Cost of Living

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 6:39 pm, 14th May 2013

I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interest, previously declared and recorded in Hansard.

We have had a good debate in which my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint made a powerful and forensic opening speech, in sharp contrast to the contribution from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. By my reckoning, 40 Members have contributed to the debate. I suppose that traditionally one would say it has been a wide-ranging debate, but certainly that term has been given new meaning by some of the contributions we have heard today. Mrs Spelman referred to High Speed 2, and we heard about UKIP from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). We heard two very contrasting speeches on climate change from Caroline Lucas—who is, I think, right; 400 parts per million is a significant moment—and from David T. C. Davies, who railed against environmentalists in general.

Jacob Rees-Mogg was, I think, at one point inviting us to send our tax contributions to him at home, but I do not think he will be very successful because he forgot to give us his address. We heard serious contributions on Syria from the hon. Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), as well as from Sir Menzies Campbell, who also touched on Europe and said, rather plaintively, that if we undermined the credibility of our Prime Minister, we undermined the Government. I would simply observe that it seems to me that the Prime Minister is doing a pretty good job of that himself.

We have also heard powerful testimony as to the impact on living standards of what is happening at the moment, most notably from my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett who represents many people who are affected in that way and warned us of the dangers, especially in tough times, of those who would point the finger at others and try to blame them for their troubles.

We also heard strong speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), for Eltham (Clive Efford), for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), for South Down (Ms Ritchie), for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for North West Durham (Pat Glass), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), all of whom spoke with feeling about the experience of their constituents, as did Conservative Members, particularly the hon. Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris).

Given what we have heard, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a crisis of confidence in politics in this country. People are wondering if, as politicians, we have the answer. Are we on their side? Are we doing things to help make a difference? That is why there is a particular responsibility on Government to do the right things, to show that they are helping people in very difficult times.

People want to see an effort being made and some action, even if all the problems cannot be solved immediately. It is precisely because of the absence from the Gracious Speech of any practical help with living standards—the “empty luggage” that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore described in quoting Nye Bevan—that we have tabled our amendment.

A number of Members referred to the housing crisis. We have had plenty of housing announcements over the last three years: 300 of them, and by my count four classed as major housing launches. If we look at the record, whether of starts or completions, we see that the story is the same: both are down. The rate of homeownership is falling and, as we have heard—particularly from my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter)—private rents have continued their relentless rise, made worse by some letting agents charging very high fees. On lettings agents, a redress scheme is welcome. I suppose that in the end the Minister for Housing realised that he could not argue with himself and against the points that he had made previously when calling for regulation. But redress helps only after one has been ripped off—we should be stopping it happening in the first place.

On housing supply, my right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford and my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore made a powerful case, not least because of the economic benefit that would be felt, for house building. We have called for the proceeds of the 4G auction to be used to build 100,000 affordable homes. What has been the Government’s contribution? They have cut the affordable housing budget by 60 per cent. No wonder starts and completions are down.

There have been lots of promises, but precious few delivered. On the Help to Buy scheme, I said at the time that we welcomed steps that would make a difference, but the Treasury Select Committee was not terribly impressed by it, was it? It found the Chancellor’s argument—that it would lead to an improvement in supply—unconvincing. The Secretary of State was asked in the Budget debate who would be eligible and particularly whether foreign buyers would be able to benefit from the Help to Buy scheme. He could not have been clearer in his reply. He said:

“This scheme will not be available for foreign buyers; this is a scheme to help people from this country.”—[Hansard, 25 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 1311.]

When my hon. Friend Ann McKechin and I both tabled a written question to the Secretary of State on this matter—in particular, asking whether foreign nationals from the EU would be eligible for assistance from the Help to Buy scheme—we did not get that straight answer. Instead, we got a reply that frankly could have been drafted by Sir Humphrey:

“In our approach to revising the rules on access to such schemes, we are carefully taking into account the restrictions and obligations that stem from EU directives. We will be making a further statement in due course on the steps we will be taking.”—[Hansard, 25 April 2013; Vol. 561, c. 1126W.]

That reply is eloquent, but as clear as mud.

I have a very simple question to put to the Secretary of State, and I will happily give way to enable him to answer it. Will EU nationals who have come to the UK to exercise their treaty rights be eligible for assistance from the Help to Buy scheme—yes or no? I will happily give way to him.

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Interruption.

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The reason I keep doing it is that the Secretary of State shows a remarkable propensity to be unable to answer the simplest of questions. If he cannot answer my question, I wonder whether the Minister for Housing can.

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Interruption.

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Perhaps even the planning Minister, who is so voluble, could come to the Dispatch Box and aid the House by giving a reply. Those watching will notice that there is no reply.

That brings me to the big question in this debate: are those with the broadest shoulders bearing the cost of dealing with the global crash, or is it those in society who have the least? A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with the hard-working staff at the local advice centre in Burmantofts in east Leeds to hear about the impact of the council tax benefit cuts and the bedroom tax. We talked about the estimated 41,000 people in Leeds who will be affected. There are eight constituencies in Leeds, but 30% of those 41,000 people live in one constituency, Leeds Central—12,600 of the least well-off families struggling to get by. What are the Government doing to help them? They are sending them letters telling them that they have to pay more council tax and letters telling them they have to pay higher rent, and that they must hand over £2.8 million from their pockets and purses to pay for those council tax bills and those rents. [Interruption.] The planning Minister finds that funny, but it is not very funny for my constituents who are in that situation.

What will be the consequences for those people? They will have less money to spend on food and heating and they will be at greater risk of ending up in debt to payday lenders or, even worse, loan sharks. There will also be rising council tax and rent arrears because, as the workers in the advice centre know better than almost anybody else, a lot of these people are desperate because they do not have the money. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said in his opening remarks that the Government were about protecting the vulnerable, but those are words that will ring very hollow with my constituents.

What the Government are doing to my constituents fails the basic test of fairness. It will not help their living standards. When someone says to them, “These are tough times; we have to make tough decisions,” I point out that the number of poor people being hit is 12,600, which is almost exactly the same as the number of millionaires—13,000—who will benefit from the cut in the top rate of tax. That choice, which is the wrong choice, has defined the values that lie behind what the Government are doing, and it fails—