Housing: Rented Sector — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:40 pm on 12th July 2012.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Handsworth Lord Morris of Handsworth Labour 3:40 pm, 12th July 2012

My Lords, I come to this debate with an interest to declare. I chair the board of Midland Heart housing association. I add my name to those congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on securing this timely and important debate.

The debate is timely because it provides for your Lordships' House the opportunity to consider the collective failure to address equitably the challenges faced by families in the rented housing sector. To inform the debate, we have the benefit of the English Housing Survey, published a few days ago by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The report states that social housing and privately rented accommodation are currently on a par, each supplying some 17% of the housing market, with 66% owner occupied. It is likely that since 2010 private rental has overtaken the social housing sector; in fact, the size of the social housing sector has fallen by more than 1 million homes in England over the past 30 years due to a combination of investment cuts, demolition and right to buy. A recent Joseph Rowntree report suggested that 1.5 million young people between the ages of 18 and 20 will be locked out of access to social housing and forced into private renting. It is also estimated that more than 3 million young people cannot afford to leave the parental home.

One consequence of those changes is the growth of a largely unregulated sector to meet the increased demands created by the decline in social housing and the inability of individuals to access affordable home ownership. This fosters an environment of poorer housing stock and a market where rogue landlords are likely to flourish-and many landlords in the private sector are less than keen to consider people who are on benefits for renting.

Traditionally, housing associations prioritise those with greatest need; people who are vulnerable, disadvantaged and out of work tend to be concentrated in this sector. Unsurprisingly, homelessness is reported to be on the rise, and I am told that in Birmingham the waiting list consists of more than 30,000, and the waiting time is approximately five and a half years.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has acknowledged the risk of families becoming homeless, and figures released recently show that children are increasingly at risk in those situations. The Government's proposal to discharge their homelessness duty to the private rental sector potentially diverts more families from access to social housing and a less secure form of tenure. The problems for those in social housing are increasing.

As we recently debated in your Lordships' House, the Government's proposed bedroom tax will affect working-age social tenants who are in receipt of housing benefit by an average of £14 per week. If there happens to be more than one spare room, it goes up to approximately £25 per week. Speaking for my organisation, Midland Heart, I am told that this will affect about 3,000 of our tenants.

The figures for 2011 show that worklessness affects some 56% of social housing tenants, with the numbers of households in which no adult has ever worked rising by more than 5% in a year to some 370,000. In 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified a wide range of workless people including those with poor basic skills, physical and mental health problems, substance usage, homelessness, childcare needs and a history of offending. In addition, there is a worrying skill deficit, with 11.6% of the working population in the UK holding no formal qualification whatever. The figures also show that social housing tenants of working age are three times more likely to be economically inactive than those in other sectors. Approximately 80% of new housing association tenants under 25 are workless and the number of people considered as NEETS-not in employment, education or training-has exceeded 1 million.

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, disposable income generally fell by 3.1% over the period 2010-11, the biggest fall since 1981. As a result, the cocktail of recession, benefit reduction and price rises means more and more families are having to make the painful choice between paying the rent, securing the fuel bills or, indeed, buying food. There are frequent reports in the media of growing evidence of family poverty where children are going without food and families are becoming reliant on food banks which are now struggling to cope with the increasing demands. Up and down the country, food banks are reporting that they are supporting more and more families who are struck by the problems of unemployment and benefit stoppage. Working families on low incomes are at the receiving end of all that.

The Guardian reports that responses from teachers to its survey show that the number of children arriving at school with empty stomachs has increased during the past year or two. Head teachers and senior doctors are so concerned at the extent of child malnutrition and hunger that they are calling for children who receive school meals also to be given a free breakfast each morning. Charities, including Action for Children, the NSPCC and the Children's Society, predict that children in vulnerable families are set to top the 2 million mark by 2015. Meanwhile, what is the Government's response? They are seeking to redefine child poverty. In this House, and in another place as well as in the media, we hear much about the importance of neighbourhoods and communities. Taken together, however, policies such as the bedroom tax, benefit cap, affordable rent and mixed tenancies will do nothing to sustain strong and stable communities.

Following the riots of last year, the Church of England's report sounded a clear warning about the social consequences of austerity. Looking at the economy all over the country, the fact of the matter is that the austerity programme is like playing golf with just one club. The response by my organisation, Midland Heart, to the riots in Birmingham was its development of a modest programme called Back on Track. The project was aimed at early intervention and diversion for young people and their families into more productive pursuits. The interventions went beyond merely addressing poverty, and recognised that there were many interlinking factors such as lack of skills and education, social exclusion, poor community cohesion, peer pressure and, of course, poor housing. The Back on Track project has engaged just 24 young people in apprenticeships and business start-ups and has offered mentoring and support to families, including a family jobs club, as well as a family intervention project for troubled families. I am proud to say that a number of our young people have been fortunate in winning major contracts from the authorities to supply more than 50,000 cup cakes to athletes in the Olympics.

Many voluntary organisations have supported projects for families, and many will continue to do so. At the very heart of the need for good citizenship and making a contribution stands the need for good housing. Ironically, funding for all these much-needed projects are subject to the austerity cuts.

In this debate, we have heard much about the problems faced by families in the rented housing sector, yet I sense that the issues that have emerged are, in reality, so far only the tip of the iceberg. We await the full force of the deprivation that is being created. While we wait, I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for leading this timely and important debate.