Housing Benefit (West Ham)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:14 pm on 22 November 2010.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:14, 22 November 2010

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend. A customer has choice, but I am sad to say that the people of Newham will have very little choice. What options are open to those facing a shortfall in rent? What alternative accommodation and what options to renegotiate will they have? There are 35,000 households in private rented accommodation in Newham, almost a third of which are on housing benefit. Given that the rents in my area are relatively low compared with the boroughs immediately adjacent and to the west, it is absurd to suggest that the changes will force down rents in the area, or that residents will have the option to renegotiate their rents downwards. The private sector in Newham can and will soak up the properties left by those who, owing to the changes, have to leave their homes. The changes will mean that those dependent on housing benefit will be unable to afford to live in Newham.

The Minister will also know that, despite the Housing Act 2004, there is a dark side to a small proportion of the private rented market. Anecdotal evidence from head teachers in my local schools suggests that a new breed of slum landlords who rent out houses to families by the room is emerging. I am also told that some landlords will rent only to migrants, because they are less likely to know their rights. As we know, landlords should turn down families who have too many children for the rooms available. Instead, vulnerable tenants are claiming for space that they are not allowed to use as other families are squeezed alongside them. That is a benefit fraud, and it is perpetrated at the behest of landlords.

There are currently not enough resources to police the growth in multiple occupation, which will increase exponentially as the single-room rent is extended up to the age of 35. However, regardless of those extreme cases, it is clear that the cuts in housing benefit will force many more households into overcrowded and substandard accommodation.

My hon. Friends and I have spoken many times before of the knock-on effects on families of being shunted around from house to house and living in poor conditions; of the profound impact that that can have on health, education, inclusion in the community and mental well-being; and of the dreadful impact on children and their ability to achieve their potential. There will be more stress and conflict as unemployed family members are unable to pay their non-dependant deductions, which are set to increase disproportionately. As Crisis has pointed out, there will be more single homelessness and, yes, more NEETS-people not in education, employment or training-in this big society.

I believe that the situation will now get worse. Last week's announcements by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions compounded all the problems that I have outlined. The universal benefit and its cap, set at £500 per week per family, will effectively mean pricing low-income families from the capital. Citizens Advice has stated that

"we are very concerned that the Government appears to be rushing into benefits policies that have not been thought through, or tested for their impact on individuals...The fact that the cap applies regardless of household size means that it will inevitably fall hardest on families with children.

Coming as it does on top of the cuts to housing benefit announced in June's emergency budget, a cap of £500 a week on household benefits will price many low income families out of living in London and the south-east of England altogether, and if it goes ahead will inevitably lead to widespread hardship, debt and homelessness...For example, a couple with four children currently receiving £350 a week in jobseekers allowance...child tax credit...and child benefit...and £25 in council tax benefit would be left with a maximum of £125 per week for rent."

The Government's impact assessment had little to say about the impact on children and poverty, yet London Councils calculate that nearly 80% of the households affected by the cap in London will be households with children.

Let us also recognise that there will be many thousands of families whose breadwinners may lose their jobs, but be horrified at the thought of claiming benefits. It is insulting to suggest that those people will have made a lifestyle choice to claim jobseeker's allowance. In Newham, it is currently estimated that 1,900 families will be affected by the absolute cap. There will be many more after the cuts to the public sector have impacted and unemployment in my constituency has risen. The 10% sanction on housing benefit for people who have been unemployed for 12 months will hit my constituents especially hard. There are 1,910 JSA claimants who have been out of work for a year or more in Newham, and 10,196 people claiming JSA in the borough. Nine JSA claimants are competing for each unfilled job vacancy in Newham, compared with a national average of 5:1. I genuinely believe that the 10% cut presupposes that living on £65 a week from jobseeker's allowance is a lifestyle choice.

The Budget and the comprehensive spending review proposals are unjust, and they appear to have been thrown together with a disregard for the consequences. This attempt to save money will, I believe, store up problems for the future. The problems of homelessness, debt, unstable homes and constant moves impact on children and families, preventing children from belonging to a community and fulfilling their potential, and storing up social problems that all the Sure Start facilities in the world will not be able to solve. It is truly difficult to see how that fits with the Government's commitment to end child poverty. This is not the big society. Quite the reverse: it is the sound of doors clanging shut and communities breaking apart. There appears to be a poverty of compassion in the coalition.

I hope that I have begun to outline some of the difficulties that I believe my community will face, given the changing benefit scene. I hope that the Minister will be able to address those concerns and offer some understanding both of the circumstances of Londoners and my constituents on low incomes, and of their challenges ahead. I and many anxious residents of Newham will listen eagerly to what he has to offer.