy landlords who are able to charge unjustifiably high rents—the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to them and gave a figure—is not the real truth of why the HB bill is so high not that housing benefit has inflated rents but that there are huge numbers of low-paid and unemployed people who qualify for housing benefit?
It is clear that, as my noble friend Lord German has said, London with its high rents is in a category of its own, even though a lot of the boroughs are receiving the cushion of the bulk of the discretionary housing payments. To those of us who live and work in London, the mix of housing works to everyone’s advantage, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, said in her powerful contribution. If a large number of the low-paid workforce who receive LHA are forced to move out even of Greater London, then everyone suffers, because life in central London depends on low-paid workers; we do in this House. Of course we all understand that low-paid or unemployed people on housing benefit with large families cannot expect to live for ever in high-end houses or flats in central London, although I am quite sure that very few actually do. However, we know that a lot of families will be forced to move in the next couple of years, as the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, said. We just hope that this will not mean that they will be pushed out of the reach of good employment and transport, thus exacerbating the situation.
The real worry about these regulations is that dropping to the 30th percentile could have a devastating effect on these families all over the country, many of whom find life a struggle even now. This regulation is the one that could cause evictions, particularly in housing hot spots outside London, such as Brighton and Cambridge, with landlords not having to reduce their rents because they can always find someone not on housing benefit to pay the going rate.
What we need, and what I called for in our debate in November, is what the noble Lord, Lord Best, calls for in his Motion: an independent review of housing benefit in the private rented sector. I know that the Minister will say that this happens automatically in his department, but we need an independent review to be set up and to alert Parliament quickly if the worst fears of some of the relevant organisations in this field, which have already been mentioned, are being realised. Many groups are warning of the dire consequences of the effect of these regulations in today’s difficult economic climate, particularly for single parents and disabled people. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, may say more about disabled people shortly. What would reassure many of us who are concerned about these changes is to hear that the Government will take swift action to alleviate the situation if they are wrong and the organisations are right. I look forward to my noble friend’s reply.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of Broadland Housing Association. I will not follow my noble friend Lady Sherlock, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, in talking about the human stress, distress and misery potentially in waiting for so many thousands of families with children in our country. Instead, I want to do something different; I want to challenge the very premises behind the Government’s strategy, which I think are false.
We have been here before, with the Housing Finance Act 1972 and especially in the late 1980s when the Tory Government again pressed up rents on the grounds that they should subsidise people, not property. We on the Labour Benches pointed out then what would happen. The selfsame money that had been spent on new homes was now being spent on housing benefit, which in turn trapped people out of work and left us with a shortfall in housing. Now the Government are trying to rectify a problem of their own creation by capping HB. They believe, falsely, that HB is driving up private sector rents, that the HB bill has grown because of those increased rents and that, by capping HB, they will press down rents.
The second fallacy is that this policy is consistent with universal credit—a policy for which I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Freud—which seeks to bring more people into the labour market. On the contrary, I fear that these HB caps, together with the unpleasant and bizarre policies of Mr Pickles, will have the reverse effect. Let me unpick this a little. The Minister says that as 40 per cent of the tenants of private rented sector properties receive HB—a rather disputed figure—HB rates determine rents. However, he will be aware, I am sure, of two very simple statistics from his own department. First, as quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Best, the DWP’s own figures show that the increase in housing benefit has been caused not by increased rents but by increased demand for HB from more tenants in both the private and public sectors. Only 13 per cent of the increase in HB can be attributed to private sector rent increases. In other words, the increase in the HB bill has not come about because HB has driven up rents and, therefore, has sought to catch up with the rents that it has inflated. Instead, the HB bill has risen because more and poorer people are claiming HB, including those in low-paid work. That is a fact.
The second statistic is also from the DWP. An Answer to a PQ in August 2009—I do not have later figures—showed that 48 per cent, or nearly half, of all those receiving local housing allowance had, on average, a shortfall of £23 a week. This was because their contractual rent was higher than their HB. Some will have been in work, others on income support and so on. I do not know how they made ends meet. For those in shared accommodation, paying single-room rent, the HB research for the DWP showed that 87 per cent of young people faced a shortfall, on average, of £35 a week. I dread what will happen now that we propose to raise the age at which single-room rent can be claimed from 25 to 35. I repeat: 48 per cent found that their HB did not cover their rent. If the Minister is right and their HB then did not press down on their contractual rent—however much the tenants would have wanted and needed it to—why does he think now that by cutting HB 18 months later he will press their contractual rent down? It is a triumph of hope over history. It was not happening 18 months ago and landlords tell us that it will not happen this time either. SSAC confirms this. Nine in 10 landlords will avoid anyone on HB. Why? Because they can now let to other people at the rents that they seek to charge. In other words, the Government do not control, as they believe they do, the rents of the private rented sector. It is a fallacy. Indeed, preliminary findings from current research suggest that, whether housing benefit claimants account for 20 per cent or 70 per cent of the private rental market, it makes no difference at all to local rent levels. HB levels, and therefore the Government, do not shape the market, full stop.
Why is that? It is because it is a landlords’ market and not a tenants’ market; it is, therefore, not a Government’s market and not a HB market. Surveyors, letting agents and estate agents are reporting gazumping, six to eight tenants after every property and sealed-bid rent offers. The British Property Federation tells us that 150,000 extra tenants will enter the private rental sector next year, pushing up rents even further. Even where landlords in the past might have accepted some limitation of their rents if they were gaining capital growth, this, too, is no longer the case. Those on current HB levels struggle to find a home. What will happen?
Like the noble Lord, Lord German, I want to talk a little about the situation outside London. I have no doubt that the situation in London is harshest because rents are highest, but some of the Government’s proposals—the move to the 30th percentile, the threat to those on JSA and requiring single people up to 35 to share a house with others—will have a severe effect on those outside London. Only the first of these—the rents covered by HB to be reduced from the 50th percentile to the 30th percentile—is in these regulations, but they affect 83 per cent of those on LHA, 40,000 of whom will lose £20 and more per week as a result of that change. What does that mean? It means that instead of HB ensuring that private tenants can afford 50 per cent of properties, they will be able to afford only 30 per cent of properties.
But it is worse than that. Benefits, we are told, including HB, will in future increase by CPI. CPI includes only 6 per cent for rent—rather less, I think, than is allowed for restaurants and cafes. It is not a sensitive indicator. What does that mean for these regulations? Let us look again at history, rather than relying on hope. In the last decade for which we have statistics—1997 to 2007—CPI rose by 20 per cent and rents by 70 per cent. In each year, CPI was outpaced by 5 per cent a year. Project that forward—indeed, this very weekend Savills has reported that it expects rents to increase by 7 per cent next year, 6.5 per cent the year after and 5.5 per cent the year after that. HB, instead of covering the 30 per cent of properties that the Minister proposes, will, the following year, on Savills’s figures, cover only about 25 per cent of properties, the year after 20 or 21 per cent and the year after that—on a smaller base—some 15 per cent. Within five years, only 10 per cent of properties will be affordable on HB if these proposals continue. Even if a few landlords accept reduced rents in year one to avoid voids or because they rate the quality of their tenants and so on, they will not be able to afford to do so in year two, year three or year four as the gap between the rent levels chargeable and CPI and HB widen. In some places where there is even higher demand, it is likely that HB will cover few, if any, properties. It is estimated that by 2020 not a single two-bedroom flat in Manchester will be available for rent. We know the quality of what will be left.
The Minister places much weight, I suspect, on the discretionary housing payments. My authority—Norwich—had £29,000. It ran out in November this year. The calculations are that, even with the tripling of the sum to some not-very-generous £60 million, it will barely help 6 per cent of those on housing benefit.
I want the noble Lord, Lord Freud, to do two things today. First, I want him to give the House an assurance that every two years the local housing allowance figure will be recalculated to reflect the 30th percentile rents and not be allowed to drift lower in line with the CPI. If the Government believe that from October this year 30 per cent is the right figure, they cannot also believe that the right figure in two years’ time will be 20 per cent. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, who is an honourable man, will want to hold firm to his policy intention. That means rebasing the figure at least every two years. I want a commitment, please.
Secondly, like many other noble Lords, I want the Minister to keep his policies under review. I am sure that he will say, as I would have done in his place, “We always keep everything under review all the time”. However, precisely because the Social Security Advisory Committee regards these policies as high risk and deeply undesirable, we need a report published along the lines outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Best. If the Government are right, they have nothing to fear from the noble Lord’s Motion. If the Government are wrong, the distress caused to thousands of families with children will not bear thinking about.
Perhaps I may say one final word to the noble Lord, Lord Freud. The policies of his right honourable friend Mr Pickles will undermine much of what the noble Lord seeks to achieve. Mr Pickles proposes that almost all social housing new build will come from the revenues from increasing rents for new tenants to 80 per cent of market levels in new builds and re-lets. Yet almost every new tenant coming into my housing association is on HB. Indeed, the only sensible strategy for housing associations is to ensure that those who will always remain on benefit—including low-income pensioners, those with disabilities and those always marginal to the labour market—go into the most expensive intermediate-rent properties, because HB will cover the bill, while those who hope to get back into work go into the cheaper properties, where HB is less of a barrier, because you need cheap rents if you are to get back into work. This is perverse. Those who seek to help themselves need to live in the cheapest property, because only in that way can they spring the housing benefit trap. Mr Pickles’s policies will undermine the universally credited project of bringing people back into the labour market.
What about the benefit bill? That, too, will soar, thanks to Mr Pickles’s proposals. Inside Housing, a magazine that I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Freud, reads, has calculated this weekend that, instead of housing benefit being cut by £2.26 billion, as the DWP hopes, footing the HB bill for Mr Pickles’s intermediate rents will actually force the HB bill to increase by £1.56 billion. The DWP’s benefit bill will be paying for Mr Pickles’s capital programme. It is a brilliant policy.
In the light of this perversity, there will be worse housing for private tenants, reduced stock for private tenants and deep financial hardship for private tenants, yet there will be increased housing benefit bills, along with reduced incentives to work. This set of policies is an indecent mess, in which the bill, not just in money, but in hardship, stress, grief and distress, will be paid by many thousands of families in this country. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, will accept the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. I hope, too, that the Minister will, when we consider the welfare reform Bill, be able to accept amendments that will tackle some of the dreadful implications and the false premises that lie behind this strategy.
My Lords, I know that everyone is waiting for the Minister’s response to this debate, so I will be brief. I support my noble friend Lord Best’s Motion, and wish to speak on two issues. One is the availability of social housing and the other is the child protection issue, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, my noble friend Lord Adebowale, and other speakers. I join the consensus of concern in this area.
The noble Lord, Lord German, raised the question of the availability of social housing. Most of us can agree that it is a tragedy that in this country we have failed to invest in good social housing for our people. I visited recently in Walthamstow a mother with a young, six week-old infant who was sharing the house, the bathroom and the kitchen with five other households. We have let such families down badly. I have visited private housing which is being used to fill the gap in Redbridge and some of it is of appalling quality. We have let these families down by not investing and not thinking strategically about securing sufficient social housing supply. The concern, in a sense, is that this will add insult to injury: we have let these families down and we may yet let them down further. I strongly support my noble friend in his call for a considered assessment of the impact of this change.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight, spoke about the impact on children’s services of the migration of families from one area to another. Among other local authorities, he mentioned Haringey. Your Lordships may recall from the report of my noble friend Lord Laming into the death of Victoria Climbié what he discovered about the state of the social services department in Haringey. Among other things, there was a shortage of social workers and a high number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children entering the local authority, putting an additional and unexpected burden on the children’s services. Social worker managers said that it became like a service production line. Social workers were overloaded and Victoria Climbié’s social worker, Mrs Arthurworrey, had far above her maximum case load. This was the context of what happened to Victoria Climbié and the terrible fate that befell her. I urge your Lordships not to forget what happened in that case.
It would serve the Government’s interests well if they were to consider carefully the impact of these changes on children’s services. If something goes wrong and children’s services become overburdened and social workers cannot answer the needs, the media will understandably be very scathing about what they see as the roots of such problems. It might be unhelpful to the Government in the longer term if it seems that the policy on which they are now embarking might lead to the failure of services and the death of a child or some other outcome. I strongly support my noble friend’s Motion and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, it may not be part of our convention to challenge regulations in this way but we are not living in conventional times. We are faced with a determined attempt by the Government to undermine the welfare society with which we have lived since the end of the last war and to replace it with something called the big society—hence the attempt to change benefit provision without regard to what this will mean for many vulnerable people.
This is the case with housing benefit. Many people have been kept from desperate poverty and even homelessness by the existence of this benefit. Among them are many single parents, mostly women, and it is surely in our interests that such women should be able to bring up and support their children. Often they have poorly paid part-time jobs and some of the difficulties that such women and their families face have already been demonstrated to us very dramatically by one of the previous speakers in the debate.
I am a Londoner and I believe that London is a special case. The mayor may have been attacked for some of the statements he made—he was regarded as having over-reacted—but, on the other hand, he has a point. There are many areas of London, including the one in which I live, which have changed dramatically in the past 20 or 30 years. They have been developed and upgraded. I have lived there for 40 years, and it was relatively inexpensive when I moved there, but it no longer is. It is desperately overpriced. Rents are impossible, except for well-off people.
If the arrangement is that benefits in future should be related to the market rent, many people will be unable to afford the resulting rent without the appropriate benefit. Such people will have no alternative but to move. The mayor made that point strongly in his statement. It is true that people will be unable to go on living there if rent is related in some way to the market rate. That would be impossible. A number of speakers have already referred to what might happen in such circumstances and the social results of such an arrangement. People will have no alternative but to uproot and move to different places, where there may be overcrowding and other undesirable effects on their health and that of their families.
For those reasons, I hope that your Lordships will agree at least to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I certainly do and I hope that everybody else feels the same way.
As heralded by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, I will concentrate on the situation regarding disabled people. In recent years, disabled people have been given hope that we will achieve equality by 2025, but with these regulations we see yet again that the Government are imposing cuts that will disproportionately affect disabled people. That might not be the intention but it is the effect.
Disabled people are the group most likely to be dependent on benefits, so the most likely to be affected by these cuts. Only half of disabled people of working age are in work compared with 80 per cent of non-disabled people, and the poverty rate among disabled people is double that of the rest of the population. As we have heard, the likelihood is that significant numbers of people will be forced to move. Being one of the poorest groups, disabled people are more likely to face this threat than others. The Minister has repeatedly implied that this is no problem as people are constantly on the move. What understanding does the Minister have of what that means for disabled people?
First, for physically impaired people there is the major issue of finding accessible accommodation. The paucity of housing stock which meets disabled people’s needs is a disgrace and far too little is being done about it. Not only that, the actual process of moving will be difficult for many who are physically disabled or who have mental illness. Secondly, disabled people are likely to be more reliant on informal support from neighbours, friends and family. These networks are built slowly and cannot be turned on and off like a tap. However, if disabled people are forced to move, the dislocation will inevitably mean increased isolation and result in more reliance on the statutory agencies and charities. Related to that is the fact that existing relationships with health and social services will be broken so there will be additional costs of re-assessment and re-establishing the support to be borne by the statutory services. What assessment has been made of what it will cost the state in forcing disabled people to move as a result of these regulations?
The Minister may say that the increase in discretionary housing payments will meet our concerns but the increase is nowhere near sufficient to support all those who need it. Disabled people will be only one of the vulnerable groups in need of this funding as Leonard Cheshire Disability has pointed out. On the brighter side, I welcome the Government’s move to allow an extra bedroom for those who need an overnight carer. Cuts elsewhere will mean that this is not as beneficial as it sounds. RADAR has been contacted by Ann—not her real name—who was given housing benefit and the second bedroom rate for a live-in carer. As a result, her mother bought a two-bedroom property with a mortgage for Ann and her live-in carer to rent. So far, so good, but Ann has had problems getting somebody to live in. As a result, the council reduced the second-bedroom rate to a first-bedroom rate on the ground that it was not the main residence of the live-in carer. Now Ann cannot pay her mother the rent that she owes, and so her mother cannot pay the mortgage. This has left both of them in extreme financial hardship and her mother now has to look after Ann at night as well.
The severe cuts being imposed on local authorities have resulted in some appalling decisions, with local authorities trying to cut overnight carers and forcing people to use incontinence pads instead. Such was the case last year when the former ballerina Elaine McDonald, who was not incontinent but just needed help getting to the loo, took the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea to court when it imposed this cut. She lost the case. Does this mean that there will be an inevitable domino effect with cuts by social services resulting in the loss of the extra bedroom allowance? Will the Minister give the House an assurance that this will not be the case and that if a person is assessed as needing overnight care, they will receive the extra bedroom allowance?
I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, will not press his Motions but I urge all noble Lords to support the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. Will the Minister agree to commission primary research to monitor and evaluate the impact on disabled people in particular within the year, given that disabled people are likely to be disproportionately affected by these cuts?
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins. Her personal experience and powerful testimony are always of benefit to the House. We are very pleased to listen to what she had to say. However, I do not agree with the last point she made because, politically, it is absolutely apposite that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, took the decision that he did to leave a Division for now. That was the right thing to do and the debate benefited from it. It certainly makes it easier for people like me, who agree with a lot of the analysis and share a lot of the concern, to keep the pressure on the Minister for Welfare Reform. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, who admirably set the scene. Given the expert that he is, we would expect nothing else.
The politics of this are not hard to discern. Those of us who have been around long enough to remember the introduction of housing benefit in 1988 can see the Treasury’s fingerprints all over these cuts which have been on Treasury shelves since the income support system was changed in the welfare reform Act of 1986. Given the speed with which certainly the initial tranche of changes were introduced, some of which are reflected in the statutory instruments we are discussing, they could have been given no other thought than the Treasury insisting that DWP Ministers had to find changes.
As I keep saying, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is a national treasure given that he is the architect of the universal credit, the principle of which I absolutely support. However, he had to pay a price for that. I well understand the concessions that have to be made between departments. Therefore, I do not blame my noble friend for what we are facing. However, the noble Lord, Lord Knight, was right to refer to the £15 excess. That was very welcome because if there is a feeling across the House that constructive measures can and should be taken to limit some of the damage referred to in many eloquent speeches this evening, that strengthens my noble friend’s hand in making representations to the department. In any case, this game does not finish this evening; it will be a long journey. Iterations of these cuts will be introduced over a period of years. Therefore, we have a little time to look at what is going on. We are not, to quote a phrase, lashed to the mast; at least, I would not like to think that we are.
If the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best, is accepted, and as long as the Minister for Welfare Reform is prepared to say that it is not just restricted to the regulations, which are only the start of a long journey which will make considerable changes, some of which will get considerably more acute come 2013, the House will have done a valuable piece of work. The Minister must also understand that he has to respond with a sense of responsibility, from an adult point of view, by being very firm about his assurances about what will be reviewed and reported, and how, when and why. We need to know what we are being asked to support.
The point was made eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, but I have always felt that housing policy driven by housing benefit is completely crackers. It has all got out of kilter. We all need to step back to consider some of the excellent work done by John Hills in his excellent report, Ends and Means, and the Kate Barker recommendations of 2004—all a bit long in the tooth now, but the direction of travel necessary in the long term is all there. That work can be built on in future.
The private rented sector is not a place for long-term, low-income households’ housing needs to be met. It is a device that should be for another segment of our society altogether. We have let it get out of control in a way that is difficult to justify. Like colleagues, I find it difficult to be sure that the savings set out in these plans will be realised as they are expected to be without unintended consequences. It is not just the June 2010 Budget proposals or the spending review proposals—as, again, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, it is the universal credit changes, which are profound.
The House can be reassured that it will get a chance to come back to some of these issues. I give an undertaking to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that if we do not get a proper review or if we get a proper review but a red traffic light on the basis of the red, amber and green system of risk assessment on some of these issues, I will happily consider joining him in the Lobby if the Government do not measure up to the requirements, which are felt on all sides to be necessary, before we can go home this evening satisfied that we have done our job properly.
I conclude by mentioning four—well, four and a half—things that I want in the review. The first has been discussed earlier. I want to know exactly what proportion of the market the Government expect to be accessible to people who are on local housing allowance. I do not believe that the proportion of 30 per cent will hold. Once it is indexed to CPI, there is no real expectation that across the country LHA clients will be able to access 30 per cent of the market. That is my view in London and other areas.
The Government need to explain what proportion of the private rented sector they eventually expect the changes to make available to the client group. I think that the market will fragment. I think that the pressure coming into the private rented sector is likely to segment into a binary system where people who are unable to get on to the first rung of the owner-occupation ladder will be in a much more advantageous place. There are many more of them. The evidence that went into the DWP Select Committee report indicates that there is enough pressure there to keep rents rising and that demand will increase. There is a real risk that the sector will split. That will be made worse after 2013.
Secondly, on housing and homelessness, we need to make sure that the homelessness assessment that we are making in this review is not limited merely to statutory cases; it must include non-priority cases as well. I have to say that as a Scot because there is a long-standing commitment by the Scottish Government to abolish priority cases from 2012. Therefore, there is a devolution dimension to some of this, and it risks undermining the devolution settlement if we do not get a proper review that accommodates not just Scotland but Northern Ireland as well. I know that the Minister is sensitive to that because he has had some correspondence on it, but it is a very important point.
Thirdly, with regard to the statutory definition of homelessness, we need some assurances about temporary accommodation and the knock-on effect that the housing benefit changes we are making will have on some of the local authority arrangements for setting up placement agreements on long-term leasing. If we do not do that, it will be very difficult to predict the chances of local authorities being able to manage their caseloads. All that will get worse when the single room rent and the under-occupation rule changes come in in 2013 for the whole of the social rented sector. That will be a dangerous moment for which we must make appropriate provision.
My fourth point is that the long-term costs of migration have to be monitored. We have had evidence of the consequences of migration and displacement, and any review that is worth its salt or worth having at all must take that into consideration—even if it only begins to look at the methodology of assessing the effects of migration and displacement—before we can be confident that we know what we are doing.
My half point concerns non-dependant deductions. It is completely impossible to justify a 27 per cent increase in non-dependant deductions for the next three years with no system for determining why that figure is chosen. As far as I understand it, the Government are saying, “Oh well, it hasn’t changed since 2001”. Even if you took CPI, RPI or any combination and compounded the figures, you might get a 30 per cent increase over that period in terms of the impact on non-dependant charges. However, it is not acceptable to invent something called an “index of eligible rents”, to fix it at 27 per cent and impose it over a three-year period. This is not part of these regulations; it is part of the operating benefit, which is why the Government do not need to justify it either to the SSAC or to anyone else. It is completely indefensible and I cannot understand why the non-dependant charges are being changed in this way.
The House owes a debt of gratitude to all those who have provided briefings—in particular, the Social Security Advisory Committee. Sir Richard Tilt is a wise man. He has a difficult job but he provides evidence in which I have confidence. That, together with the Shelter report and the work of the Select Committee, demonstrates to me beyond peradventure that there is work to be done here. Risks are being run and, unless we carry out a serious review, obtaining evidence in which we can be confident, we will be selling this very vulnerable client group short in the future, and I do not want that to happen.
My Lords, this has been quite a long discussion but I would say that its impact on our communities is as important as what we have been discussing in this House over the past two weeks.
Of all the government cuts, the ones in this area are probably the cruellest. They affect people’s homes, where they live and how they live, and how communities operate. Indeed, if a decision in this House were based on merit, the Motions of my noble friend Lord Knight would carry the day in this Chamber. The Minister may have the comfort of getting votes from those around him but I cannot convince myself that all members of the coalition—I am looking particularly at the Liberal Democrat Benches—are sitting comfortably while supporting this policy. That is based on the many debates that we have had in this House in the nearly 20 years in which I have been a Member.
I can picture a House that did not have a coalition but would be faced with support from the Lib Dem Members. It is also telling that the Minister, who I know will put up a brave fight for his Government’s policy, must be feeling very isolated. Not one member of the coalition has stood up in this debate in support of the Government’s policy. I think that speaks volumes about the many Members on the Benches opposite.
I will support, and I hope the Minister will support, the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, who has enormous experience and knowledge of the housing sector and communities. In this rather lengthy debate, we have not covered other areas of the impact of this policy. Naturally, the House has as a priority the impact on single parents and other people in our community who have the narrowest shoulders with which to bear the implications. However, I suggest that this has enormous economic implications, too. We have a shortage of housing in this country; the impact of this policy will be that, in three or four years’ time, that shortage will have increased and will be extremely costly to rectify.
It also means, without being too emotional about it, the increasing ghettoisation in our cities, London most of all. How will our businesses be able easily to get labour when many people in their community have had to move outside of the city because they could not afford the rents inside? So this is a very far-reaching policy; it is not about simply taking an average of £9 out of someone’s weekly income. It has a much more far-reaching impact than that.
I hope that the Minister will accept the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best—second best though it may be, and I think it is. The wording is quite specific, and I know the department will carry out a review annually: that is its responsibility. But the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best, covers quite specific areas: children, homelessness and the resources that local authorities can allocate to this important area.
If a citizen does not have a home, he does not have anything. Therefore, I hope the Minister will accept the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, and that this House, operating at its best, as it usually does, will monitor the policy very closely and debate it as often as is necessary, until we rectify some of the cruelty we now face.
I support the two Motions moved by my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth and that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best. The noble Lord, Lord Best, anticipates a significant statement from the Minister, and I look forward to that as well. If it were to signify the withdrawal of these orders at the twelfth hour, the Minister would become an even greater national treasure than that described by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, but I do not hold my breath.
My noble friend was right to signify that he was not going to press his Motions. In many ways, it would be good to test the view of the House to see if we could stop these orders in their tracks, but I think it has helped the tenor of our debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, has said. Of course, if we did defeat the orders, we would have to carve out, perhaps through the welfare reform Bill, those two parts of the order that we do support, as my noble friend has said: the provisions relating to carers and an additional room being allowed, and the removal of the £15 excess. We sought to do this before the election, and some noble Lords may recall that one party represented here was quite opposed to that. I think it is right now to remove that excess.
Others have explored the thrust of these orders. The most damaging are the setting of the local housing allowance at the 30th percentile of rents in each broad rental market area and the introduction of absolute caps relating to the number of bedrooms in a property. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked whether the Minister could say what proportion of the rental market is in fact available to housing benefit claimants. I understand that the 30th percentile would mean, at least on day one, that 30 per cent of rents would potentially be affordable. It does not mean that 30 per cent would be available, and once we move to uprating by CPI, not even that first proposition would hold true.
Who bears the cost of the benefit savings is at the heart of the debate we are having. Will it fall wholly or mainly on landlords or on tenants who are, by definition, the poor? In considering these matters, we need to be mindful that they are just part of a package of measures aimed at cutting the cost of housing benefit. Still to come are increases in non-dependant deductions, the uprating of LHAs by CPI rather than by actual movements of rents, the docking of 10 per cent for those on JSA for more than 12 months and the extension of the single room rate for individuals up to the age of 35.
The need to tackle the budget deficit is acknowledged, which is why we accept and, indeed, initiated the withdrawal of the £15 excess, but the speed and depth of the cuts proposed is not something we support, as my noble friend has explained. The distribution of the cuts, which the IFS analyses will mean that by 2013-14 there will be an increase in absolute poverty by 300,000 children and 200,000 working-age parents, largely driven by the housing benefit cuts, is simply not acceptable. The DWP issued an impact assessment in November, together with an equality impact assessment. My noble friend Lady Sherlock spoke with some passion about this. The DWP suggests that it cannot assess the behavioural effects of the housing benefit proposals, although it provided an assessment on the assumption that housing choices on rent levels would be unaffected. As we have heard, it estimated that households would lose £12 a week on average, but declared itself unable to estimate the number of households that may move. In contrast, Shelter estimated that 68,000 to 134,000 would move nationally, and the GLA estimated that some 9,000 households may need to move in London.
In the context of our debates, £12 is sometimes not seen as a meaningful figure, but the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford brought us down to earth on that, as did my noble friend Lady Sherlock who said that it is better to talk in terms of a pair of shoes or enough food on the table. Excluding the removal of the £15 a week excess, the impact assessment still shows that 68 per cent of LHA claimant households will lose on average £10 a week and that losses for those in five-bedroom accommodation will average £74 a week.
Another consequence the impact assessment acknowledges but does not quantify is the prospect of increased homelessness. It also acknowledges that local authorities have a duty to find school places for children moving into their area and that that can lead to increased costs and that children who experience disruption in their schooling may do less well than would otherwise be the case. It recognises that there may be additional burdens on local authorities when families move into an area requiring a care-and-support package, and for disabled people, as we have heard, the DWP states that the LHA proposals could reduce options to help independence and lead to the loss of informal carers and support networks. They are retrograde provisions indeed, as explained by my noble friend Lady Wilkins. For individuals in work, an enforced move could extend their commute to their place of work.
There is a list of probable consequences, but there is no fundamental assessment of or research into the extent to which these circumstances will arise or into how people’s lives will be affected. There is just a cruel acceptance of the traumas that these proposals will visit on poor families and the damage they will inflict on them, their families and their communities. All of this has to be considered in the context of 48 per cent of people on LHA already facing shortfalls between their benefit and their rent. It is inevitable that people having to move, homelessness increasing and debt rising will become a reality. The Government assert that these matters will be mitigated principally by downward pressure on private sector rents, by transitional relief, by households choosing more appropriate accommodation, and by additional funding for discretionary payments.
Transitional relief is welcome as far as it goes, but as Steve Webb said in another place when these orders were debated, no new resources of any magnitude are being made available. The relief extended to existing claimants is to be funded out of accelerated pain for new claimants, including those low-income families either in or out of work. How does it help with work incentives in the transition when the cost of trying employment but not succeeding could be returning to a more draconian LHA regime? The additional funding for discretionary payments is again to be welcomed, but it is a fraction of the money which these changes are to withdraw from the system. In so far as downward pressure on rents is concerned—the nub of the debate—to rest one’s case on a certainty that this will happen in a comprehensive way is, on the basis of the evidence, speculative, to say the least.
What are the pressures on private sector rents? We know that in the decade to 2009, the number of households in England increased by 7 per cent or 1.3 million. This is a trend which, because of increasing longevity and changing lifestyles, is likely to continue. The dramatic fall-off in mortgage lending and the huge cuts in capital financing for social renting households will mean that the private rented sector will bear the strain for some time to come. To the extent that HB claimants do what the Government hope and focus their housing opportunities on the 30th percentile, will this not have the effect of bunching claimants around fewer properties, again potentially putting upward pressure on rents?
The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee considered a range of submissions on the private rented sector’s response to these reforms. The Resolution Foundation argued:
“Many low earners are already experiencing difficulties accessing the PRS [private rental sector] due to poor local supply, lack of decent accommodation and few landlords willing to let to this market. The Government's proposed changes to Local Housing Allowance will further reduce choice for low earners and may encourage landlords to stop letting to this group entirely”.
The Building of Social Housing Foundation submitted on the following lines:
“As tenants’ benefits payments seem even more uncertain … the ability of private landlords to finance the acquisition and improvement of homes may be hindered. Private landlords may decide to stop renting to Housing Benefit recipients altogether if they can find alternative tenants”.
The Residential Landlords Association argued:
“The shortages of available affordable accommodation, with the problems facing the owner/occupier market, are one of the reasons why the private rented sector is now such an important expanding sector”.
This could mean that claimants of housing benefit will be squeezed out of the private rented market. The BPF criticised the Government’s own impact assessment for failing to provide any consideration of the wider property market. It concluded:
“A significant proportion of LHA claimants, probably more than half, live in areas of high demand for housing and therefore are going to find it difficult to compete for available homes”.
A study suggested:
“Landlords may be willing to accept falls in rents ... if the loss in immediate rental yield is compensated for by strong expectation of capital yield. However, many independent forecasters expect weak growth in house prices in the near future”.
The Government have put a lot behind the argument that when you are a 40 per cent purchaser, you are changing the terms of trade because there is nowhere else to go. Shelter points out:
“By the Department’s own estimations almost 50% of claimants make up a shortfall between what they get in payments and what they pay in rent”.
The BPF, when expressing the view that downward pressure on rents would be limited, stated:
“So, it would simply be a small stone in the Atlantic. There is this huge tsunami of different people trying to get into the private rented sector at the moment”.
Direct payments to landlords would lower risks to landlords and could lead to lower rents. However, it seems that this could not be delivered sustainably once the universal credit arrives. Nevertheless, adopting the best practice of some local authorities—Edinburgh was cited in the evidence—could go some way towards encouraging landlords to continue serving LHA clients.
On the one hand, the proposals recognise the range of negative consequences which will flow from the changes to LHA without a full assessment of their extent; on the other, the Government place their faith in substantial mitigation because of downward pressure on rents, which has not been demonstrated to be a probable outcome. It is time to think again.
My Lords, this has been an important and interesting debate. I commend particularly the noble Lords, Lord Knight of Weymouth and Lord Best, on bringing forward these Motions and securing this debate. I shall try to answer as many as possible of the points raised, but, since there was an awful lot of them, I may not cover absolutely everything.
Perhaps I may first put the debate into context and explain why the statutory instruments are essential to advance the changes that we have planned. Housing benefit increases have been quite startling, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out. During the last 10 years, housing benefit expenditure as a whole has nearly doubled in cash terms from £11 billion to £21.5 billion in the current year. Only £2 billion of this increase is due to caseload. About £5 billion is due to general price inflation, but, most importantly, £4 billion is due to growth in private and social rents over and above general inflation. Private rents for benefit recipients have risen in real terms 10 per cent more rapidly than rents in the general market. These are exactly the sort of increases that we are seeking to contain. Without any reform, expenditure is forecast to be £24 billion by 2014-15.
It was imperative that we acted swiftly to stop the runaway costs of housing benefit, those costs having been allowed to rise without restriction year after year. As we made clear in the June Budget last year, welfare reform savings play an important role in reducing the overall budget deficit. The changes introduced by the statutory instruments alone add up to £1 billion by 2013-14.
We must be fair to the taxpayer. It is not right that families who work hard to pay their own rent have to pay even more so that those on housing benefit can live in homes that they could not think of affording. Some of the rates are extreme. I know that not a lot of people are taking £2,000 a week for a five-bedroom property in central London, but there are some and the current system allows it. Further down the scale, £500 a week is being paid for two-bedroom properties and £370 a week for one-bedroom properties at this year’s rates. The Government’s measures are designed to take this under some control.
One of the measures that we have announced, and which has been widely welcomed tonight, is providing for an additional bedroom for disabled people living in the private rented sector who need a non-resident, overnight carer.
Noble Lords have gone through the other changes, but I shall summarise them. They include applying an overall cap to local housing allowance rates and setting the maximum rate at four bedrooms. Those rates are £250 for one bedroom, £290 for two bedrooms, £340 for three bedrooms and £400 for four bedrooms. That is a little over £20,000 as the top rate. We are also removing the £15 weekly excess, which the previous Administration would have liked to do but did not. I do not think that anyone argues that it is appropriate that we pay people more than they pay in rent. It was introduced to encourage a process of negotiation between those who are renting and landlords, but it does not seem to have had that effect, so there does not seem to be much point in paying those figures.
The final element that we have been discussing tonight is the adjustment of the local housing rate from the median to the 30th percentile. Overall, there has been a lot of scaremongering generally, and a little of that tonight—and some false reporting about the measures, although there has not been that tonight. Some estimates of the number of people who will be made homeless are, quite frankly, ridiculous. It is simply irresponsible to suggest that thousands on thousands of people will be made homeless and will have to leave the capital in droves, as some have said. I welcome the opportunity to put the record straight and to respond to the concerns raised today.
First, I shall address what is essentially a London issue, surrounding the maximum weekly rates of local housing allowance that we will apply from April. They are still extremely generous rates. It is still far more than the vast majority of people pay out—at the rate of four bedrooms and £400 and more than £20,000 a year, a typical family would need to earn £80,000 a year to be able to afford that kind of rent.
These reforms are not about excluding benefit recipients from the nicest areas, as some have argued. We are simply ensuring a fair deal for the taxpayer. The simple truth is that individuals who claim housing benefit according to local housing allowance rules should face similar choices to those people in low-paid work. There is simply no reason why we should see people moving vast distances, and no mass moves out of the south of the country. In all but three of the most central areas of London, at least 30 per cent of properties will be affordable within local housing allowance rates. I shall just explain that figure, because there has been quite a lot of misunderstanding about it. The survey is based on the properties that are not in large occupied by recipients of housing benefit—so it is 30 per cent at least, except in those three areas, plus whatever elements of the housing stock currently occupied by housing benefit recipients that will go on being affordable. So it is a large proportion, although it is impossible to put an exact number on it, because clearly we are expecting prices to move and more properties to come into that category. But a large proportion of houses will remain affordable.
A small number of people in the most expensive places will, of course, have to move, but they will not have to move far, and we will work with local authorities to give those people the support that they need. In central London, 2.5 million jobs are accessible within 45 minutes of travel. Bus fares, although they went up this month, are no more than £1.30 for a single journey so they can go long distances on a bus. Low-income working households mostly pay a rent slightly lower than the appropriate local housing allowance rate. This group living in private rented accommodation is mobile; 40 per cent of them have been in that accommodation for less than a year. It is not unusual for families to move. Indeed, over a quarter of a million people moved out of or between inner London boroughs in 2008-09, which is a point that the noble Lord, Lord German, made.
On the estimates of homelessness that various bodies have put out, it is important not to rely on those estimates if they are based on what landlords say they will do or on early experience. We must look at the shortfalls. After the reforms, 32 per cent will see no change in shortfall, 450,000 households will have a shortfall of less than £10 a week and 35,000 will have a shortfall of more than £20 a week. Not all of those will have to move, let alone become homeless.
One difficulty in writing an impact assessment when there are behavioural and market-based effects is that it is not easy to quantify those impacts, because they involve a complex interplay of behavioural decisions by individual landlords and individual tenants. We are talking about market forces here. Although economic theory would suggest that if a purchaser of up to 40 per cent of a market reduces the amount that they are willing to spend, it will cause rents to fall, it is only in the end through observation that we will be able to obtain absolutely conclusive evidence.
We have had similar concerns raised about our decision to cap local housing allowance levels at the four-bedroom rate but that reflects the kind of housing choices that are made by larger families who are not on benefit. It builds on the restriction introduced by the now Opposition in April 2009 to cap at the five-bedroom rates. Let us be clear: most families not on benefit cannot afford to live in properties with five or more bedrooms. We are reflecting here the choices made by families everywhere.
These measures have been closely scrutinised. We have made available more data on impacts than has ever been the case. Clearly, some people will receive less benefit as a result of the changes but that does not necessarily mean that all of those people will be drastically worse off. The gap between the 30th percentile and 50th percentile can be quite narrow. On average, it is currently £15 a week for one-bedroom properties and £26 per week for two-bed properties in London. In the outer south-east area, the difference can be as little as £8 a week for two-bedroom properties. Clearly, one effect that will happen is that the 30th percentile and the median can start moving together if we do not get the downward pressure that we are trying to impose on the rates. That would actually be bad news for the Government, because we would not lose some of the gains but see a market response as those medians move together, rather than the wholesale disruption that some people have been forecasting. In practice, setting the local housing allowance rates at the 30th percentile merely reflects the choices of low-income households; we know that from the research that we undertook last year.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, told us about the attitude of landlords. Rather than accept his concerns wholesale—although he is clearly a great authority in this area—I would point out that, in the last 18 months, more than 400,000 private rented sector tenants have been claiming, which shows that landlords are certainly prepared to rent to tenants claiming housing benefit. I repeat my point that, at 40 per cent of the market in not all, but many areas, landlords will have no choice but to reduce their rents and give back some of the excess gain that we seem to have seen in this part of the market. We are also giving landlords an incentive by widening local authority discretion to pay housing benefit direct to the landlord, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. We are not giving this discretion away for nothing and the complex language here was to make sure that we get something for something: that if we are translating a payment stream from, let us say, a triple-B-rated level to a triple-A sovereign income stream, we get something for our money. That is why that is written so carefully.
Because I do not want to run out of time, I will jump to the key thing and I will come back to whatever I can fit in after that. I want to turn to the important issue of the monitoring and evaluation of these changes. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his timely Motion. I am very happy to agree to his proposal for an independent review. I make a firm commitment to the House that we intend to commission independent, external research to help us evaluate the impact of the reforms. This review will cover all the areas that the noble Lord outlined in his Motion. I can assure the House that it will be comprehensive and thorough and, of course, I readily agree that the outcome of the evaluation should be presented to both Houses, together with a written ministerial statement. Among the issues that it would cover—these were points raised by noble Lords—will be homelessness and moves; the shared room rate and houses in multiple occupation; what is happening in Greater London; what is happening in rural communities; what is happening in black and minority ethnic households; large families; older people; people with disabilities and working claimants. That is what this review will cover.
The Minister has been very helpful in directly addressing the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best. I am sure that the whole House will be grateful if he gives us assurance on the one outstanding feature, that this will be an annual review reporting to both Houses of Parliament.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. Very elegantly, I have an answer for him on my next page—although, of course, I am not reading, I am keeping carefully to my text in this important area. The noble Lord, Lord Best, suggested that the review should be published after a year and we considered that point very carefully, but given the implementation timescales for these changes, particularly the transitional protection arrangements that we have introduced, I think that one year is too soon for a meaningful piece of evaluation research. Many housing benefit recipients will not be affected by the changes until well into 2012. We will therefore make the findings available in early 2013, with initial findings available in the spring of 2012 and an interim report in the summer of 2012.
That is very helpful of the Minister. I fully understand his reasoning for why the report may therefore need to come out somewhat later than the noble Lord, Lord Best, originally proposed. Will the Minister also be giving us details about what is happening with rent levels, the 30th percentile, CPI and as a result, if necessary, the continued rebasing of the 30th percentile figure to ensure that it does not drift down because of the effect of CPI?
I thank the noble Baroness for that. If I have one minute when I finish my prepared speech, I will try to touch on the CPI.
With regard to further reporting after what I have just described, I am not convinced that it would be appropriate to commit to an annual report on these reforms when so many other welfare changes will be made, as the noble Baroness has pointed out—not least, the introduction of the universal credit. I suggest that we ask the authors of the independent review to recommend whether they think that a follow-up evaluation will be necessary. As I said, I am happy to commit to the independent review that I have described.
Before I close on the CPI, I should point out that it is designed to bear down and we are locked into it for the years 2013-14 and 2014-15. Thereafter it is up to the Government to decide whether rates using that methodology go out of kilter.
These changes are important. We have put in a lot of transitional support along with a comprehensive programme of practical support to help local authorities implement these measures so that we can finally reform housing benefit and make it fit for purpose. There is no doubt that these statutory instruments are sensible and proportionate. They must go ahead and I commend them to the House.
My Lords, I do not want to delay the House for very long. I thank noble Lords on all sides for what was an excellent debate and a demonstration of this House at its best. As the Minister said, it was an important and significant debate.
If Members of your Lordships’ House who were not present for the whole debate find themselves scratching around for something to do late at night, perhaps later on in the week, they would do well to read it in Hansard, although I fear that if they were members of the coalition they might find it slightly depressing, given that it certainly gives the lie to the notion that we are all in this together. The noble Lord, Lord Best, was so persuasive that everyone agreed with the case that he made for an independent review—even, I think, the Minister.
We heard about the human cost from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Wilkins and Lady Turner; we had the passion of the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean; we had the forensic analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, making a strong case that the housing benefit levels do not shape the market but landlords do; and we heard specific worries on child protection from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. The only comfort for the Minister and for those reading Hansard afterwards might come from the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, but they would be minute crumbs of comfort given the balance of the speeches, where the noble Lords had more in common with their noble friend Lord Kirkwood, who summed up the cross-party opposition very well before my noble friend Lord McKenzie completed the argument.
I thank all those who briefed us before this debate, particularly the Social Security Advisory Committee for its excellent report, and the officials at the Department for Work and Pensions for a devastating impact assessment on the Minister’s proposals.
The Minister himself made a brave attempt to persuade us that everything will be okay. In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord German, suggested that there was as much certainty as backing a Grand National winner in trying to predict the outcome of these regulations. My money is on my noble friend Lady Hollis’s analysis over the Minister’s. I am disappointed that we have not had a commitment to an annual report. It will be up to the noble Lord, Lord Best, to decide whether to divide the House, but for now I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.