Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:05 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative 10:05 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, I have listened for the past six hours to this excellent debate with its high-quality maiden speeches with a growing sense of relief that I am no longer the Government’s Chief Whip, as some serious issues have been raised that will need addressing in Committee. As someone who was a Housing Minister, on and off, for 10 years and who chaired a housing association for seven years, I want to focus my remarks on the two clauses in the Bill that deal with housing, which were welcomed in another place by the Opposition Front Bench.

Looking at the clauses on support for mortgage interest, the Opposition spokesman said:

“We support reforms to mortgage interest support that will strengthen work incentives and deliver savings”.—[Hansard, Commons, 20/7/15; col. 1265.]

Of the rent reductions, which have been controversial in today’s debate, the Opposition spokesman said:

“We want…reductions in social rents that will deliver savings to the taxpayer”.—[Hansard, Commons, 20/7/15; col. 1273.]

So the housing element of the Bill ought to be less controversial than the rest of it.

Dealing first with support for mortgage interest, which was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie, turning a grant into a loan is a sensible way of cutting public expenditure without reducing support to the homeowner who faces difficulties. I will come to the extra waiting period in a moment, but it is difficult to justify the fact that a householder sitting on a substantial chunk of equity gets a grant from the taxpayer, leaving when he dies his estate to his beneficiaries, unencumbered by the help he has had from the taxpayer. It seems sensible to convert that from a grant to a loan, and I think that would be justifiable whether or not one was looking for savings in public expenditure.

There are extra weeks before the entitlement kicks in, but that simply restores the waiting period to what it was before the financial crash in 2009. I understand the concern that this might push up repossessions, which are at an all-time low, but I wonder whether a bank or building society would go through the aggravation of repossession if it knew that in a few weeks’ time it would get, direct from the Government, monthly interest in full on the sum in question. In view of the concern, I wonder if it would make sense for Housing Ministers to have a dialogue with the CML, perhaps to get a memorandum of understanding that repossession would not normally be activated if SMI was about to kick in. Ministers made it clear in another place that:

“We remain committed to helping owner-occupiers in times of need to avoid the risk of repossession”.—[Official Report, Commons, Welfare Reform and Work Bill Committee, 13/10/15; col. 356.]

I think that dialogue might help.

The reduction in social rents is of course welcome news to tenants, and not just those who pay the rent in full. Of course, some of those currently on housing benefit hopefully will float off it in the next four years and therefore benefit from the measure. Those who currently pay their rent will be able to plan, knowing that for the next four years one of the largest items in their budget will go down in cash terms. This is good news for tenants and good news for the DWP, in that it reduces its outgoings not just on housing benefit but presumably on other index-linked benefits as well, as the downward pressure on rents will influence the CPI.

However, as my noble friend will know, this saving is subject to the ONS changing its mind on housing association debt. It decided just a few days ago that, as from next March, housing association debt will score as public expenditure. This means that, far from this measure reducing public expenditure, it will push it up unless between now and next March the Government can make sufficient changes to the housing association regime to convince the ONS that it can be reclassified. Can my noble friend indicate how they are going to ensure that the ONS ruling is reversed? Of course, that was based on measures taken before the rent reduction and the voluntary right to buy was introduced. It is important that any deregulation does not undermine the creditworthiness of the movement.

What is good news for tenants and the DWP is less good news for investment in housing, as many noble Lords have said in this debate. Ever since housing associations were able to borrow from the capital markets, there has been a link between housing associations’ rents and the size of their investment programme. I confess that when I was Housing Minister, much of my capital programme was funded by the DWP through housing benefit, so any reduction in rent affects cash flow and the ability to sustain borrowing, and therefore affects the investment programme.

It is therefore important that any measures in the Bill that reduce the investment programme of housing associations be replaced by other measures in the Housing and Planning Bill, because there are two sides to this coin. If one side of the coin is reduction in rents in this Bill, the other side has to be measures to increase supply to counteract that in the Housing and Planning Bill currently in another place. I understand the points that were made about supported housing and the excellent work done by those who help the homeless, such as St Mungo’s Broadway and other movements. Clause 22(7) enables the Minister to make exceptions, and I am sure we will want to look at this in Committee to see whether we can safeguard the valuable work housing associations do to support vulnerable people.

My final point concerns an issue that has not been raised in this debate. Reducing social rents at a time when market rents continue to rise brings into sharp focus the question of who gets lifetime tenancies at a lower rent from a social landlord, as opposed to the other half of the market, which has to accept short-term tenancies at market rents from landlords who, in some cases, are not as good as local authorities or registered social landlords. Noble Lords with very long memories may recall the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, one of the objectives of which was to influence the level of social rents to market level, with housing benefit taking the strain. The golden age of Nicholas Ridley never actually arrived, for good reasons, but this measure makes a sharp step in the opposite direction, widening the gap between the two sectors. That means that we need to ensure that the stock of social housing is more accurately targeted at those who need it most. That means another look at lifetime tenancies and at measures to encourage mobility through the social housing sector, as families now decently housed find their circumstances have improved and they can make their way into market housing, freeing social housing for those who, like they were, are in desperate housing need at the inception of their tenancies.

This Bill is an important building block in getting public finances under control, but it raises serious issues for those who want to see an increase in housing supply. Those issues need to be developed when the Housing and Planning Bill reaches this House, and I hope to take a part in those proceedings.