Housing Benefit (West Ham)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:34 pm on 22 November 2010.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 10:34, 22 November 2010

I have only six minutes left in which to respond to the hon. Lady, and it is probably important to do that rather than to respond to another hon. Member.

I have explained our broad estimate. A good proportion of rental properties will be available throughout the borough, but I agree that we do not want constant moves. No one wants that. The challenge is to ensure that when people enter a tenancy agreement they do so sustainably. All we are trying to do is to ensure that the choices made by people on benefit at the start of a tenancy, when they choose a property and a rent, involve the same constraints as for someone in low-paid work. The change is not designed to be penal; it is designed to be fair and equal. That is the idea.

The hon. Lady cited a figure of 82,000 people being at risk of losing their home, but that was based on London Councils' research and not that of the Department for Work and Pensions, and it was based on a fairly low response rate from landlords. Moreover, landlords are bound to say that they do not want any reform that is going to cap what they get. Landlords have been the principal beneficiaries of the local housing allowance system. We have already seen private sector rents falling in the past 18 months, yet the rents paid to people on LHA have been going up. Through housing benefit and LHA, we are putting more than £21 billion a year into that market, and it would be implausible to suggest that we are not having an effect on it.

We believe in trying to restrain the growth in rents, although in four years time, we will still be spending more in cash terms on housing benefits than we are this year. I think that the hon. Lady used the term "swingeing" cuts about something else, but these are not swingeing cuts. This is about restraining the rate of growth of housing benefit, so it is a far more modest reform than she suggests.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of slum landlords, for whom we have no time, and one of the things we want to do is to change landlord behaviour, which is crucial. We are considering whether, by paying housing benefit directly to landlords, we could use that leverage to try to get rents down. Yes, some people might face shortfalls-I accept that point, although I think that the figures might sometimes be exaggerated-but we are not in a static situation. The question is: what happens next? If landlords, particularly those renting to housing benefit and LHA tenants, see that we are not simply going to follow the market up, that could change rent-setting behaviour.

The hon. Lady made a point about the consumer prices index, and about the way in which we are going to index LHA in the future. Her view seemed to be that we should simply follow the market, but we think that that has been the biggest problem with LHA over the years. We have actually stoked up the market, and then increased LHA to keep pace with the market, so that rents keep rising. We are not getting good quality accommodation, however; we are simply driving up rents, and that is not what we want to spend public money on.

I want to come back to the hon. Lady's point about constant moves and people being constantly moved around an area. Clearly, there is an issue about the transition to the new regime, and we are putting in place a trebling of the discretionary housing payment system. More of that money will go to boroughs such as her own and to other inner London boroughs that are most affected, because we want the particularly hard cases, where people are particularly affected by the changes, to have extra resources to deal with that. However, the long-term goal has to be to try to get rent levels under control, rather than to keep stoking them up.

The hon. Lady referred in the debate in 2008 to the impact of high rents in temporary accommodation. She said:

"My constituents are virtually imprisoned by the excessively high rents charged for temporary accommodation ".-[Official Report, 5 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 293.]

She was absolutely right, and in April 2010, a cap was introduced on the rents in temporary accommodation. Since then, the early evidence has shown that the rents in those properties have started to fall, so we have a precedent for what we are doing now. This is not nationwide, systematic evidence, but the early evidence suggests that what we are saying will happen in the wider market is already happening in the temporary accommodation market. That is what we as taxpayers, and as people who are concerned about our constituents, want to see. We want to see more of our money providing accommodation for people, and less of it simply stoking up the private rented sector.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of the changes to non-dependant deductions. They have been frozen for a number of years instead of being indexed, which would have been a more natural policy, and all we are doing is returning them to the level at which they would have been, had they been indexed. So, yes, there is an increase, but we are simply taking them back to their real value of a few years ago. She mentioned the consumer prices index being applied for ever, but that is not the intention. It will come into the LHA rates in 2013 for two years, and we will then look at the market and the impact of the changes that have been made. So we are trying to introduce a cap and to restrain the rate of growth of rents, but we are trying to do that with some flexibility. We will look at the broad rental market areas when we do that and try to ensure that they fit the local housing market situation.

I want to try to draw some of those threads together. First, it is vital that we do not overstate the impact of the changes. There will be an impact, but some of the numbers that get thrown around, such as the 82,000, are an exaggeration. We will see what impact they have, and there is the possibility of different rent levels as a result of the changes. There are also discretionary housing payments. The idea is to get good value for the taxpayer, but not to cause misery for the hon. Lady's constituents. That is not our intention, and I do not believe that we will do that.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

Correction

Official Report, 19 November 2010: in col. 1221, the intervention attributed to Harriett Baldwin should have been attributed to Fiona Bruce.