Housing (Scotland)

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 10:39 am on 20th March 1996.

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Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East 10:39 am, 20th March 1996

No. The hon. Gentleman has made his speech, so he will have to sit down.

The same is true for those with learning difficulties and those who suffer problems with their mental health. If they are to avoid a lifetime in institutional care, there will have to be greater investment in integrating housing with social care in Scotland. The examples are endless. They include meeting the needs of the 78,000 homeless people in Scotland, according to the latest estimate by Shelter; meeting the needs of rural Scotland, which Conservative Members claim to represent; meeting the needs of young people—particularly very young people—coming out of care, a group whose plight was recently described by the journalist Jon Snow as a continuing national disgrace; and meeting the needs of those trapped on waiting lists and those in damp-ridden houses.

The knee-jerk response to all those demands for investment would be that the country cannot afford it and that the public purse is already stretched to the limit trying to satisfy the demands for social welfare spending and that housing will simply have to take its turn. That response ignores completely the strong economic case for investing in housing which receives widespread support across Scotland. Time prevents me from discussing every aspect, but I shall give a few examples of the arguments that support it.

House building and repair remain a labour-intensive industry that creates more jobs for a given level of investment than almost any other sector of the economy. Therefore, by investing in housing, we can quickly get more people back to work so that fewer people will claim benefit and be a drain on the public purse.

As has already been said, poor housing has a direct impact on people's health and therefore contributes to increased spending on the health service, as is evidenced by the incidence of bronchitis and asthma. Increased investment in housing would decrease the demand for spending on the national health service. The lack of good-quality, affordable rented accommodation reduces labour mobility and undermines our national economic performance. A growing number of people in Scotland are beginning to ask not whether we can afford to invest in housing, but whether we can afford not to do so.

Let me concentrate on one particular issue of housing investment under the present Government—housing benefit. Yesterday, I attended the national poverty hearings at Church house in London. It was a moving occasion in which real experts in poverty—the poor themselves—told the rest of us what it was like to be poor. They said that the hardest part was the negativity and hostility directed towards them by the rest of society—for example, being described or thought of as a scrounger, a waster, someone who did not want to work or was congenitally lazy. One of them summed it up beautifully when he said that there is no such thing as the poverty gene: people are poor not because of any lack in themselves, but because they are victims of a system which discriminates against them and makes them poor. The housing benefit system that has been promoted by the Conservative party is evidence of that.

Housing benefit in Scotland is enormously expensive. It currently costs the taxpayer around £900 million every year. That is £320 million more than the additional investment called for by Shelter, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and other bodies. They call for an additional investment in the housing stock of £2.9 billion in the next five years. The Minister would cry, "Where will the money come from?" but over the same five years he plans to invest £4.5 billion in the housing benefit system. We are entitled to ask him where he plans to find that money.

What are taxpayers being asked to pay for by that huge investment? They are being asked to subsidise unrealistic rent levels to keep rent at a level that tenants cannot afford to pay. They are being asked to pay to make it impossible for people on full housing benefit to get off benefit and back to work. They are being asked to pay to make people entirely dependent and trap them in poverty. Those are the consequences of the Government's housing policies.

There is an overwhelming need to rethink the present strategy whereby ever-increasing rents in Scotland are backed up by ever-increasing levels of housing benefit. Shelter has asked that urgent consideration be given to the relationship between rents and the benefit system. It is not alone in that call. Scottish Homes—the Government's own national housing agency—is arguing the economic case for controlling housing costs in Scotland. It points out that, for those not in work, the high cost of housing, coupled with the operation of the benefit system, reduces work incentives, thereby reducing overall labour supply and damaging the economic interests of the Scottish people. That leads us to ask: why does the Minister not listen to the advice of his national housing agency and break the ever-spiralling levels of housing benefit, rising rents and benefit dependency in Scotland?

Housing must become the priority of the elected representatives of the Scottish people and the focus of a genuine national debate about the best way to tackle Scotland's housing crisis. Housing must be viewed not in isolation but as part of the wider social and economic context. At the end of the day, housing impacts on the country's economic performance. It impacts on people's health and makes them less able to contribute to the economy. Housing also impacts on educational opportunities. It is critical that housing should be viewed once again as part of the wider economy and as an investment rather than a drag on public spending. If that is to occur, there must be a serious national debate about housing in Scotland. That will never happen in this place: it will happen only in a Scottish Parliament.