Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench 8:45 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, in the time available I can consider only a very few of the many issues covered in this Bill. I think we all encourage measures that support people into work and to remain at work, so I welcome the clauses which cover the new reporting obligations the Government will have to commit to. They include annual reporting on the progress towards full employment, and this should assist in the task of halving the disability employment gap and recruiting and keeping disabled people in work.

I also welcome the measures that seek to remove income-related targets and replace them with new measures to improve the life chances of children. The new duty to create an annual report on children living in workless households in England and their educational attainment is also very welcome.

The re-emphasis of the importance of encouraging social mobility is also good, but I have some concerns that some of the measures contained in the Bill may, in fact, drive up homelessness and consequently drive people further away from the labour market. In particular, I have concerns about the lowering of the benefit cap, which has been widely discussed by your Lordships. Most working-age benefits are to be frozen under Clauses 9 and 10. Some benefits, however, are not affected and are going to rise in line with CPI. Many of these are pensioners’ benefits. As someone who has worked for most of my adult life to ensure fairness for older people, I say that we must have regard to inter-generational fairness on some of these issues.

Some clauses will change the current provisions for help with mortgage payments. In the future, any assistance with interest payments will be in the form of a loan secured by a charge against the property. Under these regulations, the loan will also accrue interest and incur an administration fee. These costs will be recovered from the available equity in the property when it is sold, but this means that people could be left with nothing because they do not happen to live in the areas such as London and the south-east which enjoy the property prices that now prevail.

Clause 19 requires that registered providers of social housing must reduce the rents payable by 1% each year for the next four years, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has illustrated. While this will be welcome relief to those struggling with the annual uprating of rents in the social housing sector, it is another blow to housing associations, which are still reeling from the plans to force them to engage in subsidised right-to-buy schemes. As a result of that, many associations are now selling off properties on the open market at full price and, if the rent is fair, they will also have to take the hit on any rent reductions. Not all landlords are exploiters of their tenants. While reducing social rents is obviously welcome, tackling the high cost of housing is the only sustainable way of reducing welfare spending in the long run. More housebuilding is the only way to bring housing costs down, and progress in achieving this aim must not be undermined. This reinforces the need for support in the latest round of the Affordable Homes programme, which aims to increase the supply of new affordable homes in England by March 2018.

Finally, as a former commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I share the concern of the EHRC, which in its evidence to the Public Bill Committee felt that the impact assessments and human rights memorandum which accompany the Bill do not fully assess the impact on vulnerable groups, and that this could make it difficult for parliamentarians properly to consider the implications of the measures in the Bill. This Bill needs very careful consideration and the sort of scrutiny that only the House of Lords can give it.