Clause 24 — Universal credit: costs of claimants who rent accommodation

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 30th June 2015.

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Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 4:15 pm, 30th June 2015

I have a touch of déjà vu, as that is twice my hon. Friend has intervened with the next sentence of my speech—[Interruption.] Yes, I should stop sharing it around. He is right, and that is exactly what we said in our submission to the Smith commission. Perhaps he has read it—if he has any trouble sleeping, I highly recommend it to him. We want to increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament in areas that are closely related to devolved services, especially if that allows us to address and eliminate anomalies in the administration and delivery of vital public services. Housing policy is one such anomaly.

Most aspects of housing policy, specifically those relating to social housing, are already devolved to Scotland, including—most recently—discretionary housing payments. Social housing and housing benefit are inextricably linked: it therefore does not make sense for a devolved legislature to have control over one and not the other. That view is shared by the Institute for Public Policy Research. Devolving housing benefit to Scotland would allow for a more holistic approach to housing policy in Scotland, affording the Scottish Parliament and, crucially, local authorities far greater autonomy to tailor delivery to suit local and regional needs and circumstances. It would also transfer to the Scottish Parliament significant new resources with which to deal with the ongoing crisis in social housing.

At present, demand for social housing in Scotland, as across much of the UK, is greatly outstripping supply. Indeed, Scotland is facing its biggest housing crisis since the second world war with nearly 180,000 people in Scotland on social housing waiting lists, including 23,000 in Edinburgh alone. Earlier this year, Audit Scotland estimated that Scotland will need more than 500,000 new homes in the next 25 years. Under this Government, we have the lowest number of houses being built since 1947, and our public housing stock is decreasing drastically. The number of new social homes being built each year is down by more than 20%. Generation Rent is overlooked by the Government: Those in Scotland’s growing private rented sector face rising rents and being forced to move house too often. An individual living in social rented housing has the same address for an average of only 2.6 years, and families make up nearly half of the people who are moving around in less than that average.

In the past 10 years, the number of people living in the private rented sector has doubled to 368,000; the number of households in poverty in the private rented sector has also doubled in the past decade, to 120,000. In 2014, almost 1 million households, or 2 million individuals, were living in fuel poverty, an increase of almost 300,000 on the previous year. That all relates to policies and their impact on people living in inadequate private housing. We will continue to fight for a better deal for the private rented sector.

Shelter Scotland, the much-respected charity, identified the negative effect of homelessness and temporary housing on children’s education and health. It researched the impact, particularly on children and on families with children, of living in inadequate housing in the private rented sector, as well as of homelessness, the inability to get into social housing and being stuck in temporary housing for too long. I will pick out just one or two points.

The research states that homeless children are two or three times more likely to be absent from school than other children due to the disruption caused by moving into, and between, temporary accommodation. I see that in my own constituency, where the situation is drastic. My constituency must have one of the most acute social housing shortages in the country. Many families end up either stuck in temporary accommodation or moved around temporary accommodation regularly. Homeless children are three or four times more likely to have mental health problems—a fairly obvious conclusion because of such instability. Some 90% of respondents to a Shelter survey said that their children had suffered from living in temporary accommodation. The longer families live in temporary accommodation, the more likely they are to attribute to it their worsening health.

It is important that we should be able to deal with those issues, but there is no doubt that housing benefit and the ability to access housing benefit resources are inextricably linked with building more social homes and the whole of social housing policy within the Scottish Parliament. Karen Campbell, the director of policy and operations at Homes for Scotland, stated:

“Scotland’s housing crisis affects all tenures, whether for social/private rent or sale. This is having a severe impact on the lives of Scots across the whole country, particularly young people and growing families. No other sector impacts such a wide range of policy issues yet the number of new homes being built has fallen to its lowest level in some 70 years, threatening Scotland’s social and economic well-being.”

From the results of the Shelter survey, we can see that the social wellbeing of many families, and particularly the children in those families, is a real issue.

Devolving housing benefit to Scotland would afford the Scottish Parliament substantial additional funds to address the shortfall. It would unlock up to £1.8 billion of resources, the largest spend on a single benefit in Scotland after the old age state pension. That could, over time, be invested in the provision of new housing stock in Scotland. I appreciate that that cannot happen overnight, because there would have to be some mechanism to allow the fund to be accessed—potentially through prudential borrowing, which local authorities could use to reduce housing benefit and build more houses. That would not onlyserve to alleviate the pressure on social housing, but create jobs and help to depress housing costs across the private rented sector. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted,

“investing in affordable supply will place downward pressure on rents and subsequently reduce the burden of housing costs upon the budgets of low income households living in the private rented sector in Scotland.”

That point is hugely important. The Government have tried to come down incredibly hard on the housing benefit bill, but it has doubled in the past decade or so—they have not been able to deal with the supply and demand issue. The number of my constituents who end up in the much more expensive private rented sector—almost double the rent of social or affordable housing—clearly pushes up the housing benefit bill. Before the Secretary of State, or the governor of Scotland, jumps to his feet and tells us that the housing benefit bill is going up because of worklessness, let me state the reality: nearly 70% of my constituents in receipt of housing benefit are actually in work. This is a huge issue not just in terms of social impact, but in getting the housing benefit bill down. We have to get people into much more affordable housing.

As an added and not insignificant bonus, devolving housing benefit would, as we have discussed, allow the Scottish Parliament to put an end to one of the cruellest and most iniquitous policies of recent years—the bedroom tax. We need to consider double devolution, a point made regularly in these debates, as the Scottish Parliament is very centralist. We need to devolve power down to the communities best able to use them. For example, housing benefit should be administered at the local authority level because each local authority has its own housing needs and demands—for example, in respect of key workers and specific demographics. I hope that these strong arguments will convince the Government and hon. Members to support our new clause 28.

The Bill could also be enhanced on the provision of childcare, which Labour’s new clause 53 would do by devolving the childcare element of universal credit to the Scottish Parliament. The childcare element is closely linked to the provision of employment support programmes, and devolving it would increase the capacity of the Scottish Parliament and local authorities to help parents obtain and remain in employment by assisting them with the rapidly escalating cost of childcare—the cost of childcare in Scotland has risen much higher than in the rest of the UK. It is one of the main obstacles to parents entering and remaining in the labour market. Devolving the childcare element would afford the Scottish Parliament a valuable new mechanism for removing that obstacle and allowing parents to enter the jobs market.

Dr McCormick, the Scotland adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee, stated in response to the Smith commission proposals that

“the costs of childcare in Scotland are high by international standards and rise much faster than inflation... Childcare is a clear example where both closer alignment with the Scottish Government’s childcare offer and stronger incentives to invest are needed. The Bill should empower the Scottish Government to vary childcare allowances via Universal Credit, on the same basis as housing allowances.”

New clause 53 would provide for the power to be devolved to the Scottish Government so that they can do precisely that, and I hope that the Government and hon. Members across the House see the value of supporting it.

I wish to turn briefly to other amendments, chiefly to new clauses 39, 40, 44 and 46, in the name of the SNP, and to new clause 55, in the name of the SNP’s favourite Conservative, Sir Edward Leigh. As I said, there is no fundamental problem with the devolution of the entire social security system—or, indeed, of the entire income tax system or any of these other policies. They do, however, have one thing in common. New clause 55 would end the UK-wide welfare state, and we do not wish to see an end to it—that will not come as a surprise to the House. We completely reject anything that would end the UK-wide welfare state. In the context of keeping the UK-wide welfare state together, it would not be desirable to devolve to the Scottish Parliament powers that the Smith agreement stipulated should remain reserved—for example, around Jobcentre Plus, national insurance contributions and child benefit.