My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for introducing this debate and the manner in which he did so. This is an important issue for all of us. I speak as a Londoner, from where the problem of housing families is particularly acute. In my area of Camden, the local council has exceptional difficulty and priority is given to housing families with children. That priority is often criticised, although not by me-we cannot have children homeless and on the streets.
When I first moved into the area in which I live, over 40 years ago, West Hampstead was not regarded as particularly posh. It is adjacent to Kilburn, which was long recognised as a working-class area. However, there has been an enormous change. The large houses have all been transformed into flats, with many let at very high prices-£500 a week is quite normal for a one-bedroom flat. Ordinary working families simply cannot afford rents at this level. If the family is on housing benefit, the cost to the taxpayer is quite substantial, although that is not the fault of the family, as the money just goes straight to the greedy landlord. There are now new rules about benefits and strictures about underoccupancy have been issued by the Minister. Extra rooms are restricted, except for a carer who actually lives in, and the number of bedrooms is limited in line with what is felt to be appropriate for the family size. This has all made families feel very unsettled, particularly if the benefit is related to the market rent for the accommodation. They may think that they have no alternative but to move to somewhere cheaper. In fact, that attitude is encouraged by some councils.
People often do not want to move to a different area, particularly if it would no longer be possible for children to attend their school. People with a disability may have problems about moving as well. Often they will need support facilities where they currently live and it may not be easy to move to an entirely different area. Poorer people moving out of areas and then leaving them to be accommodated purely by the better-off has social consequences that we should be careful of. The well informed charity Shelter does not think that underoccupancy is a problem. It is more concerned that, in many poorer homes, the families are too crowded and often children have difficulty doing homework and other work in such situations.
All these problems arise because there has been too little social housing built over the past 30 or 40 years. It is true that this is now recognised belatedly. The Mayor of London recently announced a programme of social housing for London, but how long will all that take and how much will it all cost? In the mean time many families are worried and distressed, and contemplating possibly moving or trying to get by on much lower benefits. Just after the last war, there was of course a terrible problem of housing shortage because of the bombing. Rents, however, were set by a local tribunal. The then Government took a very bold step and introduced a system of rent control. If tenants thought that the rent was too high they could get a ruling from the tribunal. Had this set-up not existed, most of the population would have been forced to sleep on the street. As it was, poorer people managed to get by because the rents had some relationship to the wages that they were then earning. There is a case for something rather similar to be done now. Indeed my noble friend, in introducing the debate, hinted as much and outlined a system.
There are really two problems for which the taxpayer is paying: rents are too high; and wages are too low. Something could be done about the first. On the second, as a former trade union official, it is a matter of regret to me that trade unionism in the private sector has declined. I would like to see that reversed and people in London paid at least a living wage, which most of them do not get. Benefits, incidentally, are mostly paid to people in employment but who are badly paid, so the taxpayer subsidises low-paying employers. That could be improved by introducing the living wage and inspectors to ensure that it is enforced. In my view something should be done and I am grateful to my noble friend and others who have spoken in the debate this afternoon. We have all agreed that something has to be done and that there are things that we could do immediately, which I hope the Minister will take seriously.