I repeat the declaration I made at the start of the Public Bill Committee, which is on the record.
I thank all those involved in Committee proceedings on this large and extensive Bill, including the two very patient Chairs, my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley and Mr Amess. Although we had well-informed discussions in Committee—Members on both sides of the House are to be commended—I am left with the feeling that we could have done with significantly more time to debate the issues.
Yesterday, the Minister started by saying that the Committee was consensual—not so on the housing proposals, I am afraid. We debated more than 40 amendments and new clauses on this part of the Bill, and not one was accepted by Government Front Benchers. Although I welcome the moves that the Minister has made today on a couple of our proposals, I do not get a sense that he is giving any ground. Indeed, having listened to his speech and responses, I think he is rather digging in; of course, that is his prerogative.
The Opposition cannot let these proposals go unchallenged. I will therefore speak to amendments 269, 270, 273 to 276 and 360, new clauses 24 and 25, and amendments 13, 14, 271, 272, 277 and 278, which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends. I flag it up at this stage, given that the Minister has not astounded us with a number of U-turns, that we will press for votes on amendment 13 on flexible tenancies and on amendment 271 on security of tenure.
New clause 19, which will allow local authorities to keep capital receipts relating to right-to-buy sales, is welcomed by the Opposition, although we would like to see more detail. We understand that it involves the removal of the ring fence around the proceeds from sales of land or property in that account. That raises the concern that that money could be moved away from meeting housing need.
The Government’s proposals on housing and homelessness are deeply damaging, and none more so than the proposal to end security of tenure in social housing. That will create two classes of tenant in social housing. There will be great uncertainty, because there will be different lengths of tenure and different levels of rent, with little rational relationship between the two. There will be a divide between those who have been fortunate enough to get security of tenure in their social housing, and those who have been made to wait for too long and will be granted a tenancy for as little as two years. Tenants whose financial circumstances improve above an arbitrary level will potentially be told to pack up and move on.
As a result of the complexity of the system that is being brought forward, which will be a bureaucratic nightmare, a household in a three-bedroom house could pay less rent and have greater security than a household next door in a two-bedroom flat. Frankly, that will be divisive. We all have people who come to our constituency surgeries and say, “We don’t understand why so-and-so has higher priority than me.” These proposals will add a further layer to that and will be problematic.
We heard in the run-up to the announcement on the military covenant—I digress a little, but this is housing-related—about how difficult it is for military families to have to move every couple of years. That often happens and I see it a lot at the naval base. Only this week in questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Robathan, said that he had spoken with the Minister for Housing and Local Government on this issue. The Under-Secretary has said in the past that this instability is unacceptable and that soldiers, sailors and airmen need and deserve help to protect the stability of their families’ homes and education.
However, the message from the Department for Communities and Local Government to all families in social housing is, “Get a better job and you will lose your home. Invite your partner to move in with you and start a family, and you will put your home at risk.” At a time when we want people to do their best to get on in life, and to build something better for themselves and their families, this is the wrong policy. Labour will stand up for people who strive and who put the hours in to better their lot. What will happen to people who fall foul of the new Tory rules and are told to leave their council or housing association home simply because they have worked hard, if they subsequently lose their job or fall ill and are unable to work? What will their entitlement be then? They will go to the back of the queue and start all over again. Where is the incentive to work and where is the fairness?
In Committee, we received a powerful submission from a young woman called Jessica Sim, who lives in social housing. Her experience will be mirrored by many other tenants. She said:
“To get an affordable secure home was a great incentive to pursue my career. I also spent a great deal of time and money improving my council home and garden…and getting involved in my community association to improve the area, knowing that we could stay.”
She went on:
“What if the people who are kicked out lose their job or get fed up being hardly better off working? Back on housing benefit, back in the queue, the bill will be enormous. Families have a better chance if they have a secure place to live. Moving people on does not solve a shortage of housing.”
She rightly identified that to solve the housing crisis, the Government need to build more homes. Their policy seems to be aimed at trying to solve the shortage of social housing by allowing everyone a year or two in a social home before moving them on. Ministers seem to have failed to realise that to house people we need not to give them shorter tenancies but to build homes.
What will be the consequences of that policy of limiting social housing so that it is not available to those who work hard to build something for themselves, or to those who invest in their homes and communities? What will happen when we reduce estates to being areas that people pass through at their most vulnerable point, and transitional communities of the most deprived? We will go back almost to the state of social housing in the first half of the last century, when access to it was limited by law to the “working classes”. That term was only ever defined once in legislation, in paragraph (12)(e) of the schedule to the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1903, as those
“whose income in any case does not exceed an average of thirty shillings a week”.
In today’s money, that would be an annual income of just over £7,000. Mean as the Government are, I do not expect them to set a threshold as low as that, which would make them comparable with Tory Governments of the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the message that their change will send is the same now as it was then: that social housing is for the poor. It is to segregate people from other sections of society that are seen as doing better.
It is more than 62 years since the House decided, without a Division, to accept that segregating social housing off for just one deprived section of society was entirely wrong. In that debate, Aneurin Bevan said—it is as true now as it was then—that it was
“entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live…that from one sort of township should come one income group and from another sort of township another income group…if we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should be all drawn from the different sections of the community”.
The principle of mixed communities in social housing, in which the Labour party should take great pride, was welcomed at that time by the Tory Front-Bench spokesman, the Member for Hertford. He said:
“It is, of course very desirable that the black-coated workers”— administrative workers—
“should not be shut out from the benefit of local authority housing accommodation.”—[Hansard, 16 March 1949; Vol. 462, c. 2126-38.]
I am only sorry that the wisdom of Churchillian conservatism, such as it was, has not carried through to coalition Cameronism.
Sixty years on, the idea that this country is stronger when its communities are more diverse, and that its society is more cohesive when it comprises a broad and mixed swathe of people, is no longer supported by the Conservative party. Nor is it supported by the Liberal party, whose MPs did not oppose the measures in this Bill in Committee despite trying to raise their concerns by tabling amendments. They consistently withdrew those amendments without a vote. Just where is their fabled voice in government and their backbone? We still believe in mixed communities in social housing, underpinned by security of tenure, which the Bill targets so directly.