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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:47 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Labour 1:47 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol on her engaging and thoughtful maiden speech. She spoke of her passion to confront injustice, inequality and homelessness and, looking ahead, I am sure she will make an important contribution to our debates. I am also looking forward to the maiden speech of my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, shortly.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on the humble Address. I gave prior notice to the Minister that I would talk about housing—not part of the theme of today’s debate—because I cannot speak on Monday. I declare my interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, the trade body for housing associations in England.

The Queen’s Speech was a missed opportunity. This House knows that the country faces an enormous housing challenge. High house prices and rents, poor-quality homes and the shortage of new homes of a range of tenures are all contributing to 8 million men, women and children being unable to live in a home suitable for them or their family. I am disappointed that this Queen’s Speech did not feature a comprehensive plan to tackle the housing crisis. From helping rough sleepers off the streets to helping families across the country on to the housing ladder, the Government have missed the opportunity to present an ambitious programme of legislation to fix the broken housing market. I urge the Government to restore the public’s faith that they will invest in the affordable homes we need and use the forthcoming Budget to make ambitious commitments to do so.

Last week Channel 4 News showed Mohammed, Wajidah and their four children who live, eat and sleep in one room in a hostel for the homeless. Mohammed started to go blind six years ago and his wife Wajidah has given up work to be his full-time carer. Their children struggle with doing homework, do not have anywhere to play and have to take two buses and walk just to get to school. It has affected their mental health, their marriage and their children’s educational prospects. The family are on housing benefit, cannot find anywhere to rent privately and have been on council waiting lists for months.

Last year, 726 people died while homeless. One of them was Gyula Remes, who died on the doorsteps of Parliament after sleeping in Westminster Tube station. This is the real picture of the housing crisis in Britain today. The benefit freeze is pushing low-income families to the brink, with more than nine in 10 homes for private rent too expensive for those on housing benefit. It is a sobering fact that two-thirds of these families are in work.

What is the solution? Housing associations share the Government’s commitment to help more families into home ownership. Over the next five years, they will support record numbers into shared ownership, working in partnership with local and national government. But a shift by this Administration towards further emphasis on home ownership would be a mistake, if it comes at the expense of social housing. That is where most progress is needed. Research from the National Housing Federation reveals that we should be building 145,000 affordable homes each year for the next 10 years to fix the broken housing market. The NHS, Shelter, Crisis, the CPRE and the CIH have made a united call for investment of £12.8 billion a year, for 10 years, to do this. Imagine the political return from that. We last made a commitment on that scale under a hero of the current Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

I know the ask is ambitious, but it is worth bearing in mind that we currently spend £20 billion a year on housing benefit. Investment now in social and affordable housing would help save money for future generations. For comparison, we spend a similar amount on roads. As the Government put the finishing touches to their national infrastructure strategy, mentioned by Her Majesty, I hope housing will be included.

I have a plea for the Minister to speak to his Treasury colleagues and consider a generation-defining commitment in the upcoming Budget. Will the Government confirm the next affordable housing programme? Without it, we are likely to face a sharp fall in the new supply of homes, as uncertainty persists. Will the Minister confirm to the House whether a new long-term affordable homes programme from April 2021 will be part of the Budget on 6 November and, if not, when?

I must say something about building safety. Two years on, we must not forget the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. There are still tens of thousands of people going to sleep every night without the certainty that they are living in a safe home. I welcome the Government’s commitment to building safety, with the inclusion of a building safety Bill in this week’s Queen’s Speech. Ministers must guarantee that everyone has the basic right to live in a safe home.

This progress should not end with a new regulator; the Government need to make sure that funding is available for local councils and housing associations to carry out safety remediation, when the regulations have failed in the past. They must also provide clarity and co-ordination on how these works will be carried out to enable housing associations to complete them as quickly as possible, and continue their other important work building new social housing. The testing process—of fire doors, insulation and cladding—must be more transparent. Where regulation has failed, it is imperative that the Government restore trust. A large factor in rebuilding trust is making sure that tenants have a real voice.

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. As the Housing Minister in the other place said, we must be “tenure-blind” and build homes to meet people’s needs at every step of their housing journey—from supported housing to council or association social rent, and from the PRS to a private home. Fixing the housing crisis must be a priority for this Government, not only because it is the right thing to do but because the majority of the public are calling for a solution to this national emergency. As the British Social Attitudes survey has shown, building homes for social rent and housing that are affordable to people on average and lower incomes are priorities for the public.

I end by going back to Mohammed and Wajidah. If they had a suitable home to live in, their lives would improve dramatically. Their children would have somewhere suitable to complete their homework each evening, they would not have such a long journey to school and there would be an immediate impact on their mental health. I have outlined some of the ways in which we could fix the housing emergency in our country today. It is a great shame that the Government did not choose to use this Queen’s Speech to make more progress.