Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:16 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Chair, Information Committee (Lords) 9:16 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth. I share his analysis in his powerful speech. I certainly subscribe to his view that we have yet to bottom out the full extent of the necessary changes to public policy to deal with the significant impact of longevity, not just in the areas to which he alluded in his excellent speech but more widely across government. In my brief remarks this evening, I also follow him on the need to look after low-income households, whether they are elderly or of working age.

I have enjoyed this debate. I have listened with care. I was interested in the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, with which I largely agreed. The noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Hollis, both made powerful speeches about the legislation in the Queen’s Speech with which I will be most directly involved relating to pensions and carer issues.

The context of this Queen’s speech, the political atmosphere in which we are considering these measures, is different from anything that I have seen in my political experience, and I have been around for a long while—I am not as young as I look, but that is not to mention how I feel. There is a lack of understanding of the pressures that the bottom 15% of households in our income distribution are feeling. They are severely distressed in a way that is likely to be with us for some time: longer than many of us would wish. We need to do something about that. I was recently reading some figures that demonstrated that graphically. Comparing household income internationally, the ONS discovered that the UK has dropped from fifth place in 2005 to 12th place in 2011, so it is under stress in a way that will affect all dimensions of public policy, in the Queen’s Speech and elsewhere. Welfare reform was addressed in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, but it will still cast its shadow over the coming year and beyond.

The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, made a point with which I particularly agreed. There is a different tone in the public mood about social protection. I have never experienced it to be quite so negative and we cannot ignore it. Again, I was looking at some figures on this, which show that 20 years ago 15% of the public thought that people lived in need because of laziness or lack of willpower; now, it is 23%. We have to be aware of that. Now, it is difficult to pass legislation to deal with such things, but it would be quite wrong not to take care to appreciate that the circumstances in which we are introducing this legislation are substantially different.

I want to say a word about housing, particularly new low-income housing. I know there are other colleagues in here who have much better experience of housing associations and I am looking forward to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Best, says. However, I have come to the conclusion that the most important thing in the welfare domain is trying to deal long-term with housing benefit. Reflecting on and reading some of the background, I have also concluded that the only way sensibly to do that in the long term is to develop housing policy, particularly the construction of new low-income housing. We need to encourage the Government to adopt a cross-departmental strategy to deal with this. It should also be cross-country because we need to be conscious of the fact that other constituent nations of the United Kingdom are dealing with these issues—and in some cases dealing with them quite differently. We need to make sure that co-ordination is maintained.

We also need to do that with a much closer association and a more trusting relationship with local authorities because they can, and must, play a more constructive role in trying to address some of the problems. We are simply not building enough new affordable housing. I think that the National Housing Federation and others have identified the gap as being something in the region of 240,000 units each year, so the conflict between the demand and the supply is really quite substantial.

I am not saying that the Government are not taking steps, because I know that they are. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Best, with help from some of his friends, managed to get the noble Lord, Lord Freud, to undertake a review of some consequences of the Welfare Reform Bill that related to housing benefit changes and the like. We might get access to some of these details and statistics in the not-too-distant future, and I look forward to looking at them carefully and discussing them. This is perhaps more a matter for the comprehensive spending review which we will see in July because then we will see the spending profile that the Government have in mind, although that might take us only into the first year of the new Parliament. My real concern is that if we leave the adoption of a more coherent, cross-departmental framework in this very important area, it will be 2016 before we get started. That will be unforgivable and we will be wasting a lot of time that we do not have.

There are some obvious benefits in adopting a comprehensive new strategy for new build for low-cost housing. There is an economic case and an employment mobility case. It increases disposable income for low-income families if they have lower rent costs. More than anything else, it has a political dimension as well because ever lengthening waiting lists for housing are a major cause of concern. It is one of the reasons why the electorate is in such an unhappy situation, to put it at its mildest. If we could demonstrate some progress in reducing waiting lists, even though it cannot be done immediately, that would be beneficial.

There are lots of things that we really need to do. They need to be done in a joined-up way and to embrace future levels of capital investment and rent levels as well as housing benefit costs, but we have to do this in a way that looks as if we are addressing the problem seriously. The evidence is that we are not doing that.

I shall end with the surprising statement that I came across the other day which demonstrates that currently for every pound the Government spend on housing, 95p goes on housing benefit and 5p goes on new build.

That is completely the wrong way round, and we have to use the next year to do as much as we can to redress that balance and make that change a positive reality in the not-too-distant future.