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I beg to move,
That this House
deplores and opposes the Government’s introduction of the housing benefit under-occupancy penalty;
believes it to be unjust and unworkable;
notes growing public anger at its introduction;
believes that the Government is showing a reckless lack of care and attention to the consequences of its introduction for low-income households affected by disability;
further believes that it will adversely affect, amongst others, families of service personnel, foster families and those struggling with the effects of family breakdown;
notes that some parts of the UK will be disproportionately hit because of the mismatch between the available social housing stock and the needs of tenants;
further notes that according to the Department for Work and Pensions’
Equality Impact Assessment, 63 per cent of the 660,000 claimants affected by the under-occupancy penalty or their partners are disabled;
believes that the measure unfairly penalises tenants in rural and inner-city areas;
further believes the under-occupancy penalty will fail to meet its stated objectives;
and calls on the Government to abandon this policy immediately.
In just a few weeks’ time the Government’s notorious under-occupancy penalty, or bedroom tax, is set to come into effect. Across the UK, it is going to cut for tenants by an average of £14 a week, or over £700 a year, the housing benefit of an estimated 660,000 low-income households who are deemed to be living in a home bigger than their needs require. The measure is causing anxiety and anger in equal measure. It follows hard on the heels of punitive cuts to tax credits that have already slashed the budgets of low-income families, and it compounds the real-terms cut to the safety net of social protection for people who are unable to work because of sickness or disability, and for those rendered unemployed or under-employed by economic circumstances well beyond their control. This bedroom tax is a further assault on the precarious finances of the people who are already bearing the brunt of the Government’s austerity measures, which, as we have seen this week, simply are not working. The under-occupancy penalty is inherently unfair and inherently unworkable.
When we discussed this issue in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago in a debate led by Phil Wilson, not a single Government Back Bencher rose to defend the policy, and it is deeply disappointing that they are so thin on the ground today. I can only assume that too many MPs have been lured by the charms of Eastleigh, but I am not really surprised that they are reluctant to put their heads over this parapet.
Does the hon. Lady see any justification for treating tenants on housing benefit in social housing any differently from tenants on housing benefit in the private rented sector? The previous Government introduced exactly the same changes for tenants on housing benefit in the private rented sector. Did the Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru object or call a debate when those changes were made? If not, why not, and what is their logical justification for opposing these changes today?
The hon. Gentleman has exposed at this early stage one of the big red herrings in this debate, namely the argument that the private rented sector is comparable to the social rented sector. We already spend significantly more on supporting people in the private rector than on those in socially rented accommodation, which is significantly cheaper. I hope to return to that point later, but it is very helpful to have been able to nip that argument in the bud at the outset of this debate.
I am glad that the hon. Lady has exposed the fundamental flaw in the argument of Sir Tony Baldry. One form of accommodation is based on size and the other on price—it is like comparing apples and pears.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The key thing is that the under-occupancy penalty will hit hundreds or thousands of people in every constituency. We will all meet constituents affected by it, many of them among the most disadvantaged members of the community. Let us make no mistake: the people on the front line of this policy are the disabled and those who care for them.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Just a few minutes ago the Prime Minister said that he would look carefully at individual cases. I feel a little bit sorry for whoever keeps his correspondence in check, because the Department of Work and Pensions equality impact assessment shows that two thirds—66%—of the households affected by the bedroom tax are home to someone with a disability under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
A higher proportion of those who might write to Dave will be people from rural areas who will simply have nowhere else to go. This iniquitous, unfair, disastrous tax will do for the Conservative party what the poll tax did for it.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point on the differential impact between rural and urban areas. I hope I will be able to address that later.
Perhaps it should not surprise us that sick and disabled people are over-represented among those who rely on housing benefit, given that many of them will have been assessed as unfit for work, while others who are in work are more likely to be working part-time or in low-paid and insecure jobs. The numbers are a damning indictment on the Government’s attempts to balance the books on the back of disadvantaged people. In Scotland the picture is even more stark—79% of disadvantaged people in Scotland affected by the bedroom tax are either disabled or living in a house with someone who is disabled.
Is the hon. Lady aware of Govan Law Centre’s petition to the Scottish Government to amend section 16 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to ensure that people subjected to the bedroom tax will not be evicted due to those arrears?
I am aware of it and I intend to turn later to the specifics of the situation for social landlords and for Scotland.
Not just now, but I will in a moment.
Last week the chief executives of seven charities—Carers UK, Disability Rights UK, Contact a Family, the Carers Trust, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Mencap and Macmillan Cancer Support—wrote to the Chancellor to ask him to exempt carers and disabled people from the bedroom tax in recognition of the contribution that carers already make and in order to protect them from further financial hardship. In response, the Work and Pensions Secretary said that he would look again at the impact of the policy on disabled people, but having considered the wholly disproportionate impact on disabled people and their families, he is ploughing on regardless. It is callous and reckless and will cause untold distress and hardship. The Government really need to think again.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Does she accept that, with 2 million households on social housing waiting lists in England alone and 250,000 families living in overcrowded accommodation, it is simply unfair for people to live in houses larger than their needs?
The problem of under-occupation will not be solved by shuffling people around. That will do absolutely nothing to resolve the underlying problems, which I think we all know are related to the supply of affordable housing.
I congratulate the hon. Lady and her colleagues on their choice of subject for this Opposition day debate. Does she agree that one of the problems is the complete mismatch between the stock that housing association and councils have and what people need, and that there are simply not enough properties for people to move to?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right—her point is at the core of the debate. Before I turn to that point I want to say more about the issues facing disabled people.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. I have been listening carefully to her comments on those in social housing, but what does she have to say to the 2,000 people on waiting lists in Reading who hope to get into social housing?
I say to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps those people in Reading would like to look north of the border, where building social housing has been the long-term solution to tackling the lack of affordable housing. This problem will not be solved by taking housing away from one needy group and giving it to another. As I have said, there will be a disproportionate impact on disabled people and most of the people affected by this policy are already among the most disadvantaged in our communities.
No, I want to make some progress. I say to Mr Wilson that the real challenge for local authorities is how to house people who are likely to be on very low incomes. If people who are older or who suffer from ill health are moved out of their homes, that will create another headache and push people into more expensive private rented accommodation.
I am keen to make some progress; I will take interventions later.
To return to the point made by the respected charities, one of which I used to work for, they make a compelling case that exposes just how socially destructive and counter-productive the bedroom tax will be for disabled people and their families. The Government’s stated objectives for the under-occupancy penalty include incentivising tenants to move to smaller homes. Moving house is stressful and expensive for everyone, even when it is a welcome move. How much more stressful and difficult must it be for disabled people with very little money?
Pressuring people to relocate will not just move disabled people away from their informal support networks—the friends and neighbours who help them live in the community—but it will potentially move them away from support services provided by their local authority. Moving to a new house in a new area may require a new assessment of needs, delays in providing replacement services or, indeed, changes to the eligibility for services. That all creates unnecessary disruption and expense that could quite easily be avoided.
The hon. Lady is right to call this bedroom tax callous and reckless. It is also heartless. Does she agree that the Prime Minister is wrong to hide behind the fig leaf of the discretionary payments fund, as he did earlier today? The National Housing Federation says that £50 million will help make up the shortfall for only 73,000 disabled people, leaving more than half of those on disability living allowance who are affected without any support at all.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes a very important point. I have no doubt that, in some cases, the under-occupancy penalty will jeopardise the arrangement that unpaid family carers have made to allow them to continue to care for a loved one in their own home.
Is my hon. Friend also aware that the homes of people who have had them adapted to meet specific needs may now be deemed too large, so they may be forced to move out and a social landlord might have to pay to adapt another house for them? Is that not a daft way to proceed?
It is utterly daft. I have seen cases in my own constituency where relatively minor changes to local authority support services have destabilised the balancing act performed by families who provide care while juggling work and family commitments. I have met far too many family carers who are already at the end of their endurance, compromising their own health and well-being to continue to care. When carers cannot cope any more or their own health breaks down, the human cost is immense and the financial cost of primary health care spending and the need for expensive care packages are incalculable. The bedroom tax undermines the ability of families to continue to care.
Given that this policy will lead to greater homelessness and evictions, which are not only massively painful, but massively costly, does the hon. Lady agree that it is not just cruel, but counter-productive and another attack by this Government on the poor?
The policy is not only counter-productive; it is just not thought through.
The hon. Lady is making a really good speech and she has support from across the Opposition Benches. In my view, the policy is thought through. However, it is not about fitting people in according to their housing needs or about under-occupation; it is about cutting people’s benefits by ensuring that people pay the difference. The Government know that people will have to pay the difference because they cannot move.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
It is helpful to return to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Weir about homes that have been adapted. We estimate that at least 16,000 homes in Scotland that are affected by the bedroom tax have been adapted. We are told by the Government repeatedly that an extra £50 million in discretionary housing payment has been allocated to local authorities to plug the shortfall in rent so that those in adapted homes do not have to move.
Let us do the sums. The additional discretionary housing payment amounts to only 6% of the total shortfall across the UK. In Scotland, it amounts to a paltry 4% of the shortfall. That means that even if Scotland’s entire discretionary housing allocation—not just the extra bit, but the entire allocation—was focused solely on those disabled people living in adapted homes, it would not cover the gap in tenants’ incomes left by the bedroom tax. This is a shameless attempt to penalise physically disabled people. They are being asked to carry the can for this dog’s breakfast of a policy.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Does she not think that it is appalling that the architect of this pernicious tax, this equivalent of the poll tax, the Secretary of State, is not replying to this debate, but is leaving it to his Liberal apparatchik? The Secretary of State should get to his feet in this debate to defend this ridiculous tax. Why is he not doing so?
I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment that the Government have not listened to the pleas of disabled people and carers’ organisations. The problem is that the policy has not been properly costed or thought through and will cause chaos, hardship and distress.
I want to make a little more progress, because time is wearing on.
The disabled people in adapted homes who are forced to move into the private sector will undoubtedly find it hard to find accessible properties. Landlords in the private sector may also be less than happy about adaptations being made to their property, whether they be handrails, ramps, stair-lifts or bathroom alterations. What an unnecessary waste of public money at a time when local authorities are struggling to meet demand.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. She made a very good point about the cost of private rentals compared with social rentals. Is it not time that we started to regulate private rentals in Scotland so that we are not subsidising landlords, which is the route to increases in housing benefit?
It is clear that rents in Scotland are not out of control as they are in London. Many of the problems with housing benefit have been fuelled by the vast over-inflation of the rental market in London and the south-east.
It is important that we remember that some of the disabled people who are subject to the bedroom tax are the same people who will lose their disability living allowance when it becomes the personal independence payment or whose support will be reduced significantly, and that some may lose their employment and support allowance, particularly if it is time-limited. Nevertheless, all those people will still have to deal with the same impairment or long-term health condition that they had before, and will still face the same physical, economic, attitudinal and communication barriers when they attempt to access the labour market and get on with their daily lives.
The Government have paid no heed to the cumulative impact of their measures on disabled people—a cumulative impact that will have disastrous consequences for thousands of people.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. May I draw her back to fundamental principles? I am listening to the argument that she is making with interest, but there is one fundamental point that the architects of the motion do not address. Is it accepted that the housing benefit bill, which is rising, needs to come down—yes or no?
The reason that the housing benefit bill is so high is that we have had a recession that has pushed people out of employment. One of the trite suggestions that we have heard repeatedly from the Government in trying to defend this indefensible tax is that people should just pick up a few extra hours’ work here or there to meet the bedroom tax. Since the start of the financial crisis, underemployment has soared. Millions of people have seen the prospect of overtime vanish and their working hours cut. According to the TUC, there are 3.3 million people across the UK who are working part time, but who want to be working full time. That is twice the pre-recession level. When we look at the steep rise in housing benefit, we therefore have to look at the inflation in the housing market in some parts of the country and at the underlying economic drivers of unemployment and poor economic performance.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Guy Opperman spoke about saving money. He appears not to realise, as I am sure does my hon. Friend, that if there was a proper balance of property, with those who are over-housed and those who are under-housed getting an appropriately sized property, the Government would save not one penny. He is therefore wrong. This policy is not about saving money, other than by directly punishing the poor.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The under-occupancy penalty will apply to people who are in work and people who are out of work. It takes no account of the fact that a large proportion of the people affected are simply not available for work. The people who move into the low-rent homes may or may not be paying the rent, but it will certainly not save any money.
Has it occurred to the hon. Lady during her excellent speech that not a single Government Member has criticised the bedroom tax in any way? Does that not reflect the manner in which the Government are conducting themselves towards the most vulnerable people in society?
The hon. Gentleman is right. As I said earlier, it is deeply disappointing that there are not more people here to defend the Government’s policy and to debate the issues.
I applaud the strength with which the hon. Lady is setting out the case for the victims of this drive-by hit on the housing benefit budget throughout the UK. Does she recognise that there is an added complication in Northern Ireland? Given the geo-communal tensions and difficulties in Northern Ireland, a measure that sends out the message, “You shouldn’t be living there, you should move,” is fundamentally unsettling, not just for individual communities, but for community relations.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point. The disproportionate impact of the measure on different parts of the UK has not been thought through. The impacts on Northern Ireland clearly deserve a great deal more attention—certainly more attention than I am able to pay them this afternoon.
I congratulate the hon. Lady and her colleagues on bringing forward this timely motion. The divisions referred to by my hon. Friend Mark Durkan have been deepened because the Minister for Social Development in Northern Ireland handed back £15 million in the last monitoring round, rather than investing it in the provision of new-build social housing. That contrasts with what my party did when it held that portfolio.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is helpful that the Secretary of State is here to hear it. I hope that he will look again at the implications of the policy for Northern Ireland.
Foster carers are also likely to be adversely impacted by the bedroom tax. Foster carers are not routinely included in housing needs assessments, and the allowance that they are paid to cover the costs of meeting a child’s needs does not include a component for housing costs. The Government expect local authorities to support foster carers out of the heavily over-subscribed discretionary housing payments pot. However, as we have already seen, that money will not even cover the most pressing needs of disabled people in specially adapted homes.
Foster carers do an important and difficult job. Children requiring foster care have, almost by definition, been through traumatic experiences and are likely to require more intensive care and attention than other children. For that reason, many fostering services insist that foster carers do not take on other work outside the home. Moreover, more than half of foster carers do not receive a fee for fostering. The Fostering Network is afraid that the bedroom tax will exacerbate existing difficulties in recruiting foster parents. Given the already extreme shortage of foster carers, the Government need to look again at how the system will work in practice.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. On Monday evening, the House debated the Children and Families Bill, which contains some good measures on speeding up and streamlining adoption. One point raised was that unless the fostering section is reconsidered, the whole thing will collapse. Once again we see that this measure has not been properly thought through.
My right hon. Friend makes a timely point given the debate that took place in the House earlier in the week.
The hon. Lady is making a wonderful speech on this dreadful bedroom tax. Perhaps she will also consider another group involved in caring for children—parents who have split up. Access agreements made by the court for two people in my constituency are based on the fact that they have an extra bedroom. The Government are essentially saying to them, “Find the money for the extra bedroom or lose access to your children.”
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Families going through a break-up often face some of the most complex and difficult situations for people to resolve, and we know that the cost of children growing up without a parent can be considerable both in social terms and because of the impact on the individual who is separated from a parent. This legislation will make it more difficult for non-resident parents to stay in touch and maintain proper contact with their children, and that is reprehensible.
Does the hon. Lady agree that because of variations in unemployment rates and the composition of the housing stock, and because the characteristics of tenants vary between areas and the other considerations hon. Members have raised, this issue should be one of local discretion based on local conditions and phased in only when matched by a programme of social house building?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to make a speech to set out that case later this afternoon. I would like to see decisions on these policies, including the budgets, devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s contribution about what works well for England.
Again, I will come to that and consider some of the structural issues in a moment. First, however, I want to mention pensioners who so far have been excluded from the under-occupancy rules. That is important because many older people who are technically under-occupying are extremely anxious about the bedroom tax and frightened that it will force them to move. We must make it clear that they will not have to do so at this stage. Once universal credit is introduced, however, people of pension age who have a younger partner of working age will be subject to the bedroom tax, and again, they will be forced to move into smaller, more expensive, and often less suitable homes. That is a false economy for the Government and will have a great human cost for older couples.
I will not give way; I am hoping to make some progress and I want to consider the structural issues we face.
Amid all the soundbites about spare bedrooms, there has been a failure to acknowledge the underlying shortage in affordable housing across the UK and the backdrop of changing population demographics. What makes the Government’s under-occupancy rules fundamentally unworkable is the mismatch between available social housing stock and the needs of tenants and prospective tenants. The scale of the problem varies across the UK, but in Scotland, for example, only 26% of homes available for social rent are one-bedroom properties yet 60% of tenants affected by this measure require a one-bedroom home. According to the National Housing Federation, in England there are twice as many people under-occupying two-bedroom homes than the number of one-bedroom properties that became available last year. No matter how we shuffle people around, not enough homes of the right size are available for affordable rent. That mismatch is entirely outside the control of tenants yet they are being punished for a structural problem not of their making.
The hon. Lady is being most generous and I am grateful. Does she accept that it is important in this debate to ensure that the facts are clear? Under the previous Labour Government house building was at its lowest since the 1920s, and in the 10 years before this Government came to power social housing costs doubled. Does she accept that that system simply cannot continue?
The hon. Gentleman is having a go at the record of the previous Government but he cannot abdicate all responsibility from previous Tory Governments who made it impossible for local authorities to build houses without them being sold off at below market value to tenants who bought them at knock-down prices. That underpins the whole shortage of supply and Government Members cannot pass off responsibility for having created the problem in the first place.
Housing in the social rented sector is by far the cheapest option for people on low incomes. In my constituency, a three-bedroom council house can be rented more cheaply than most one-bedroom flats. People who live in council houses already have limited choice about where they live and what sort or size of house they are offered. Councils and housing associations already go to great lengths to match tenants with a house of the right size, but they do not have enough one-bedroom properties to go round. Many councils allocate homes on a points-based system, which is the most transparent and fair approach, but they require considerable flexibility from prospective tenants in terms of the size, location and type of property they will accept. Demand exceeds supply. Anyone who knocks back the offer of a house because it has two bedrooms when ideally they need one bedroom may not get another offer. People cannot be picky and must take what is available.
I absolutely agree with the points that the hon. Lady is putting to the Government. Is she aware that 83% of the Government’s cuts have been passed directly to councils by the Scottish Government and that councils are having to deal with the sharp end of this measure? That amount of money that is being taken out of Scottish councils at this extraordinarily difficult time—[Interruption.]
Colleagues from Wales are saying that there the Labour Government have passed on 100% of the cuts. Surely it is better that the Scottish Government have tried to mitigate the impact of those cuts on households, rather than passing them on wholesale. We must remember that most of our social housing was built in an era when people had much larger families and different housing needs. Existing housing simply does not match today’s demographics.
I will not at the moment.
The great irony of the bedroom tax is that it will not save any money. As I pointed out early in the debate, it already costs more on average to house people on low incomes in the private sector than to house them in the social rented sector. Last year, the average housing benefit payment in the social rented sector was £80.71 a week, but in the private sector it was £107.35. Rent paid to social landlords tends to be reinvested in social housing, which in my view represents better value for money for us all. All the bedroom tax will do is cause upheaval, distress and expense to people on low incomes, most of whom, as we have heard, are battling health problems.
I will not give way.
Although the mismatch between the housing stock and tenants’ needs is the glaring flaw in this ill-thought-through and unworkable policy, the under-occupancy penalty will have serious unintended consequences for social landlords who depend on reliable and steady flows of rent to maintain their credit rating, keep rents low, and reinvest in new and existing properties. I have repeatedly raised with Ministers the impact of welfare reform on social landlords, but to date Ministers have repeatedly failed to take seriously the concerns of housing associations and others about the impact that the bedroom tax and the shift to universal credit will have on social landlords’ finances. Last week, in response to a question from Ann McKechin, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that he had met social housing providers in Scotland and satisfied the concerns of housing associations and local authorities. However, since then, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations have written to him to make it abundantly clear that they are not satisfied, and that their concerns have in no way been assuaged. The president of COSLA has made it absolutely clear to the Government that all local authorities in Scotland continue to have deep concerns about the 14% and 25% penalties associated with under-occupying. Those key stakeholders recognise that the bedroom tax penalises people on low incomes who cannot move to smaller properties. They are concerned that no safeguards are in place to protect the finances should tenants fall into arrears.
The hon. Lady is right to point out the mismatch between housing stock and housing need. Many people who are building houses in both the private and social sectors build two-bedroom or larger houses because that makes more sense economically than building one-bedroom properties. What are the Scottish Government doing to encourage house builders in Scotland to build one-bedroom properties to address that mismatch?
The hon. Lady makes a good point about the practicalities of building one-bedroom houses as opposed to two-bedroom houses. On the Scottish Government’s record on building houses, 19% of the socially affordable houses built in the UK in the past five years have been built in Scotland. The Scottish
Government have built 34,000 affordable homes since they came to power. Given the lack of progress in the past, that is important.
My hon. Friend makes a good and extremely important point on the balance between the number of properties and the number of bedrooms. However, the real solution is not changing the number of one, two or three-bedroom properties that are built, but scrapping the measure.
Yes, the hon. Lady is correct. I did vote against the measure. She makes an eloquent speech, but I am puzzled by one thing. Why was she unable to persuade half of Scottish National party Members, including her party leader, to turn up on a Wednesday afternoon to vote against the measure?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really spurious point. Given the impact that the measure will have on his constituents, he would be better sticking to the real issue, which is the fact that the measure will not work and will harm people across Scotland.
Order. I hope this is a point of order and not a point of frustration.
Whether putting the record straight is in order or not, the hon. Gentleman has just done it.
Hon. Members can unite on the fundamental opposition to the bedroom tax. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to work to address the problems.
We can and should do a number of things to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax. For example, the Scottish Government have moved to strengthen protections for tenants in Scotland against eviction for rent arrears. The new pre-action measures that came into force in August last year will ensure that eviction is an absolute last resort, and that tenants have access to advice and every opportunity to agree a repayment plan that is affordable for them and reasonable for the landlord.
I will not give way.
We should also look carefully at the loopholes in the bedroom tax regulations. Apparently, the meaning of “bedroom” is not clearly defined in the legislation. I heard yesterday that one large housing association in England—the Knowsley Housing Trust—has reclassified 600 properties to protect tenants. That obviously comes at a cost to the housing association, but it is nevertheless a brave and socially responsible move. I am sure that social landlords are also seriously considering bricking up windows or taking down walls.
Other housing associations in England—Dame Anne Begg referred to this—have called for two-bedroom properties to be exempted from the rules. They argue that it makes no sense for them to build inflexible one-bedroom homes, because they want to encourage long-term tenants who are integrated in the community, not transient short-term tenancies.
Another potential mitigation measure that might help in urban areas is for housing associations to co-ordinate most effectively their waiting and transfer lists, as we have seen on Merseyside. Obviously, that will not work so well in more rural and dispersed areas, but it might help in cities. There is a range options, and it is important that we look closely at all of them.
To return to a question posed earlier, social landlords need to be consistent in how they deal with arrears. I am not sure we can draw a distinction between someone who falls into arrears because of the bedroom tax and someone who is not under-occupying but falls into arrears because their employment and support allowance has been cut, because their tax credits have been reduced, because they lose their job or because they have fallen sick. The danger is that if some people have their arrears written off and others do not, that will quickly cause resentment between tenants, all of whom are likely to be living on tight budgets and in danger of experiencing significant increases in rent across the board if housing associations budgets come under strain.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The proposal in the petition to amend section 16 could help current tenants to avoid eviction, which is a good thing, but it will not extinguish debt, which can be chased by other means, such as arrestment of wages or money from bank accounts. We know that from the experience of the poll tax. How many years after the poll tax died were people being pursued for arrears?
My hon. Friend’s legal expertise helps him to make a compelling point. Social landlords are aware that more people will be at risk of arrears and that they are being proactive in trying to prevent that from happening, but they are clear that their ability to provide affordable homes depends on their ability to collect rents from tenants. The real problem is that the under-occupancy penalty is unfair and unworkable. Instead of trying to mitigate its worst effects, we should concentrate on changing the underlying problems and abandoning the bedroom tax. In Scotland, we clearly have an opportunity to do that by bringing decision-making powers back to the Scottish Parliament.
Housing Associations have historically been seen by lenders as relatively stable, and have been able to borrow money at competitive rates. Mary Taylor, chief executive of the SFHA, has pointed out to Ministers that
“already it is proving harder for landlords to borrow from banks, whether to build or to fund major repair and retrofit programmes. And where they can borrow it is invariably at a higher cost than before, even though interest rates generally remain low and stable. According to Housing Associations, lenders are pointing to the lack of security of rental income arising from Welfare Reform as a key factor in these rising costs. Lenders have to assess risk—and they recognise the very real risks, even if the Government is stubbornly refusing to do so. I believe the Council of Mortgage Lenders raised these issues with the Government over a year ago, but we are still to see action.”
Does the hon. Lady agree that many councils have rightly, historically and naturally built two and three-bedroom homes for families? If councils choose to evict people from that stock as families grow up, they will end up with a massive void. The choice will be between having not quite enough rent and having no rent, which is financially absurd.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point—some housing associations already contend with that problem. If they are to continue to invest in their existing properties and continue to build the new smaller properties that we need to meet our changing demographics, they need to be able to borrow, and to do so cheaply. Any increase to the costs of borrowing will have only an inflationary pressure on rents and service charges. That pressure falls back on the low-income households in the social rented sector, who can ill afford it. There is no doubt in my mind that the problems for social landlords, caused by the shortfalls in housing benefit for people affected by the under-occupancy penalty, will be further compounded by the end of direct payments under universal credit.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The bedroom tax is a nasty, vindictive and unnecessary measure. The under-occupancy penalty is manifestly unfair. It puts disabled people on low incomes right at the front of the austerity agenda, and asks people on the lowest incomes to pay the price for the structural problems affecting the supply of affordable housing. However, the bedroom tax is also unworkable: instead of addressing the underlying problems, it undermines the ability of social landlords to invest in the kind of affordable housing that is so badly needed, and it fails to tackle the excessive private sector rents in London and surrounding areas that have fuelled inflation in the housing benefit bill.
The Secretary of State needs to get a grip. The bedroom tax will not save any money, but it will cause chaos for tenants and social landlords alike. It will cause untold distress for those forced to leave their homes and communities, or for those who find themselves grappling with spiralling debt. It is not too late for the Government to think again. I urge Ministers to reconsider: scrap this crazy measure, or at the very least look again at exempting households affected by disability; look again at the budget for discretionary housing payments; offer local authorities support commensurate with the identified needs of disabled people and foster carers; and look again at whether it is reasonable to consider two-bedroom homes as under-occupied at all. I would have more respect for the Government if the Secretary of State postponed this measure and listened.
These are matters of judgment for right hon. and hon. Members. Certainly, discretion in the use of such devices is to be encouraged, but I can say only that I had not noticed the matter. Therefore, so far as I was concerned, there was nothing outré about the behaviour of the Secretary of State. However, I note the point. Probably, the Secretary of State has noted it too, and we will leave it there.
The 660,000 people affected by this measure will note exactly what the Secretary of State is doing during this debate. I urge him at this late stage to turn back and scrap the policy, or, at the very least, offer the mitigation measures that would make such a difference to disabled people’s lives.
In Scotland, we have a choice ahead of us. With the power to make our own democratic decisions, we could, should and must do things differently. We would never make disabled people the fall guys for Government failure. In the meantime, I hope Members across the House who care about this issue will support our motion today. I call time on this unfair and unworkable bedroom tax.
I think the hon. Gentleman is after a world record. I will, as they say in the trade, make just a little more progress—to the end of the sentence— and I will then be happy to give way. I am happy to have this opportunity to discuss attempts to end the spare room subsidy.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. It is always very nice to hear him at the Dispatch Box, but we do not want to hear from him; we want to hear from the chief guru and architect of the bedroom tax, the Secretary of State. Even at this late stage, I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey could step aside at the end of the evening, so that the Secretary of State can come to the Dispatch Box and try to defend the indefensible. He should be here, and he should be trying to explain and defend this measure.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and I are of one mind on this issue. I will explain the context and origins of the policy, and the relevant context as to why we are seeking to take approximately £12 billion a year out of spending on social security.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend.
Before we go into detail about the ending of the spare room subsidy, it is worth providing a little more detail about the fiscal context in which this measure is being taken. In the final year of the Labour Government, borrowing was £150 billion a year. This measure saves £500,000 a year, so if we were trying to fill Labour’s deficit by measures of this sort, we would need 300 such measures to tackle that scale of borrowing. I expected Dr Whiteford, who opened the debate, to suggest alternative sources of revenue not just for this measure, but for every single welfare spending reduction that she has opposed—all £12 billion of it.
If the hon. Gentleman’s proposition in setting out the context—on which he and I profoundly disagree—is that those who, in effect, should foot whatever difference there is between us in public finances are the people affected by this bedroom tax, I must say that he is absolutely wrong. May I give him the specific example of my constituent Cheryl Maskens? Cheryl Maskens was homeless and was offered a two-bedroom property. Had she refused that property she would have been told that she had not accepted re-housing. Should she be the person who loses out in this scenario?
A lot of Members want to speak and we are only up to the Front Bench speeches. Can Members make sure that if there are to be interventions, they are short? Those who want to catch my eye but intervene too much will go down the list, and they will understand why.
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker.
On the analysis that the hon. Gentleman says he profoundly disagrees with, he made two comments and I will address them both. He disagrees with the analysis that there was a deficit of £150 billion, when Mr Byrne famously left a note for his successor saying that there is no money left. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware—I do not know—that the previous Labour Chancellor set out spending plans for this Parliament, which involved tens of billions of pounds of spending reductions. The two biggest things on which the Government spend money are paying their employees and paying benefits. We have already squeezed public sector pay. The Opposition initially opposed and now accept that policy. The second biggest item of Government spending is benefits, tax credits and pensions. If the hon. Gentleman can tell us how we can save tens of billions of pounds from public spending without touching benefits, tax credits and pensions, I would like to hear from him. He has not given us that answer.
The Minister has now clearly established that he sees the purpose of this change as saving money in the welfare budget, so will he please spare us all that stuff about making better use of houses? He knows that if everybody did reshuffle into the right size of house, there would be no saving, so will he just cut those pages out of his speech?
The context is the need to save public money, but there are a variety of ways that we can do that. One way has already triggered the better use of social housing stock, but we are still in the overall context stage at the moment.
The Minister needs to understand that the real solution is growth in the economy: getting businesses to pay more corporation tax because they are making more profit; and getting more people into jobs and paying income tax, not this draconian and horrid tax that the Government are proposing.
The structural deficit, which is the part of the deficit that does not disappear as the economy grows, was estimated to be approximately £80 billion. That is what we have had to tackle, regardless of the ups and downs of the economy. That is the core deficit that the Labour party left us to deal with—these are Labour cuts.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm his own impact statement, which makes it clear that if this policy works and encourages people to downsize to smaller accommodation, there will be no savings? Will he explain to the House which of the two objectives he supports: saving money or encouraging downsizing?
No, I am afraid that the hon. Lady is not correct in saying that. There will be a range of responses to this change, which I will run through later in my remarks. Some people will stay where they are and will pay the shortfall; some people will use a spare room for a lodger or for sub-letting; some people will work or work more hours; and some people will move. Our impact assessment has a range of modelling on how people will respond, but it clearly includes people staying where they are and paying the shortfall—that is where the saving comes from.
That is not a point of order, but the hon. Gentleman has certainly put his point on the record.
The Minister is being generous in giving way so early in his contribution. Can this Liberal Democrat Minister honestly say that it is fair to throw disabled people out of their house because of this bedroom tax, while giving millionaires £2,000 extra a week?
On the tax treatment of the wealthy, I understand that Britain’s millionaires are demanding a return to the halcyon days of Labour when they paid a 40% top rate of tax, not 45%, and when they paid 18% capital gains tax, not 28%. I hope he is proud of Labour’s record on not taxing high earners as much as we are doing.
Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the central themes of this reform is to bring fairness into the system? It cannot be right to have 250,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation, while lots of other people have surplus accommodation.
I am grateful that someone has brought a voice to the voiceless in this debate. I have heard nothing about the 250,000 people shamefully left in overcrowded accommodation by the last Government and the nearly 5 million men, women and children on housing waiting lists up and down the land. Their voice deserves to be heard, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention.
I was pleased to hear the Minister’s comments about fairness. I notice that the Conservative literature in Eastleigh says that the Liberal Democrats oppose further changes to benefits that would, they claim, make our welfare system fairer. Is he 100% sure that this measure will deliver the savings set out by the Chancellor? Yes or no.
Our impact assessment is our best estimate based on what we expect the impact of the policy to be. That is all any Department ever produces. We believe that it is a robust best estimate.
My hon. Friend knows that his Liberal Democrat colleagues expressed concern about this measure when it went through this House and the other House, and that it was changed as a result of some of those concerns, but does he accept that there is still concern that the message about the facts is not getting through and that pensioners in particular are worried? Will he also accept the need to address other categories of people who need separate rooms—for example, those with disabilities or those with teenage, university or service children—but whose needs are not being adequately met at the moment?
My right hon. Friend has some credibility on the issue of welfare reform, because he has been prepared to vote for difficult decisions on public spending. Neither the Labour party nor the nationalist parties have taken any difficult decisions on anything—they simply oppose everything—whereas he has, quite fairly, been willing to take some difficult decisions and support them and, again quite properly, raise concerns about the detail of policy. He is entirely right. The principle of the policy must be seen in the context of deficit reduction. Given that we have to reduce the deficit, we want to do so in a way that potentially has upsides as well as downsides, such as by making better use of the social housing stock, but it has always been our intention to protect the most vulnerable. The additional £30 million on top of the core £20 million for discretionary housing payments is the key way we want to do that, and I will say more later about how we want to ensure that that system works.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the question that the mover of this motion—she would not allow me to ask it—and the Labour party must answer is: do they support any restrictions on the size of accommodation for social tenants or on the amount of housing benefit?
We know that the housing benefit bill doubled in a decade—up 50% in real terms—and that Labour did nothing to tackle it. With the collapse in house building under the last Government, it is not surprising that private rents, and as a result housing benefit bills, soared.
I know that the Minister does not want to deliberately mislead the House, so I know that he will stand up now, correct the record and say that Labour introduced the local housing allowance and limits on housing benefit, and acknowledge that our manifesto set out plans for a cap on benefits, including housing benefit.
That is very interesting. The right hon. Gentleman and his party were in office for 13 years and decided in their 2010 manifesto—the manifesto to which he just referred—to do something to control housing benefit. In office, they do not do it, but as they are heading out of government, they promise to do something.
Let us address the position of armed forces personnel specifically, because there has been an awful lot of misinformation about that. A married member of the armed forces is unaffected, so if someone is living with a spouse and goes away to fight—[Interruption.] Let me work my way through—they will be unaffected. A young serviceman or woman living in barracks will not be affected either, because they are not social housing tenants. Many young service personnel living with parents not in social accommodation will not be affected, and neither will young people living in social accommodation who are not on housing benefit, so we are narrowing down the number of people we are talking about probably to a very small number. When a young serviceman or woman, leaves social accommodation where the parents are on housing benefit, their housing benefit will go up.
If the hon. Lady knows it, I do not know why she asked the question.
The young serviceman or women, who will be on a wage, is deemed to be making a substantial contribution towards the household rent—say £70 a week or so—but when they have been away for more than 13 weeks, that non-dependent deduction does not apply anymore, so the housing benefit goes up substantially. There will be a charge for under-occupancy, which might be, say, £14 a week. Instead of paying £70 to the household housing costs, the young serviceman or woman will not have to pay anything, so if they value the room at £2 a day, they could still pay that £2 to mum and dad and be more than £50 a week better off. Rather than seeing mum and dad’s housing benefit fall, therefore, they will see it increase. So we have dealt with that issue.
Perhaps I could make a little more progress.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan—[Interruption.] Sorry to disturb her—referred to private sector tenants and the relative position of social housing tenants. We spend more housing benefit on social housing tenants than on private sector tenants and we pay for their rent subsidy, so it is wrong to say that we subsidise private tenants more than we do social housing tenants. That is simply wrong. But if someone is living in private rented accommodation, broadly speaking we do not allow them an extra bedroom. Why, then, is it fair to have two houses next door to each other, one of which is privately rented and the other socially rented, and give a spare bedroom to the person in social accommodation, who also benefits from subsidised rent, but not to the person in the private rented accommodation?
The Minister is being characteristically generous in giving way. Why does he not tell the House the whole story and admit that the DWP has lost its case in the Court of Appeal and that its policy of discriminating against disabled people and not giving them any kind of special treatment has been struck down by the courts? That is why his Department has applied to the Supreme Court to have it looked at again. Why is he taking that to appeal and why will he not come clean to the House about how his policy is suffering at the hands of the courts because it is wrong?
The case to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is in the courts now—before this policy has been implemented—so it is not specifically about this policy, but about a broader issue concerning the private rented sector. So it is a challenge to the regulations that his party was responsible for.
I will say more in a moment about the specific way in which we are planning to address the position of disabled people, because that is an important issue. Roughly two thirds of all social tenants have a disability as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, based on the measure used in our impact assessment. That is a similar proportion to those affected by this measure, so it is not disproportionate. If we look at the stock of social tenants, we inevitably find that about two thirds of them are in that category, and that is true of this specific measure.
My hon. Friend will know about the lengthy correspondence that I have had with his colleague, Lord
Freud, on my concerns regarding remote rural areas, of which there are a considerable number in my constituency. Will he or the Secretary of State agree to meet me to look at the potential for transitional arrangements that could assist those areas with specific needs relating to the change-over to this policy?
We are always happy to meet my hon. Friend. He raises an important issue about rural areas, and that will obviously be germane to some of the concerns that members of the nationalist parties have raised today—
And others, yes. As this is a nationalist debate, that seemed to be a relevant remark.
In response to concerns expressed in the House of Lords, we are going to undertake a rolling two-year research programme into the impact of these and other changes, and the impact on rural households will be one of the factors that we will look at specifically. Wales and Scotland are included in the scope of the research. We are happy to look at the allocation of discretionary housing payments, and at whether we have done enough justice to the needs of rural areas, compared with other areas. We will keep that matter under review.
Did I hear the Minister correctly? Did he say that he was going to research the impact of this measure regardless of what it is going to do to people in the meantime? What he is suggesting is absolutely obscene, and the suggestion by John Thurso that we should have some sort of transitional arrangements would mean that we would still end up with this at the end of the blooming day anyway. It is ridiculous. Get rid of it.
Jolly good. That was helpful. We cannot research the impact of a policy that has not happened. We are implementing a change that is designed to save £500 million a year, and we have heard nothing about where others would find that money from. We have said that, as the policy is implemented, we will research and look into its implementation, because there are things that we can change as we go along, one of which is the allocation of discretionary housing payments.
I believe that the policy could be made to work if people were offered smaller alternative accommodation before a penalty was imposed. As my hon. Friend knows, however, the nearest alternative for people living on the islands in my constituency could be on the mainland, and it could be 20 or 30 miles away for people living in the remote villages in Argyll. Will he look at the formula for allocating discretionary housing payments to councils, so that those in the highlands and islands could add in the rural factor and get more funding owing to the problems of the remoteness and the islands?
My hon. Friend is very welcome to join the conversation between my hon. Friend John Thurso and me, which I am looking forward to. He raises an important point. My hon. Friends have credibility in this argument because they have been willing to take difficult decisions on public spending, whereas Labour has just said no to everything, disowning its responsibility for the deficit and any willingness to say where the money would come from.
I want to make some progress, as I have not yet got past page 1 of my speech and I think the House would like to hear from a few other people.
The cost of housing benefit increased in real terms by 50% in the past decade to £23 billion. Given that we said we would ring-fence the state pension, the biggest thing that we spend money on, we simply cannot ignore housing benefit for people of working age if we want to save money.
No, I want to make some progress.
For social sector tenants alone, the bill totalled £14 billion. That is why we have had to look at this area of spending. The system for tenants renting in the private sector has already been tightened in a number of respects, and there is a fundamental fairness issue involved here. Is it right to squeeze private sector tenants’ housing benefit while making no change in the social sector, where rents are already subsidised and where people already have an advantage? That is what we are trying to address.
At the moment, there is a spare bedroom subsidy. We subsidise a million spare bedrooms in the social rented sector through housing benefit. We have a situation in which two households next to each other can be treated inequitably. We heard the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan talk about fairness. We have to be fair to the different sorts of tenancies. Those living in the social sector already benefit from a subsidised rent. Should they also benefit from a subsidised spare room? When we have a million spare bedrooms, and over a quarter of a million households living in overcrowded accommodation, we must do better. We have to regard the spare bedrooms in the social housing stock as a precious resource that we can make better use of.
What would the Minister say to people who wish to downsize from a larger home to a smaller one, but who find that such accommodation simply does not exist in their areas? In mainly rural areas such as mine, such accommodation does not exist. People could be offered another home many miles away from where they have grown up, from where they work or from where their friends are. This is a ridiculous policy.
I want to stress that there will a range of responses to the under-occupation charge. Some people will move. About one in six of the households we are talking about are in work, and there are options for people who are in work. People could take work. It is often said that there are no jobs, but there are more people working in this country now than in the whole of human history. The number of people in work in this country is now approaching 30 million, so, for some, working or working more hours will be an option. It will not be the answer for everybody, but it will be the answer for some.
Let me just address the hon. Gentleman’s point before he replies to my reply. I have not finished replying to his first point yet.
There has to be better use of the social housing stock. I pay tribute to the housing associations in the Liverpool area, 20 of which have come together with local authorities to pool their housing stock. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that a small housing association might have limited stock and limited scope for moving people around, but by pooling their stock, those organisations are able to make better use of it so that more options will be available. I entirely accept his point that the answer to this question will be different in a city from in a remote rural area, and that is why we are more than happy to look at whether the allocation of discretionary housing payments to help people in rural areas is the right answer. As it happens, the allocation of DHPs is slightly over-represented in rural areas, compared with city areas, because of the way in which it has been done. We recognise that there is an issue there.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but he said that there would be a range of responses to the policy, including paying the difference. However, people on housing benefit are, by their very nature, on low wages. They are already under intense pressure from rising energy and fuel prices and from freezes on benefits if they are receiving any. It will be difficult for those people to make up the difference in that way. Their choices will be very limited, and many will be forced to move by financial necessity when the change comes in.
We have already seen the impact of our restrictions in the private rented sector, and we know that people make certain choices. It would be wrong of any of us to belittle those choices, given the financial situation, and I do not do so, but we have seen people on relatively modest incomes in the private rented sector saying that paying £2 a day for a spare room is worth more to them than spending that money on something else. Some people in that sector are making that choice, and that is part of where the saving comes from. Some people in the social housing sector will do the same thing.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. It is a common misconception that there is a one-way flow of people in this context. If someone moves from social housing into the private rented sector, as some do, that frees up socially rented accommodation, into which someone who might previously have been living in overcrowded, temporary or bed and breakfast accommodation can move. There will be flows in both directions, and we have taken account of those moves in our estimate of the cost of the changes.
Does the Minister not recognise that the largest single driver for the increase in housing benefit in England is rent increases, not only in the private rented sector but in the social and affordable sector, because of the policies of his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government who are pushing rents up higher? If a tenant moves out of a secure council tenancy into a new affordable rent tenancy, that will involve a substantially higher rent. If that person is on housing benefit, the benefit bill will rise. That is entirely counterproductive. Why is the Minister doing this?
The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about housing, so he will know that the period of the last Labour Government was not a good one for the building of affordable homes. That is part of the reason for the problems we have now.
Let me make a little more progress, and I will give way again later.
We recognise that this is a time of change that will present challenges for tenants and for landlords, and we have to support both. One of the positive things to come out of the change is that landlords are getting to know their local authority tenants and social housing tenants far better than in the past. All too often, housing associations did not know their tenants well enough; we have now seen an important process of getting to know individual tenants and their needs. As a result, some of the more creative housing associations have schemes whereby half a dozen people have moved accommodation so that there is a better fit between the individuals and their housing needs. The 1 million spare bedrooms are a precious resource of our communities and of vulnerable people in them, and I will not have it said that those who stand up for the vulnerable are on the Opposition Benches, as we are standing up for them and we want those bedrooms filled.
Instead of having a policy of evicting people because their children have grown up, would it not be better to offer cash incentives to move to smaller housing? When I was chairman of the housing department and leader of Croydon council we offered people cash benefits rather than by evict them because their children had grown up. [Interruption.]
We got the right one, as it were.
We are all in favour of incentives to encourage people to make better use of the housing stock, and I welcome any measures Geraint Davies took to that effect, but they have not worked. We have 1 million spare bedrooms among people on housing benefit. The changes have simply not worked on the necessary scale—
The Minister seems hell-bent on introducing this policy, but he might be able to protect some people. I think he accepts that some people will not be able to move because no suitable property is available. They will not be able to afford the shortfall and will therefore fall into housing rent arrears and could be evicted. At that stage, they become “intentionally homeless” and end up at the bottom of any housing list. Will the Minister look at that further to see whether he can do anything to ensure that someone in that position because of housing debt is not deemed intentionally homeless? Otherwise, such a person stands no chance of getting social housing again.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The point of the policy is not for people to be evicted, which would raise costs for the Exchequer and for the individual, but to ensure that existing housing stock is fully occupied.
Let me try directly to address the issue of the shortfall. There were two ways in which we could have approached the matter, one of which was blanket exemptions, which is what we did for pensioners. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan for making it absolutely clear in opening the debate that pensioners are not covered by this change.
It is clear that we wanted to protect another set of people. Let me deal with the example of foster children, whom my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes mentioned. The position on foster families is, I think, shared across the House. If people need a spare bedroom for a foster child, we want to make sure that they have one, and we want to support fosterers. The question is whether that is done better by some blanket exemption or by what we have done in costing what it would take to meet the shortfall for those families and giving the money to local authorities so that a foster family for which this was an issue—it might not be an issue for all of them—can approach the authority and have the shortfall made up.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are entirely open to discussing whether that is the most effective way of delivering that support. Our judgment was that discretionary housing payments gave local authorities the discretion we would want them to have. If for any reason that message is not getting through and is causing anxieties to foster families who do not know about DHPs, for example, or if local authorities have not communicated well enough, we would be happy to look at whether this is the most effective way of supporting families. Where there is a shortfall, discretionary housing payments for this and other measures are available. We want to make sure that people use them when they are in genuine need. Eviction is clearly not something that we are seeking to achieve.
That was really helpful. I want to pursue the issue raised by Dame Anne Begg. The Minister has said that he is willing to look at whether the discretionary funds will meet certain problems. May I take it that he and the Secretary of State would be willing to look at the categories defining which people need a bedroom, as I think some categories that are not currently counted as falling within the definition should be included in it?
I can see the attraction of that approach, and I think there is a balance to be struck. The attraction of the approach for foster families would be that the size criteria could be defined and then categories of people such as a couple, teenage children and so forth could be added to the list. We could say that a bedroom used for a foster child is a bedroom, so no deduction applies, people do not need to go to the council for the DHPs and the Department for Work and Pensions rather than the local authority would meet the bill. That is one way of doing things.
The challenge for us in that approach is defining in Whitehall all the categories of people who ought to have a room. There could be difficulties even within a category, as there might be foster carers, for example, for whom this is more or less of an issue. It could vary from case to case. We have to make the judgment: where do we need to make a blanket exemption or a blanket entitlement to a room, and where do we say that we will give the local authorities money and discretion? Each side of the argument has its attractions. We have to ensure that the money we have given to local authorities is well spent and that people know it is coming.
I have been interviewed on various television programmes, which have featured case studies of people who were obviously distressed—and I do not doubt that some people are distressed by this change. Obviously, however, if they approached their local authority, they would not be affected by it. That is the issue. They would go to their local authority, which has been given money to help them; the authority would help them, so they would not be affected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Dame Anne Begg are right that we must ensure that people are not unduly alarmed, as in many cases money is available to help the most vulnerable.
Does my hon. Friend think that the guidance to local authorities on how they should target the discretionary fund and discretionary housing payments has been sufficient?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have allocated funds to local authorities with two particular groups in mind: foster families and those for whom there has been a substantial adaptation to the property. We can all see whether a house has been substantially adapted; moving someone somewhere else and adapting the property again will not be a good use of public funds. That is the basis on which the funding was allocated. We have indicated that to local authorities, but I agree with my hon. Friend that we can probably do more and will do more to make sure that local authorities are aware of the needs of those groups.
Will the Minister confirm that the total amount of money available in discretionary funds to Wales will be £6.1 million? He will have seen that the Welsh Government last week estimated the total cost to Wales of the bedroom tax at £25 million. Does he concede that there is a significant shortfall, or is he proposing to increase the money available to Wales—and, indeed, to the rest of the country, where a similar shortfall will apply?
I started my remarks by talking about deficit reduction because this measure is intended to save money. The shortfall to which the hon. Gentleman refers is the saving to the Exchequer. If we fill the gap completely, we will not save any money, so we might as well not do the policy. I have to say that if Wales is getting a fifth of the shortfall, it is doing exceptionally well relative to the rest of the country.
If I may, I shall respond to the Chairman of the Select Committee, who made an important point about those who are “intentionally homeless”. Although it is for local authorities to make decisions on homelessness applications as they do now, under current statutory homelessness legislation, if the only reason for the person’s homelessness is a reduction in benefit that is outside their control they should not be considered intentionally homeless by the local authority. I can put that on the record and hope it is helpful.
The Minister is generous in giving way. He says that Wales is doing exceptionally well, but his own impact assessment demonstrates in black and white that 46% of claimants will be affected in Wales versus a UK average of 31%. Wales faces the largest impact—more than anywhere else in the country. Will the Minister therefore reconsider his remark that Wales is doing particularly well out of the bedroom tax?
The impact of ending the spare-room subsidy that we currently pay will be an average loss in Wales that is below the national average—£12 a week, as opposed to £14 a week—and the same is true of Scotland. Both Wales and Scotland will experience below-average losses.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the size of discretionary housing payments. Across the country as a whole, we have allocated £30 million, relative to a saving of about £500 million. That £30 million is on top of the £20 million that local authorities already receive in
DHPs, so a total of £50 million will now be available to them. If Wales is receiving a bigger proportion of that, it is receiving a bigger proportion of the DHPs.
I am going to make some more progress, but I shall be happy to respond further later.
We have engaged actively with a range of advice organisations, including the Chartered Institute of Housing, to develop guidance for social landlords. We have already encountered many examples of social landlords working with tenants to prepare for this change. However, we recognise that certain individuals will face problems, which is why—on top of the £20 million in DHPs that local authorities already receive—we have allocated an extra £30 million. As I have said, a total of £50 million will be available to them to help people who are affected by this policy. I have already mentioned two groups whom they can help: disabled people living in significantly adapted accommodation, and foster carers, including those who need to retain an extra room when they are between fostering placements. I believe that authorities will be able to help about 5,000 foster carers, and about 35,000 wheelchair users living in adapted housing.
There has been some discussion about the position of disabled people. The definition of disability used in our impact assessment is a self-assessment based on a household survey. It should be borne in mind that fewer than a third of the people affected by the policy are receiving disability living allowance. We have also touched on the position of service personnel, and I think that I have reassured the House about that.
The Minister has said that he is considering the rural element of discretionary housing benefit. Last week the BBC reported that the Secretary of State had instructed officials to look into the definition of disability, and the way in which the bedroom tax would be applied to disability. Is the Minister saying that the Secretary of State was wrong and that no instruction has been given to officials, or is he countermanding what the Secretary of State said last week?
Not at all. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was listening, but I said earlier that we kept this and all other policies under constant review, and that, in particular, we were considering whether the use of the DHP to target vulnerable groups—which is what I think the whole House wants us to do—was being effective in protecting the people whom we all want to protect. We are continuing to work on that, to ensure that we are achieving what we want to achieve.
At the risk of straying into other legislation, let me point out that when we had to make difficult decisions on benefit rates—which, of course, the hon. Lady opposed—we specifically exempted DLA, attendance allowance and the support component of employment and support allowance as a sign of our commitment to disabled people.
The hon. Lady suggests that we should exempt a third of those affected by the policy. As she will understand, this measure is partly about reducing the deficit and partly about making better use of the housing stock. Receiving DLA is not synonymous with needing a spare bedroom: that is the point. Someone who needs a spare bedroom can approach the local authority, and we have given local authorities funds for that purpose, but a blanket exemption of people receiving DLA does not correlate with the need for a spare bedroom.
As my noble Friend Lord Freud announced on
May I return the Minister to the subject of disabled people in bungalows or houses to which they will have to consider moving in order to downsize? What criterion will the Government use to enable a person to justify keeping a spare bedroom? Will it be a doctor’s note saying that the person is disabled and needs a bedroom of his or her own?
We have already made one specific exemption. Someone who needs a spare room for a non-resident, overnight carer can have it. That is an absolute right, and people do not have to apply for it. However, someone who is in particular need can approach the local authority, which has discretion—after all, the D in DHP stands for discretion; there is no set of national Whitehall-driven rules—and the authority can then judge whether the household is indeed in particular need of help from the budget that has been allocated to it. We have not set out a rigid blueprint; the whole point is that local authorities will have discretion to meet people and, if they think it a priority, to meet their needs.
I thank the Minister for pointing out that the D stands for discretion, but as far as I can see it stands for draconian. The Minister is trying to give the impression that people need not worry, because they can approach their council to get the extra money. Does he not realise that the extra money that he is providing is a pittance in comparison with the amount that is needed? This is essentially an ideological attack on social housing: the Government are simply trying to get rid of it.
It is astonishing that the hon. Lady should suggest that we are trying to get rid of social housing, given that we have built more affordable housing in the last year than was built, on average, over the preceding 10 years under Labour. That is an absurd suggestion. I entirely understand that the hon. Lady opposes everything—it is a kind of nihilism, which is fair enough—but her suggestion is not a credible option for a credible Government.
The research that we will undertake will include small-scale primary research involving a range of local authorities, social landlords and voluntary organisations in England, Scotland and Wales. The researchers will consider supply issues, rural effects—which were raised by my hon. Friend Mr Reid—and people who are unable to share rooms. When possible, they will also consider the effects on vulnerable individuals and their financial circumstances, social networks and family life. That was mentioned earlier as well.
If the Minister is so keen for people to receive discretionary payments, can he explain why the Government are taking to court a case in Wiltshire in which a disabled child is unable to share a room with a sibling? Why are they spending money on taking that case to court if they think that money should be given to such families?
There is a limit to what I can say about cases that are currently in the courts. We have been given permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. We are, of course, applying the current Appeal Court ruling, and we have issued local authority guidance on how such cases should be dealt with. That case is very much in flux at present, and I do not want to say too much about it. However, let me make a general point that sums up what we are trying to achieve.
We are trying to tackle a massive structural deficit. The biggest two items of public spending are public sector pay and benefits. We have taken action on public sector pay, with little or no support from the Opposition. We have also had to take action on benefits. We have concentrated on working-age benefits because we have protected the state pension, and no Opposition Member has suggested that we should not have done that. We were trying to find £12 billion from public spending, and housing benefit is one of the biggest working-age benefits. We had tackled private sector housing benefit, and we had to look at the social sector. The most valuable way in which we can look at social sector housing benefit costs is to look at the million spare bedrooms that we currently subsidise, and to ask whether that subsidy is fair to the people who do not receive it.
These are difficult choices, but we have had to make them because of the mess that the Labour party left to us. I hope that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill will begin with an apology.
I think that most Opposition Members will have been pretty disappointed by what the Minister has said. A range of important arguments have been advanced this afternoon, but they have received no answers whatsoever.
Let me begin by congratulating the Green party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party on tabling the motion. We support it, and we will support it in the Division Lobby later today. Since the Welfare Reform
Act 2012 first saw the light of day, we have warned of the flaws that have loomed large this afternoon. It was my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms who first warned that the people who will be hit by the Act have nowhere to hide and that they will just have to pay up, and it was my noble Friend Lord McKenzie who said in the other place that the discretionary housing fund would nowhere near cover the costs and consequences of this policy. I am afraid that everything we have heard this afternoon merely confirms what they have said. That is why through Divisions in the Chamber and in Committee here and in the other place we have tried to put in place safeguards which would have stopped the horror show that will begin in April.
As the weeks have gone by, my colleagues have clearly set out the faults and flaws in glorious 3D Technicolor. First, we learned that someone who is handed a 12-month sentence will be exempt from this policy. I have here a list of offences which attracted a sentence of less than 12 months in 2011. It includes some 43 people who were convicted of threat or conspiracy to murder, who will be exempt. There are also 273 people convicted of sexual offences; they, too, will be exempt. Yet mothers of members of the armed forces who are currently out there serving, like Alison Huggan—the case raised by my hon. Friend Tom Blenkinsop—will be hit, and the Minister defended this policy this afternoon.
I know the right hon. Gentleman would never want to unwittingly mislead the House. He has said that if someone is convicted, they will be exempt. They are not exempt. Only those on remand will be exempt. Would the right hon. Gentleman like to correct the record?
Well, I am sure the House will draw great comfort from the fact that people on remand for threats to murder, sexual offences, burglary, robbery and public disorder will—
I just want to establish one thing: the right hon. Gentleman is now changing his party’s legal policy. It has been a very good principle in this country down through the ages that people are innocent until proven guilty, not guilty before they are proven innocent. The reality is that we stick within the existing strictures. The right hon. Gentleman has every right to oppose this measure, but he is now saying that as soon as someone is accused of a crime, they should immediately be treated as if they are guilty.
The Secretary of State cannot defend the fact that families of serving soldiers will be hit by this policy while those on remand and accused of the most serious offences we can imagine will not be hit by it. I do not think that the Secretary of State, of all people, will want to defend that. He should be speaking to his colleagues the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister, who I understand is the Chair of the Sub-Committee on the Armed Forces Covenant, and he should be bringing to this House safeguards for the families of armed personnel out on service, should he not? As he remains in his place, it is clear that he is not going to bring forward those safeguards for the families of people serving on the front line. The House will be disappointed to have observed that.
Foster parents will also be hurt. Again, we heard nothing from the Minister today about how foster parent families are going to be helped. [Interruption.] I listened very carefully to what the Minister said, and he said nothing today that countermands what he sent out in a recent circular, which says:
“a household that has an extra room for a current or potential foster child will be treated as under-occupying.”
Families in that position will be hit, therefore. [Interruption.] We then hear that under universal credit a couple where someone is a pensioner and someone is not will also be hit. [Interruption.]
Over all this, of course, looms the truth that two-thirds of the people hit by this bedroom tax will be disabled. [Interruption.] The Minister has been pleading from a sedentary position that the discretionary housing payment will somehow help. He will, no doubt, have seen the National Housing Federation research that found that 200,000 people who will be hit by this bedroom tax are on disability living allowance. The NHF estimates that if we spent all the DHP money helping those people, it would help 73,000 people, so there would be 127,000 people in receipt of DLA who would get absolutely no help whatever. Of course, that would leave nothing for foster parents either. I am afraid that the Minister cannot simply plead that the DHP is of some help to foster parents, those who are disabled and people whose houses have been adapted. The truth is very different, and he has been found out this afternoon.
Much has been said about particular groups who will be hit by this policy and my right hon. Friend is right to talk about the impact on disabled people and foster families. There are also, however, people like my constituent Hayley Duncan, who has two boys aged one and 13 who are now expected to share the same bedroom. I can honestly say I would not ask two children of mine of such different ages to share the same bedroom. Does my right hon. Friend think this is right? Is there hypocrisy here?
Of course there is. The Minister, unlike his party colleague Simon Hughes, did not resile from his support for a whopping great tax cut for millionaires at the same time as Hayley Duncan and her children are being hit by this bedroom tax.
This is a policy that is unique in its cruelty. It sets out to tackle the problem of under-occupancy, and the Minister made much of the 1 million spare bedrooms he wants somehow to bring on to the housing market. As he knows, however, the policy will only save the money chalked up in the Treasury scorecard if it fails. That is the reality. About £490 million is earmarked to be saved by this policy over the course of this year, but it will be saved only if 660,000 households are hit for £14 a week for 52 weeks a year. That is how those savings will be delivered. This is not about bringing spare bedrooms on to the market; it is about hurting vulnerable people and asking them to pay extra.
What is particularly troubling to many Opposition Members is the Minister’s refusal to acknowledge that in many parts of the country there will simply not be the smaller houses for people to move into. Again the NHF has been very clear about that. In large parts of the country there is simply not the housing stock for people hit by this tax to move into. The Government have removed any shelter where vulnerable people can take cover before opening fire. This is a policy of unique cruelty, therefore. The Government are not seeking to solve under-occupancy. Instead, they are simply seeking to make the poorest and most vulnerable even poorer. As the Secretary of State once cared about poverty, perhaps he would like to justify that fact?
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain the following two important points? Under the Labour Government’s local housing allowance changes, the situation for children of the same sex in respect of the size criteria was exactly the same as we are now introducing in the social sector. Why is it good for one but not for the other? Secondly, he is crowing about the number of social houses in existence, but why did the last Labour Government leave the building programme at the lowest level since the 1920s?
I am answering the question. The Deputy Prime Minister said:
“If I’m going to be sort of self-critical, there was this reduction in capital spending when we came into the coalition government…But I think we’ve all realised that you actually need, in order to foster a recovery, to try and mobilise as much public and private capital into infrastructure as possible.”
But what has happened in the past couple of years? What has happened even in the past year? For the last year for which records are available, the number of housing starts in this country has fallen by 11%. That is the reality of what this Government have delivered.
This policy is not simply a cruel punishment; it is a cruel and unusual punishment, because it is not normal—it is not usual in a modern, advanced and civilised country—to reward the rich in quite the way this Government are proposing while punishing the poor. It beggars belief that next month—the month in which those on £1 million a year will get a £2,000-a-week tax cut—those with a spare bedroom will face a £14-a-week rent rise. In what world is that fair or normal and usual? It is only in a Tory world, defended by a Liberal Democrat.
As some very misleading comments about housing have been made by those on the Government Front Bench, will my right hon. Friend confirm that in 2007, the last year before the recession, the net additions to the housing stock in this country numbered 207,000? The current Government have presided over a collapse, and fewer than 100,000 new homes were started last year. That is their shocking record and they should not pretend otherwise.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. Of course, the Labour party is proposing to have a tax on bankers’ bonuses in order to release £1.3 billion for new housing and to spend the 4G licence proceeds on building homes. That is in sharp contrast to the sob story from the Deputy Prime Minister lamenting the fact that the Government cut capital spending too far and too fast.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the savings that the Government anticipate and project are gross savings, not net savings? That is because many local authorities will end up with voids without rents and will make losses, so they will not be able to do their repairs, at a time when private sector rents will be pressed up by excess demand, giving returns on buy-to-lets to the private rented sector and increasing housing benefit costs. This does not add up at all.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Secretary of State may truly believe that this policy will save his Department £490 million a year, but his Minister of State was rather less than forthcoming earlier on swearing that that would be the figure. The Secretary of State may genuinely believe that this policy will save £2 billion over the forecast period. If he does genuinely believe that it will save the money set out by the Treasury in Budgets gone by, he is deluding himself, because the evidence is staring him in the face: this policy will cost more than it saves.
I stand by our assessments. Will the right hon. Gentleman apologise for what was done in Labour’s 13 years? The current Government have increased the level of social house building by 18% on what we inherited; it had collapsed under Labour. Will he apologise and explain to the nationalists that one reason why we are in this predicament is that house building collapsed under his Government?
House building did not collapse. In the final years of our Government we brought forward serious new investment for housing, and it is the Labour party that is proposing serious investment in social housing and new housing today. That position seems to be shared by the Deputy Prime Minister, but his Government are presiding over an 11% collapse in the number of houses being built.
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to use the word “hypocritical” and that he is now going to withdraw it and carry on with his question.
I will withdraw it, and I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is extraordinary for the Secretary of State to be talking about this measure when he is putting many of our housing associations and registered social landlords at risk. Moody’s downgraded housing associations’ credit ratings this week, which means that they are not going to be able to invest either in the properties they have or in building new ones, as my hon. Friend Geraint Davies just said.
My hon. Friend is right. We have the National Housing Federation to thank for estimates on the amount of arrears, which housing associations now say are going to grow. Some estimates I have seen show that housing associations face up to a quarter of a billion pounds-worth of arrears because of this policy and other changes the Secretary of State is making. At a time when the country’s debt rating has been downgraded, that will make things incredibly difficult for housing associations in delivering on future social housing builds. The bedroom tax will only make the situation worse.
The right hon. Gentleman has slightly moved on from the point he was making about the so-called millionaires give-away, but it is a certainty that Opposition Members will come back to it repeatedly. Will he explain, as he is particularly well placed to do so having been in the Treasury, why it was in only the last 37 days of the Labour Government that any measures were taken to increase taxes on the richest people in this country? If he is going to refer to this issue continually, he should, being a former Treasury Minister, be prepared to explain why that was the case.
I am happy to do so. It will not have escaped the hon. Lady’s notice that today’s fiscal circumstances are somewhat different from those of the 13 years of the previous Labour Government. She supports—[Interruption.] I will answer her question just as soon as the Government Front Benchers simmer down slightly. The truth is that her Government have delivered a double-dip recession and perhaps worse; they have just presided over a downgrade in the nation’s debt rating; and growth has been flatlining for the past couple of years, which has made the deficit position far worse. This Government are going to borrow more in this Parliament than Labour did in 13 years, so the question now has to be: how is the pain of paying down the deficit to be shared? Labour has always said that there has to be a mixture of growth and sensible public spending cuts—that is how to get the deficit down. What we should not be doing is having a £3 billion tax give-away for Britain’s richest citizens while asking 660,000 people to pay an extra £14 a week. How would she justify that to her constituents?
That is just not good enough from the right hon. Gentleman. The financial crash happened in 2008 and, by independent agreement, there was already a structural deficit at that time. In order not to bequeath an ever-growing structural deficit and rising debt to another incoming Labour Government or, as it turned out, this coalition Government, no action was taken in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash. Surely he cannot justify that fact.
If we are to go back over the history, I should say that, as the hon. Lady will know, at that time the Conservative party supported Labour’s spending limits—that was the announcement made by the then shadow Chancellor at the party conference. The question that confronts the country now is: how do we bring the deficit down? Once upon a time, we were told that we were “all in it together” but we now know that the truth is quite the opposite. Once upon a time, the Chancellor said that he was not going to balance the books on the backs of the poor, but now we know the truth—he absolutely is balancing the books on the backs of the poor, starting with £14 a week extra from 660,000 people.
The evidence that this policy is going to cost more than it saves is now staring the Secretary of State in the face, just as I can see it clearly, too. He will have read the reports from all over the country—[Interruption.] Perhaps he will confirm this from a sedentary position. Like me, he will have read the reports from all over the country that have gone to cabinet meetings setting out the impact of his changes to communities up and down the country. The reports could not be clearer and they confirm the substance of the letter leaked by the private secretary to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that up to 20,000 people will be made homeless as a result of these changes, and that does not include the impact of the benefit cut.
This policy affects councils like Hull city council, which says that 4,700 tenants will be hit, yet in Hull there are just 73 one-bedroom and two-bedroom properties available to let. There is a shortfall of 4,700 properties for tenants. If they move into the private rented sector or to become homeless, that will cost the taxpayer a fortune. This policy will cost more than it saves, as has been powerfully argued today, and I am not surprised that the Minister of State is no longer prepared to swear by the savings that this policy is supposed to deliver.
Here we have a Department that is at the height of its powers. It has brought us a Work programme that is worse than doing nothing, it has presided over a universal credit system that I understand is on the brink of collapsing into chaos, and now we have a policy that will cost more than it saves. Why? Because the Secretary of State has been rolled over by a downgraded Chancellor and has not had the strength to resist him.
We now have the worst of all worlds. We have a Department bedevilled by an excess of stupidity and an absence of spine. The cost is paid not by the Members on the Government Front Bench but by the 1 million children who will be plunged into poverty by the Secretary of State’s Department and the 3.4 million disabled people who will be hit by his strivers tax. He should instead be bringing to this House proposals that would genuinely bring down the welfare bill by getting more people into work. We now have nearly 1 million young people out of work and nearly 1 million people out of work long term, and that is costing us a fortune. He knows full well that the housing benefit bill is set to rise by £8 billion over the course of this Parliament because of his failure to get people back into jobs.
That is why the Secretary of State should be arguing. He should find some spine and tell the Chancellor that it is about time we had a tax on bankers’ bonuses to build new homes and get people into work. If we said to people in this country that they could not spend more than two years on the dole and that at that stage they had to work, that would be a proper plan for welfare reform and for welfare to work. It would be a real alternative to this policy, which is a cruel and unusual punishment from a cruel and useless Government.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important issue. As a former chairman of housing in Bradford and chair of the regional housing board for Yorkshire and Humber, I know the importance of social housing and housing benefit in meeting housing needs. My own extended family have used it and use it now.
In my district alone, tens of thousands of people are on waiting lists trying to gain access to social housing. The previous Government failed to build sufficient social housing and the former Prime Minister raided the regional housing boards’ funding allocation of tens and millions of pounds that could have been spent on addressing this housing shortage. I must say, however, that he gave some of it back, repackaged as new money, in the months leading up to the last general election. The reality is that the previous Labour Government robbed millions of pounds from the regional housing fund allocations that could have been spent on social housing and that was allocated for that purpose, and which could have addressed some of the issues we face today.
Merely sustaining the housing benefit bill of £23 billion costs each individual family £900. That is unsustainable. The Government are attempting to put fairness back into social housing, bringing the sector in line with the private rental sector.
I would like to facilitate the building of more social housing. It is really important, particularly in the current housing market, to get people on to the property ladder, if they have the opportunity, and to get them in stable housing. I encourage the Minister for Housing to make efforts to spend his limited money—some £300 million has been allocated for developing social housing—in areas such as Bradford’s canal corridor and on the excellent community scheme in Spring Bank in Keighley. The Government are delivering social housing where the previous Government failed.
Much has been said in the past hour or so about adapted accommodation for the disabled. I want to put on record what the Government have said they will do, as opposed to the somewhat misleading arguments that have been made by the Opposition. If someone lives in accommodation that has been significantly adapted for a disabled person, they will be entitled to a discretionary housing payment to address some of the shortfall. Some £30 million of the Government’s discretionary payment has been specifically aimed at foster carers and disabled people who have made changes to their homes, and when the disability means that the household needs an extra room, local authorities have been allocated a further £150 million to make discretionary payments.
We need to publicise that more. A family came to see me recently in my surgery. The husband is profoundly deaf and his wife has an open permanent wound in her intestine, so they need separate bedrooms, but nobody told them the fund was available. They are therefore very worried. We need more education, so that disabled and vulnerable people are better informed about what is going on.
What my hon. Friend says is true. We need to ensure that the facts about this legislation are put out there and that vulnerable people are not misled by some of the interesting conversations that are going on.
Recognition, at last!
The change is coming in in April. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied with how the Government have publicised the very point to which he referred?
Today’s debate gives us the opportunity to make that point. The Minister’s speech was excellent and clarified many of the issues, but it is appropriate that we should use all means to put the information into the public domain.
During my time as housing chair, I visited many homes in the district. The majority were in very poor condition and had been for many years. Some were built before the war. Some were sold for as little as £1; people could not live in them as they were in such a poor condition.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the important matter of communications, as was my hon. Friend Mr Leigh. We have been talking to councils for quite some time and we are urging them to talk to their social housing residents. They are doing that, but they are not helped when others go out and say things about the provisions that are completely untrue. There have been many scare stories about pensioners and we made it clear from the word go that pensioners were not involved, but some of the Opposition parties spent their time saying that pensioners would be affected. There is a barrier, but we are doing our level best to get the information across.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that point. The truth is that as a Conservative, I care about the disabled. I want to champion the work and efforts of carers and we should not allow the Opposition to brand us as that nasty party. Many of our councillors are working really hard for the vulnerable people in our society, and I know that Government Members care about those people.
No, I will not. I want to make progress on the point I was making earlier.
We wanted to transfer our housing stock into a not-for-profit trust. We renovated 30,000 of those decrepit houses into decent quality houses. We put forward a £1 billion package to transform them into quality houses and put in a 30-year maintenance scheme to sustain them through that stand-alone trust. It is successful. Our Labour councillors, local Labour leaders and trade unions voted against that package, however, and actively campaigned against it. [Interruption.] I hear the scorn coming from the Opposition, but Labour does not want to take real action. Labour councillors and representatives were prepared to allow people to live in slums, rather than intervene.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some local councils, such as Carmarthenshire county council, kept their whole housing stock in-house and have done an excellent job in renovating section after section of it? He should not be saying that the deciding factor is whether a council decides to keep provision in-house or to give it to another authority to look after. What matters is what is done with that stock.
I do not know where the taxpayers of Bradford were to find £1 billion over 30 years to renovate those houses. That was the reality and the reason why the housing was put into a trust, which is delivering. The people of Bradford living in social housing were betrayed by the Labour party.
I want quality homes and I shall work to make sure we get them, but the fact is that the housing benefit budget has doubled in 10 years, on the back of the previous Government’s economic failure and mismanagement. We have to spend within our means. The public rightly expect us to get a grip on the benefits regime—a regime the Labour Government allowed to get out of control. Labour failed to build social housing, failed to manage the economy and therefore clearly failed those who are living in social housing and those who need access to it.
I welcome today’s debate on a serious and deeply worrying issue. I, like many others, spent last week in my constituency, where almost every conversation I had—with constituents, DWP local managers, banks, post offices, housing associations, credit unions and my local citizens advice bureau—was centred on the so-called bedroom tax. Today, I listened carefully to the Minister of State, who took great pleasure in referring to the “spare room subsidy” and the question of equity. It reminded me of the debates on the poll tax in the early 1990s, when it was considered “equitable” that the poor should take a heavier burden. That message resonates today right across the House.
What struck me about those conversations last week was how unprepared we are for perhaps the most dramatic setback in decades for our housing sector and local communities, first, among the tenants. Up to the end of last year, housing providers earnestly hoped they could persuade the Government to change their mind; then they started to write to their tenants, who in turn put the letter in a safe place and hoped the issue would go away too. Only since the start of this year have tenants’ eyes been opened to the true horror, as housing associations have now started physically to knock on their door and find out how they intend to cope.
Let me give the examples of two constituents I met last week. One of the women looks after her father full time—she gave up her work 15 years ago to act as a carer—and he lives nearby in a one-bedroom flat, so she cannot move in with him. Because there are no spare houses, she faces having to move to the opposite side of Glasgow and then trying to commute every day to look after her father. The other woman is 58 years old and single; she has lived where she is now for 17 years. She is a good tenant, who keeps the area stable and looks after her neighbours, but she faces being moved many miles away to an area she does not know and where she does not know the local people—even though she does not have the money to move house in the first place. One question the Government have not asked is how we will manage moving all those people, many of whom have no spare cash.
Most welfare advisers and DWP staff I spoke to last week believe that now, we are seeing only the trickle, and that the flood of inquiries will start when the bills begin to arrive through people’s letterboxes. We know the grim facts about the lack of suitable stock—Dr Whiteford described in some detail the extent of the problems right across the country, both in urban and rural areas—but analysis of the impact on individuals and the stability of their families, the detrimental impact on local communities as good long-term residents leave, the destabilising impact on schools and children’s education as many desperately look for properties to move to, and the likely non-payment reaction that will follow, is simply shallow and unco-ordinated.
The impact on our housing associations should not be underestimated. Earlier this month, as the hon. Lady mentioned, I raised with the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is not here to hear the debate—nor is the Secretary of State for Scotland—the impact on housing associations’ credit rating. That is not just a technical point: many experts are talking quietly about the need for wholesale consolidation of local social landlords, so that they can avoid bankruptcy as they try to cope with the ruinous increases in their cost of borrowing at the same time as they face a huge hike in both arrears and administration costs, with many having only very small reserves to buffer the losses. That impact will be worsened by the introduction of universal credit later this year. Even the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is now beginning to voice concerns about the impact of direct rental payments to tenants.
Does my hon. Friend accept that some of the opportunities available to local authorities consist of, first, taking the hit on arrears; secondly, cutting repairs and maintenance to make ends meet; and thirdly, knocking down walls to convert two bedrooms into one? That is being actively done. As a former housing chair, I can see that is a practical solution.
My hon. Friend describes the problem. I represent a seat in Glasgow where all the social rented properties are in the hands of housing associations. Many of them are very small and unfortunately do not have the capacity or resources that even a local council has, and some of the smaller local authorities will be very hard pressed to cope.
In reply to my question, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland assured me that he had met local authorities and housing associations in Scotland and discussed their concerns about credit ratings, and that they were “satisfied”. Funnily enough, the following week the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which represents all the local authorities in Scotland, and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations wrote to the Minister to set out a slightly different view. The SFHA wrote:
“With respect, this does not address the issue of the credit rating of associations. Indeed I am not aware of any government impact assessment of credit rating of associations but if it does, I would welcome access to it.”
Does the Minister have an impact assessment he can share with us? The SFHA continued:
“We remain very concerned about under-occupation issues, not least given the escalation in rhetoric about non-payment of the ‘bedroom tax’, so called purposely to resonate with the Poll Tax, a debacle which left councils with a trail of debts only now being resolved even in your own constituency.”
If that seems harsh, the letter from the president of COSLA reflected utter astonishment at the Minister’s response to my question. He wrote:
“While I do meet the Secretary of State for Scotland from time to time, I can’t recall the last time we had an opportunity to discuss my concerns over welfare reform with any DWP Government Ministers….
There was a hastily arranged meeting on 22nd November…which we understand the Scottish DWP office invited a selected number of council leaders to attend. Few were able to do so, and COSLA was not represented although an officer was present to observe and take notes….
Those notes, and feedback…confirm that David Freud informed the meeting of the steps DWP are taking in response to a variety of concerns that were raised. These were felt to be inadequate, considerable dissatisfaction remained, and David Freud gave an undertaking to return to Scotland to discuss the matters further”,
but, funnily enough,
“This meeting has still not been confirmed.”
Perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate can confirm when his noble colleague Lord Freud intends to meet local authorities in Scotland to discuss with them what they can do to meet the impact of this change, which is to happen in just a matter of weeks.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan suggested some changes that could happen in Scotland. Unfortunately, I think her colleagues in the Scottish Government have pressed the standard pause button, saying, “We need to wait until the sun starts to shine and we have independence”, but of course that depends on a referendum and we are still waiting for the date of that. The plain fact, to which the hon. Lady alluded, is that we do not have time on our side and people cannot wait. We need to start a serious debate now on how we can resolve these issues.
The coalition talks about the ever rising cost of housing benefit over the last 10 years. Yes, it is a problem that we are subsidising landlords when rentals are increasing at well above rates of inflation, yet the Government have made not one suggestion or proposal to address that or the systematic failures in the housing market as a whole. I believe there has been a permanent change—a major distortion—in the housing market since the banking crisis in 2007. We will not simply see a bounce-back to the position in 2005-06 at some undetermined point in the calendar, so I have some suggestions on how to deal with housing as a whole, not just the issue of people on housing benefit.
Other Members have commented correctly on the need to build more housing, both in the social rented and private sectors. How much land in Scotland, or the UK, is held by building companies as part of their land banks? It is estimated that perhaps 250,000 houses with planning permission are still to be built. Has there been an audit of where those properties are? Can we levy unused plots of land to provide a stimulus to build, because in many cases builders are just waiting to get more money for the land on which they sit? Can we control private rentals? The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan rightly commented that rental levels in the private sector in Scotland, as in many other parts of the United Kingdom, are in excess of those in the social rented sector. According to Shelter Scotland, the taxpayer would on average pay more than £100 extra in local housing allowance each month if someone in Edinburgh moved from the social rented sector to the private sector, and the same would apply in Glasgow and Inverness; in Aberdeen—one part of the United Kingdom enjoying something of an economic boom—an extra £200 would be paid per month. The hon. Lady was incorrect, however, to state that increases in rentals were a phenomenon only in Greater London. There is a shortage of housing, and people cannot afford to buy a house or provide a deposit, so they are moving into the private rented sector, pushing rentals ever upwards.
In a speech last month, the Leader of the Opposition referred to reform of the law on residential leases, which should also be considered in Scotland, where the law is distinct but not that much different. The law was last altered in the early 1980s, to create short-term assured tenancies, which have become the absolute norm—the default—for all private residential domestic tenancies. Although there is clearly a market for short-term assured tenancies, they are not suitable for an increasing number of people who are looking for security and stability and to put down roots in a local community.
My hon. Friend refers to regulated rents. I am afraid that I am not an expert on the law of leases in England, but in Scotland long-term secured rentals are still subject to regulated rents. Very few of those remain in the United Kingdom—the average age of the residents in such cases is probably 85 plus—because frankly they were not attractive to the market at the time when the law was changed. In urban communities—the situation is worst in London, but it is an issue in areas such as Glasgow as well—transience is increasing, as people move house at ever more regular intervals, not through choice or for job reasons but because their landlord thinks he can find another tenant who is prepared to pay a higher rental. The only way to stabilise the market and get rentals back down is to improve regulation, and that is why the law needs to change. The
Scottish Government should start an urgent debate about that. There is no reason why Scotland cannot lead the way in the reform of leases.
Will the hon. Lady confirm that should the Labour party find itself in government following the next Westminster election, it will introduce rent caps for England?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. The Leader of the Opposition has stated on the record that we want to reform the law of leases in England to create longer-term leases of five years plus. That would be a good measure to stabilise the market.
Registered social landlords should also be provided with much better assistance. Scotland has many small housing associations. The Scottish Government, working with local authorities and housing associations, should be much more proactive in seeing how they will cope with the additional costs they will undoubtedly incur. The housing association is often not just a landlord but acts as the hub of the local community, providing community resources and arranging contact with local police or local schools. It is very much in the control of local tenants and represents the local community. Should a consolidation of housing associations be necessary, it is vital that that be planned rather than chaotic, and that they be fully supported throughout the process.
In Scotland there is also a need to examine how local authority powers under social work legislation can be used. As Members have commented, the costs of eviction and of housing people under the homelessness legislation are high, and in many cases it is much easier, and cheaper for the public purse, for a person to remain in their house.
We also need to consider increasing council tax bands, to find out whether we can levy the additional £50 million per annum—that is a rough estimate—that the change will cost social landlords and councils. That would provide a buffer zone. I believe that those with the broadest shoulders, not the poorest, should take most of the burden.
Doing nothing is not an option. Dropping the bedroom tax and working with tenants, housing associations, local authorities and the devolved Administrations to reduce housing benefit costs in a sensible and co-ordinated way that does not kill our communities should be the only option on the table. I urge the Government to reconsider.
The policy under discussion has clearly led to much debate and concern, some of which has been based on misunderstanding and misinformation, and some of which has been based on people’s fears about the changes that they will have to face in April.
No one in the House could argue with the idea behind this policy, which is to deal with the fact that there are people in social housing who have more rooms than they need. The Government have said that 1 million spare bedrooms are having to be subsidised by other taxpayers, but the nub of the issue is the disagreement about whether all those bedrooms are really spare rooms.
I do not think that the Government have got it right, and I ask them to address the issue compassionately and with common sense, not only through the application of discretionary housing payments, which are essential and welcome, but through the provision of further exemptions for certain categories.
It is clearly about both things at the same time. Were it not about both, the Government would not be pursuing it. Were it not for the fact that the measure will save money, it simply would not have been put forward and no Member on the Government side of the House would have been asked to vote for it in any shape or form. That stands in great contrast to the hon. Lady’s Government, who, for over 13 years, dealt with neither point and allowed the problem to be ignored entirely and the welfare budget to get out of control. We have to make difficult decisions. It would be good to hear—
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something for me? There is much talk about 1 million empty bedrooms, but there is some confusion about that. Are we talking about 1 million empty bedrooms in households that exclude pensioners, or would pensioner households create 1 million-plus empty bedrooms? Are we talking solely about households excluding pensioners?
As the hon. Gentleman has clearly heard, it is the former. I hope that is clear.
The simple reality is that the social housing sector has an exemption in this regard that the private rented sector does not have. It is important to remember that in April 2008, when I sat on the Opposition side of the House, the previous Labour Government introduced the local housing allowance. I was a member of the Work and Pensions Committee at the time and know that it was not an entirely controversial measure, as Opposition Members will remember. We scrutinised it and raised concerns, but the then Labour Government were absolutely clear that local housing allowance would and should depend not only on the maximum rent allowed for properties in the area, but specifically on the number of rooms a tenant needed.
Again, the principle behind bringing this measure into the social housing sector is reasonable, and it would be helpful if the Opposition at least acknowledged that and said that they wish to assist and encourage people who are over-occupying and have more bedrooms than their family need to seek alternative accommodation in order to free up those properties. We all know from our huge case loads that that is needed. We can blame the previous Government and the Government before them for simply not building enough and for the absurdity of allowing the right to buy a council house without then building more to replace them. Those are things that this Government have committed finally to addressing.
I am not quite sure what relevance that adds to the point I was making. Again, the hon. Gentleman’s Front Benchers were committed to benefit cuts in their 2010 manifesto, which they seem conveniently to have forgotten.
As I have said, I do not believe that the Government currently have the policy right. I have told the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Steve Webb, and other Ministers and colleagues that I believe that other exemptions should be included. Let us remind ourselves who the current exemptions are for: those of pensionable age; those in local housing shared ownership; those in temporary housing; the recently bereaved, who have protection for 52 weeks; and those who are provided with overnight care by an unpaid carer. I firmly believe that there should be other exemptions, as I said when the Bill was going through the House. We were unsuccessful in achieving any of our proposed amendments, which is why I did not support the Bill at the time. I made it clear that I could not support the policy as it stood then, and I cannot support it as it stands now.
Let me explain the other exemptions that I believe should be included. First, if it is deemed that two partners have to sleep in separate rooms for medical reasons or because of a disability, clearly they should be exempt. Similarly, if a child with a disability is deemed to require a separate room, they, too, should be exempt. Social housing plays a different role in the housing mix and is there, in particular, to support families in that situation who also have a low income. Of course, that would help with the current issue over the Court of Appeal ruling. The easiest thing for the Government to do would be to accept those exemptions.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman carefully. Obviously, I would prefer that this change was not happening at all. While he is on the subject of possible exemptions, does he agree that foster parents should also be exempt? When I raised that with the Minister at Work and Pensions questions, he talked about a discretionary fund, but foster parents in my constituency have told me that, because of the uncertain future, they might be put off continuing to foster. Would it not be much better if foster parents whose spare rooms are not a luxury but used to care for children who would otherwise probably be cared for at greater cost to the public purse were also exempt?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I was about to say, because the next thing on my list is foster carers who are in between children to be cared for. Much of the criticism of the Government has been unfair and party political, which is in the nature of democratic politics, but the principle behind this measure, as I have said, is reasonable. We need to try to address the issue because of the housing crisis we face and to enable families living in seriously overcrowded accommodation to find appropriate housing. However, it is important that the Government do not undermine other key objectives, and clearly one of those is placing more children with foster families and encouraging more people to foster. I am afraid that that is what the measure, without the exemption, threatens to do.
The other category that I believe should be exempted is families who have sadly split up because the parents have separated, which is always difficult for every member of the family. In the majority of cases, the father is the non-resident parent and the parent without care. Whether they have their child for three days a week or two days a month, for example, is in many cases not determined by them; it is often imposed and has to be accepted even though the non-resident parent would like their child to stay with them more often. The parent wants to ensure that when their child stays they feel that it is also their home.
We talk about broken homes, but in reality we are talking about a family with two homes, or in many cases we are talking about two families. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for the non-resident parent to maintain a bedroom and keep it for their child, with their things in it, so that when they come to stay they know they are staying with their other parent, at their other home and in their other bedroom. I think that is very important. Of course, child benefit is paid to the parent with care, so there can be serious financial pressures on the non-resident parent, who still has to feed the child, possibly for up to three nights a week, and indeed they also want to be able to contribute by buying things for them.
My message to my hon. Friend the Minister is please to look at these things again. He is absolutely right that there must be room for discretion, and some of that should rightly be exercised locally.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the outrageous advice given by DWP Ministers to vulnerable and disabled people that they should take in lodgers—people off the streets—simply to remain in their own properties is a good and sound idea that will not cause massive problems?
In certain cases people have the choice of taking in a lodger in order to enable someone else from their family to live there. However, my point is that there should be clear exemptions based on a clear medical need for a separate room, and if people have those exemptions, that discussion is no longer necessary.
If the exemptions that should be in place are there, the question of where local discretion should be used becomes discretionary rather than a set of difficult choices. Discretion should be used, for example, in the case of properties that have been adapted on the basis of a certain need.
The discretionary payment is for disabled people who have properties that are adapted, but many of them do not live in properties that have been adapted, so they are excluded. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about that?
I have made it clear that the exemption needs to be a straightforward one for people who need a separate bedroom because of their disability. Again, if that is in place, we do not need to have this discussion, and then we have to look at whether the adaption should qualify.
Similarly, there is local discretion if a bedroom is clearly needed for storage of medical equipment for a child with a particularly severe disability, for example. Discretion can also be applied for people with certain mental health conditions—something that can be far better assessed locally than it possibly could be through legislation.
The people who know best about local issues and problems with housing stock are those in the local authorities and housing associations. In some areas, local authorities and housing associations have been keen to place people in accommodation that has been very hard to let. They will often put, say, single people or couples into a two or three-bedroom property in what has been deemed a difficult-to-let area, and so they end up under-occupying. It becomes ironic if someone then has to move away from that area, leaving the property lying empty. The discretion should be intended precisely to deal with that kind of knowledge of each different local housing issue.
Given the list of suggestions that the hon. Gentleman has identified, I can do nothing other than agree with the main thrust of his argument. Does he think that the discretionary payment that the Government have allocated is adequate to meet even his list of exemptions, which is not exhaustive?
We need to have the further exemptions that I have mentioned so that we are clear that discretion is just that, rather than for dealing with large categories of people whom many of us believe should be exempted in the first place. We can divide up the amount put forward by the Government, which is a significant sum, but it needs to be targeted at the types of matters that I have specified, and it has to be discretionary. That is why it is essential that we have the further exemptions or give councils the choice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; he has been very generous. Does he accept that many people are worried because they will not be able to apply for the exemption until the scheme kicks in, so by the time they are assessed they will have potentially built up rent arrears?
That is not my understanding. I am encouraging people to contact their councils now, and that is the message that each and every one of us should send out. There is clearly an information problem that needs to be dealt with, because people should be applying for these exemptions now. I am encouraging them to do so, and some in my area already have.
To ensure that this policy succeeds in its twin objectives of bringing down the cost of the welfare budget and freeing up homes, it is important to allow the discretion so that people should be subject to paying the additional sum only if they have turned down reasonable smaller accommodation—because in many areas there are not enough one-bedroom properties around. Members from rural constituencies have expressed concern about people potentially being moved great distances to a house, taking them away from their communities. Again, there needs to be local discretion, and it applies even in urban areas. For example, someone in the north of Leeds, in Yeadon or in Otley in my constituency, might be asked to move right to the other side of the city. There are factors that need reasonably to be considered as part of local discretion: for example, if the person is in work and receiving housing benefit and does not have a car, it can be very difficult for them to get to work, or they may need family support for caring, for child care responsibilities or in relation to schooling.
I hope that I have made it clear that I fully support the Government’s desire to tackle the spiralling cost of welfare benefits and the reasonable and sensible measures that they have proposed that are designed to do that. I fully support their policy thrust of making sure that our welfare system is properly focused on those who most need it. The same should apply to our social housing sector. There are difficult decisions for all parties in making sure that social housing is being used by the most vulnerable and the poorest in our society, because at the moment it is not being used in that way.
On this occasion, I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I will abstain on the motion because, as this policy stands, I still feel that it does not pass all the tests that the Government have rightly set themselves. I urge my hon. Friend, the Secretary of State and colleagues to look at it again. They should look very seriously at what further exemptions could be introduced to deal with the remaining issues. They should also make sure that they bring forward a full and proper programme of review so that as the policy goes forward it can be reviewed to see whether it is doing what it set out to do and is not leading to unfair and unforeseen consequences, in which case they would have to make changes further down the line. I urge them to look at the measure again now, before it is introduced, to see what can be done to show people that it is about improving the system so that it is aimed at bringing down the cost of the welfare budget and positively trying to deal with the problem of overcrowding in which many families find themselves.
I want to begin by talking about the impact of the bedroom tax on Wales and my local area. I say “bedroom tax”, but I note that the Minister has renamed it during the course of this debate as the “spare room subsidy”. That sounds a lot better, and I am sure that that will be of great comfort to those facing it in April.
Dr Whiteford described in her excellent contribution how this provision is just part of an accumulative effect that is hurting the vulnerable. I want to mention the case of a couple I met during the recess when I was knocking on doors in my