Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:54 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 9:54 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, it was a privilege and pleasure to hear the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Polak, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud. I much regret that business in the Moses Room prevented me hearing the two earlier maiden speeches, but of course I will read those later. I much look forward to further contributions from the noble Lords and the noble Baroness.

I warmly welcome many aspects of this Bill. I welcome the attention paid to the importance of employment, to apprenticeships, and I welcome the troubled families clause. I have some serious concerns as well, in particular with regard to removing the monitoring of child poverty. However, I would like to convey my admiration for the Government in achieving high rates of employment and coming through such a difficult economic crisis. When I speak with people from Spain who come here to work and I hear of the atrocious unemployment rates among young people there and the difficulties they face, it brings home to me the achievement of this Government. We now have the lowest rate of unemployment since 2008 and, I think, the highest rate of employment on record—a real, important achievement.

This has been particularly brought home to me as I am a carer of a mentally ill, middle-aged man who has not worked for at least four years. What has brought a sense of possibility of escape from his depression and paranoia has been the recognition that, if he carries on as he is, he will be wasting his whole life doing nothing, and the hope that he might be able to return to the job that he thoroughly enjoyed doing in the past.

There is a checkout lady in my local supermarket who is due to give birth in December. She has just had her last day at work. I see her quite regularly and I see customers saying: “I wish you well”. This will be her first child, so she is a bit worried about it. Because she is in employment, she has a community of people around her who are encouraging and supporting her. She need not feel isolated.

Many noble Lords will be aware of the recent report on perinatal mental health which caused so much concern. It highlighted the problems of depression during and after pregnancy. At the launch of that report, I spoke with a psychiatrist. He said: “One can bear almost anything, as long as one does not have to do it on one’s own”. So a key aspect of the Government’s success in creating more employment is how it can break the isolation that so many long-term unemployed people can experience.

Reference has been made to the work of Louise Casey and the troubled families programme. I remember Louise Casey in her first important job—the Rough Sleepers’ Initiative. I saw her on a number of occasions inspiring the people on the ground and bringing about very important and welcome changes to provision for rough sleepers. One thing that she really hammered home was the need to have purposeful activity for those on the streets as soon as possible. They needed to have something useful to do. I want to make clear my admiration and respect for the Government in what they have been doing to help many people into employment in these difficult times.

I hope there may be time for me to speak about homelessness and housing need. I urge noble Lords to consider introducing a metric in this Bill to look at housing need. Shelter is perhaps the primary requisite for people from which they can then find work and educate themselves. If we are looking at poverty, we should be looking at housing poverty as well.

I am concerned at the decision to move away from a metric for child poverty in terms of income poverty. I had the privilege of hearing the right honourable Iain Duncan Smith about six or seven years ago when he came to speak at a dinner at the Michael Sieff Foundation conference. I am a trustee of that organisation. He spoke knowledgeably and passionately about the work he had been doing at the Centre for Social Justice with Graham Allen MP to tackle some of the long-standing social issues in Britain. We found it very refreshing to hear from a politician who was so committed and understood the issues at hand so well.

The area of the Bill I am looking at in particular concerns the metrics around child poverty, not only for children in workless households but also for those in working ones. Some two-thirds of children living in poverty are in working households. It is important that we keep a hold on these things. Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to say this, but I noticed that the last coalition Government recognised that the women’s vote is very important. Around half way through the last Parliament one suddenly had the sense that the Government were saying, “We really need to think about our policy towards women”. I have derived such pleasure and satisfaction from working with the noble Lord and his colleagues over the years and I worry that perhaps they might be shooting themselves in the foot. If the Government stop thinking about child poverty and if they do not look at how many children are in low-income circumstances and thus in material poverty, that might make women think that perhaps the Government are not sensitive to families, particularly vulnerable families. It may be very presumptuous of me to say this, but most of the people I work with are women because it seems that it is mostly women who are interested in family issues, as I am. I notice that polling with regard to women has been changing and they are becoming more concerned about these issues. The work done by Iain Duncan Smith in the past was so important because of the perception that, way back, the Conservative Party had become insensitive to some of these areas and that it was being too harsh. Indeed, it was a female politician, Theresa May, who raised this issue at a party conference.

I shall move on to housing. I noted the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Leigh, Lord Shipley and Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, on this subject. I have spoken to many women who are in housing need or are homeless and they have told me about the instability in their lives. I have seen the poor conditions and overcrowding, of which perhaps the worst example was a woman living in a house in multiple occupation. She shared the kitchen and bathroom with five other families. She had a newborn baby and felt deeply isolated; indeed, she was in tears during our visit because she knew no one. I agree with the Minister that we need to think not only about income, but employment and other aspects such as education. We also need to think about housing need among vulnerable families, which should be monitored carefully.

Finally, there is the question of housing benefit being paid to tenants. I declare an interest as a landlord; fortunately I have not had the issue of tenants not paying their rent, but I understand that it is a serious concern for landlords. If we continue to pay housing benefit directly to tenants, there is the risk that many of them will fail to pay the rent and arrears will accrue, exacerbating the problems that have been talked about for housing associations and local authorities as regards their financial security. They will spend a lot of time and resource on chasing up arrears. This is a matter I hope to take up with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, at a later point in the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response.