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

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

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Photo of David Mundell David Mundell The Secretary of State for Scotland 4:30 pm, 30th June 2015

I do not yet know what proposals the Scottish Government will make. I have made it clear that I would like to know what they will be, because we have heard significant criticisms of UK Government policy. That is, of course, legitimate in this Parliament and, indeed, the Scottish Parliament, but we need to know the detail. The joint ministerial group on welfare wants to understand where the Scottish Government want to go with specific programmes, so that we can help and facilitate the transitional arrangements and deliver what they want to do.

I want the Scottish Government to be held to account. I do not want the continuation of the current situation, whereby people stand up in Parliament and make grand statements for which they are not held accountable and without explaining where the money will come from or how the system will work in practice. A lot of us who live in Scotland know that what the Scottish Government say does not always—shock, horror—happen in reality. I want a system for which the Scottish Government will be held accountable and under which they will have welfare powers and will have to set out for the people of Scotland how much their policies will cost and where the money will come from.

I said in a previous debate that my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh was the 57th SNP Member, and today he has proved that by tabling new clause 55, which is an even stronger proposal than what the SNP says is its policy. It is a fact that no Scottish MP has tabled an amendment to devolve UK pensions, and that speaks volumes. It tells us that even the supporters of independence accept that there are parts of welfare where it makes sense to share resources and risk with the rest of the UK. It is clear that pensions are safer and more affordable if we work with everyone else in the UK and that it would be wrong to devolve UK pensions.

MPs have to respect the referendum result, at which people in Scotland voted to remain part of a United Kingdom and hold on to the benefits of being part of it. Looking after the people of Scotland who are retired, unwell or out of work is now a shared space in which the UK Government and the Scottish Government need to work together. This is about getting the right balance and having the best of both worlds. Sometimes it will be right for people in Cumbernauld to know that they have exactly the same protection and support as people in Cardiff or Carlisle. On other occasions, the Scottish Parliament might want to offer different help for people in Scotland, using the taxes that have been raised in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh South spoke to various amendments. I do not share his views, and I do not believe that he made a case for the proposals on childcare. I shall comment in more detail, however, on what he said about new clause 28, which covers an issue that has been raised before. The Scottish Government already have competence to work with all housing sectors in Scotland to support and encourage new builds. Indeed, they have been very active in heralding their affordable housing supply programme, which ranges across all types of tenure.

The Scottish Government also have the ability to regulate the private rental market, and I believe they have been active in that area. The Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 included a number of provisions to deal with what might be classed as standards of housing in the private sector, such as powers for local authorities to tackle disrepair in the sector. As regards funding, hon. Members will no doubt realise that housing benefit is paid to claimants for the express purpose of meeting an individual’s housing costs when the eligibility rules are met. Because it covers rent at a specific point in time, there would be no margin from which to create a house building investment fund from housing benefit.

However, we have already heard how the powers in the Bill will give Scottish Ministers flexibility over housing costs within universal credit. That flexibility could be used to reduce housing costs for renters, and if Scottish Ministers wished to spend in other areas in order to generate funding, they could do so. There is no need for housing benefit to be devolved to allow for that. Establishing such a fund would also require appropriate powers to be put in place.

It was interesting to hear hon. Members’ assumptions about the amount of money they would have available for investment in housing. The figure of £1.8 billion was mentioned. That equates to the total amount of housing benefit expenditure in Scotland, which appears to suggest that hon. Members are saying that housing benefit should be abolished in Scotland. I am assuming that that is not really their intention, but the amendment could still have serious consequences for Scottish landlords in the social and private sectors. Hon. Members need to think carefully about the implications for the business viability of housing associations and private landlords. Housing benefit is a payment towards the rental liabilities of people on benefits. It is not intended to fund the expansion of housing stock.