Housing Benefit

Part of Opposition Day — [5th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 9:01 pm on 9th November 2010.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 9:01 pm, 9th November 2010

This debate has been enlightening in many respects thanks to Members on both sides of the House. I shall not be repetitious; I shall just concentrate on putting on the record the plight of my constituents and the implications of the policy for them. It will at least give me some peace of mind that someone has spoken up for them.

Like every other Member, I have a weekly advice surgery-about twice a week at the moment. We have an open-door policy at the office, and we are swamped with casework, as many Members are. Half my casework is housing-related, and my surgery is the most distressing part of my week, as I am sure the surgery is for many Members are. It is heart-rending.

Families, who come with their children, are living in appalling housing conditions: overcrowded, sleeping three or four to a room and often, as Tessa Munt said, using their living rooms and other parts of the accommodation as bedrooms. They live in unsanitary conditions, lacking heat and hot water, and often their premises are damp. They live a nomadic life in my constituency, with 12 to 18-month accommodation licences, and their children move from school to school, disrupting their education.

We have not seen a housing crisis on this scale since the second world war. In the borough, I have 1,500 to 2,000 families and more who are homeless at any point in time. The reason for that has been mentioned-Bob Russell referred to it-and it is that the bulk of our council housing stock has been sold off. Little council housing has been built in 30 years, under both Governments, and the buy-to-let landlords have moved in to provide the accommodation. They fail in many instances to maintain the properties, and we also have Rachmanite landlords who abuse their tenants. They are profiteering from the housing shortage with high rents and, of course, through housing benefit, but I find it ironic that in this debate Members on one side of the House seem to be blaming the tenants and housing benefit for high rents, not the landlords themselves, who charge those high rents and exploit the benefits system.

Many families in my area already struggle to pay the rent, and many already make up the gap between benefits and rents. They receive some discretionary payments from the council, but they are few and far between, and the families get into debt and fall back on loan sharks. As a result, they often fall into rent arrears, get evicted and then become classified as intentionally homeless. We can see how people can get caught in a cycle of deprivation.

The new proposals will exacerbate the nightmare that many of my constituents already face. Some 3,000 families will lose out on anything between £6 and £27 a week. The London Councils survey, which has been quoted extensively, demonstrates that a large number of landlords have stated that they will evict families if the gap in rent is more than £20. Many families in my constituency will be evicted, and they are already rushed through eviction as it is. That means that there will be an increase in homelessness in my area and it will be extremely difficult to find accommodation. I already have families moving out of the area on different schemes who find it very difficult to find work elsewhere and then desperately seek to come back to be close to their family members.

The results of these proposals-I want to put this on record for my constituents-will be an increase in poverty, immense stress, and immense distress for many people, particularly at a time when unemployment is rising in my constituency, as it is across the country. I do not believe that cuts in benefits are the answer, or that people are incentivised to find work by poverty or by homelessness-in fact, it pushes them back into further depths of despair.

There is an alternative proposal for which many in this House have argued for a number of years. First, it is about building council homes again, and getting back to investing on a scale that meets the needs of our population. That means an element of redistribution of wealth and ensuring that people pay their taxes, particularly the corporations, so we must tackle tax avoidance and evasion. I believe that we need an emergency programme of house building to tackle the homelessness that we now have, particularly in London and the south-east.

Secondly, there should be rent controls. If benefits are high because rents are high, there is a simple solution that applies in many parts of Europe, where people have controlled the rents and thereby stopped the exploitation by landlords.

Thirdly, in areas such as mine we need a more radical solution to the level of homelessness. We should allow councils compulsorily to purchase empty properties so that we can put families into them. I find it a disgrace that a house will stand empty for a long period. Some 300,000 properties are empty for more than six months, while people are on the streets or living in housing deprivation. We have a housing crisis on our hands, and we need an emergency programme to tackle it.

I certainly do not believe that cuts in benefits will go any way towards tackling this problem-in fact, that approach will cause more homelessness, put more people into deprivation, and cause immense human suffering in our society. That is why I support the motion, and why I will do everything I possibly can in this House, in demonstrations, and in direct action on the streets to oppose these housing benefit proposals.