Opposition Day — [18th Allotted Day] — Housing Benefit (Under-occupancy Penalty)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:50 pm on 27th February 2013.

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Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin Labour, Glasgow North 2:50 pm, 27th February 2013

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.