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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 24th March 2014.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith 9:30 pm, 24th March 2014

The shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing, about which many of my hon. Friends have spoken affects Scotland as much as it does the rest of the UK. We, too, have seen a reduction in house building. Indeed, the figures for last year show a 46% drop in house building in Scotland since its peak in 2004-05. There is a great shortage of affordable housing, as I know from experience, particularly in my constituency.

Much of the responsibility for housing in Scotland is, of course, devolved. It says something about the priorities of the Scottish Government that, since the Scottish National party took power, there has been a 29% drop in the capital housing budget, but the problem is not all the responsibility of the Scottish Government. The Help to Buy scheme operates in Scotland as it does in England and Wales and although the limit on the value of houses eligible for support under the scheme in Scotland is £400,000 rather than £600,000, it has the same fundamental deficiency in that it benefits those on higher incomes more than those on whom it should be targeted—that is, those on more average incomes, particularly first-time buyers. The other drawback of the Help to Buy scheme, as many people have pointed out, is that it is likely to stimulate another property price boom. We all know the damage that such booms have done in the past and there is every indication that the scheme is having such an effect in London at the moment.

I welcome the commitment from Labour to build 200,000 houses a year across the UK. Such a policy provides a real answer to the housing shortage, an answer that can certainly not be found in the bedroom tax, as the Government seemed to suggest today. Members who were in the Chamber earlier will have heard the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, saying that 1 million people were in social housing that was too big for their needs. Of course, many of those who are in social housing that the Government say is too big for them have no possibility of moving into smaller housing. In Edinburgh, for example, demand for one-bedroom social housing, depending on availability from week to week, can sometimes be 100 times larger than supply. That is typical of many cities across the country.

The Government know that the bedroom tax is not working. They desperately argue that the fact that there has not yet been a 100% take-up of the discretionary housing payment in some areas is evidence that the policy is working, but we all know that in many cases it has not been taken up because the addition of extra funds during the year has made it difficult to get funding out to the people who need it. I am glad that the Scottish Government, after a lot of pressure from Labour, have agreed to provide cash from their own resources effectively to end the bedroom tax in Scotland. I wish they had done so earlier, but better late than never.

If the Government want to reduce the cost of housing benefit, they should be putting the effort into providing new housing so that people do not have to depend so much on the more expensive rented sector. It is also important that the housing benefit system and the provision of housing should be integrally linked as far as possible. That is why I welcome the Scottish Labour party’s commitment, through our devolution commission, to devolve housing benefit as part of our proposals for further devolution to Scotland.

I want to spend a couple of minutes discussing the abolition of the requirement for 75% of the private pension pot to be spent on annuities or similar arrangements. As many of my colleagues have pointed out, Labour recognises the need for reform of the annuity system but although the principle that people should have more control over the allocation of their pensions is fair, a responsible Government should recognise difficulties and problems as well. My hon. Friend Barry Gardiner highlighted some of them in his speech, so I shall simply observe the contrast between the Government’s proposal to remove any requirement for people to spend a certain amount of their pension fund on long-term pension provision and their approach to contributions to private pensions. All parties, including those in government, have supported auto-enrolment into pension schemes—not compulsory enrolment, of course, but a pretty strong nudge towards it—but there appears to be no wish to encourage people, other than through that device, to take steps to assure their long-term security. As proposals for changes to private pension schemes are developed, it is vital to implement measures to encourage people to ensure that they provide for their long-term security in retirement because if they do not, as many Members have pointed out, we are merely building up problems that will be faced by future Governments and will seriously affect the living standards of many who retire in years to come.