Clause 3

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 27th October 2009.

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The combined low income and material deprivation target

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I beg to move amendment 17, in clause 3, page 2, line 5, at end insert ‘, and

(c) experience bad housing conditions.’.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 18, in clause 3, page 2, line 12, at end add—

‘(4) Regulations must specify the circumstances in which a child is to be regarded for the purposes of subsection (1) (c) as experiencing bad housing conditions.’.

Amendment 19, in clause 3, page 2, line 12, at end add—

‘(4) Regulations must specify the circumstances in which a child is to be regarded for the purposes of subsection (1) (b) as experiencing material deprivation in relation to housing.’.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I start by congratulating the Ministers in charge of the Bill, because it is the first time that there have been specific requirements for housing for children. I recognise that, and pay a great tribute to them.

One of my purposes in tabling the amendments is to beef up the provision: to take it from what I call the undergrowth that lies behind the Bill and put it on the face of the Bill. I would also like some reassurance from Ministers about what the intentions are and how the provisions on material deprivation should be treated if, in future years, there are efforts to use such provisions  to improve housing for children. Of course, comments made in Committee and recorded in Hansard can be used in legal interpretations in court regarding what should happen to children in bad housing. I am looking for some specific assurances, and I have raised some of these issues with Ministers previously.

One of the reasons why the amendments are necessary is the lack of clarity about exactly what is intended with some of the housing provisions in that undergrowth behind the Bill. Although the list of 21 items that are regarded as contributing to material deprivation contains a number that relate to housing and children, they do not sit very high in the legislative hierarchy. I thought that material deprivation indicators would be in the regulations. However, looking at some of the support papers, there is a policy statement for them. The list of 21 goods and services, which has apparently been used for some time and is cited in the documents, are

“currently being updated...to ensure that the list of items used reflect contemporary standards of living. That is why a statement of policy intent has been provided rather than draft regulations.”

It would be very helpful to have some assurances on that.

Equally, in the needs assessment regulations that are due to come in next year, assuming the legislation is passed, the reference to what local authorities should be doing on housing also seems to be slack, as it mentions an assessment of the role of housing, transport and other services provided by the local authority or partner authorities and the impact that that has on child poverty. That seems to be a very slight reference to implementing something that is very important for child poverty and for children living in poverty. There is no dispute at all about the importance of housing to children and to poor households. There is no dispute at all about the fact that it is absolutely right that housing should be one of the factors listed under material deprivation.

In “Every Child Matters”—the basic document that started a lot of the Government’s reforms on children’s policy—homelessness was listed above unemployment as the prime risk factor for children. It could just as well have been housing conditions, because homeless families live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and so on. There was a real failure, in the early stages of Every Child Matters, to operationalise the risk factor that homelessness and poor housing created for children. The efforts to do so, by having joint protocols for the local authorities that cater for children—the county councils and the district councils—have not worked and I have tabled amendments so that that can be considered later.

If we look at the concerns about poor housing and its impact on poor children, there is a knock-on effect—for example, children have to have somewhere to do their homework. In the list of priorities, I was surprised that under the items of material deprivation from the child’s point of view, there is nothing about having somewhere to do homework. There is a wonderful provision stating that the child should be able to have

“friends round for tea or a snack once a fortnight.”

For disorganised mothers who work, that is quite a challenge. Obviously, if someone is going to visit like that, the child has to have a home to bring them to. For a lot of poor children today, the material deprivation is compounded by the fact that they simply do not have a home to which they can take a friend back for tea. Housing has to take priority over a number of other factors of material deprivation, which is why I have tabled an amendment stating that that should be in the Bill.

There are other bits of legislation that deal with issues relating to housing; for example, homelessness legislation and the decent homes standard. The commitment in the list of items of material deprivation that I would like to include in the Bill, concerns overcrowding from the child’s point of view. There should be

“enough bedrooms for every child of 10 or over to share their bedroom only with siblings of the same sex.”

That is a wonderful commitment. It would be nice to have that in the Bill, instead of tucked away in a list, the status of which is unclear and which is being revised. That is a whole new standard of overcrowding, which my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North and I have never seen in any of the discussions that we have had over the years. It is far adrift from the standard picture in other legislation, which is based on the 1935 standards of overcrowding. Civil servants never realise that the definition of overcrowding that they say that local authorities have is an allocation policy; it is not a transfer policy. That affects many families up and down the country. A couple with a baby will be given a one-bedroom flat, but when the baby grows up and the couple have two or three children, they cannot get moved, because there is nothing to say that that family is overcrowded.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North 12:00 pm, 27th October 2009

My hon. Friend has been a champion of this cause for many years. As the representative of a constituency where it is common for families of six to share one bedroom, I accept everything she says. She is right to talk about the complicated standards that apply and the failure to get them on to a proper, consistent footing. Does she agree that the weakness now is that it is impossible to enforce action against landlords, including social landlords, who do not take action to deal with overcrowding, because there are potentially three different standards: the bedroom standard, the 1935 standard and the housing health and safety rating system? All of those apply, which leaves people in a state of chaos as to how to measure and tackle overcrowding.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

That is correct, which is why one of the assurances that I seek is on the precedence that the new standard takes over all the other standards, so that people can be clear about what they are entitled to and what children can expect. Another part of the muddle about standards is that, although we have been successful in campaigning for recognition that regulations should be introduced to improve the 1935 standard, those regulations have never happened, so we are in limbo. I hope that the Minister will clarify the situation.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Like the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her focus on this important subject. What response has she had from Ministers over the years? In the  13th year of this Labour Government, we still have the 1935 standard. I agree with her that that is disgraceful. What response has she had—not necessarily from Treasury Ministers—to her representations asking for a new standard to guarantee decent housing?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I was once a Housing Minister and I could not get it changed either. The problem represents a Faustian pact between local authorities and central Government, because overcrowding is probably the most explosive housing issue, as it is the most expensive to resolve. Problems are also increasing: there are about 70,000 more overcrowded families now. After all the pressure, it has been possible to get a commitment to introduce regulations. There have also been some pilot programmes and a survey that showed that the biggest overcrowding problems in any constituency are in the East Ham constituency of my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. It is an extraordinarily difficult problem.

A group of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, have been able to achieve glacial progress, but the biggest progress of all would be if the bedroom standard, which, dare one say, is on the material deprivation wish list, was included in the Bill. That would transform the situation in an extraordinary fashion.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I hope you will allow me to pursue this point, Mr. Key. As a former Housing Minister, the hon. Lady is entirely the appropriate person to ask about the issue. There are two ways of ensuring decent housing for children: one is, as she said, through standards; the other is through house building. As a former Housing Minister, perhaps she can tell us why it is that, during every year of this Labour Government, fewer affordable housing units have been built than in any year of the era of either Mrs. Thatcher or John Major. I am not trying to apportion blame. I am genuinely confused about why so few houses have been built during the past 12 or 13 years.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Order. I am keen that the debate should not get too wide. However, the hon. Gentleman is in good company because I too was once a Housing Minister, so I am very interested in this.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I should not have mentioned that I was a Housing Minister. One of the problems is that the incentives in the grant system have, until now, encouraged the building of smaller units. That is a big problem because there is simply not a sufficient number of substantial family units at a time when people’s expectations are increasing. Public expectations are exactly in line with what is in the list: if they have children over 10, people expect that they should have a separate bedroom. As well as the numbers, the size of housing units being built is also an issue. That partly relates to the incentives and grant system.

To underline how out of date our standards are, I noted a couple of points made during the 1935 debate, when a Labour MP, Arthur Greenwood said:

“the right hon. Gentleman’s standards as regards overcrowding are not standards which are tolerable in the twentieth century. He contemplates as a normal thing that living rooms should be used as bedrooms. I can never agree to that. I think it is wrong.” —[Official Report, 20 May 1935; Vol. 302, c. 42]

I have always thought it was wrong, and 75 years after that debate, it is still wrong. Later in that debate, Arthur Greenwood stated that the further difficulty is

“unless we insist now that people shall not be required, in ordinary circumstances, to sleep in 44 living rooms, we shall be heading for the creation of new slums.”—[Official Report, 20 May 1935; Vol. 302, c. 51]

On the question of sleeping in kitchens, a Conservative MP, Mr. Crossley, said

“I was worried about kitchens being included...I would like to ask again for reassurance from the Minister that, in districts where people are not accustomed to sleeping in the kitchen, the kitchen will not in fact be included in the number of rooms in the house for the purpose of the survey.” —[Official Report, 20 May 1935; Vol. 302, c. 49]

I will be asking my hon. Friend for the same assurance about people not having to sleep in kitchens.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

My hon. Friend might be aware of this and have experienced the problem in her constituency. Registered social landlords—housing associations—which are wholly dependent on the Government for grant funding will contest enforcement action against overcrowding cases on the grounds that they should be allowed to insist that members of the family sleep in the kitchen.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I have indeed had plenty of such cases. The only reason why not so many people are required to sleep in kitchens now is because many flats and houses do not have kitchens; instead, they have little kitchenettes and a combined living and dining room. That is the only saving grace that has stopped a lot of families from having to sleep in kitchens.

In the 1935 debate, a Mr. Gordon Macdonald—it does not say to what party he belonged—said

“To suggest to people that because they have an additional child some member of the family should sleep in the kitchen or the living room would be looked upon as treating them very unworthily.” —[Official Report, 20 May 1935; Vol. 302, c. 50]

It is often the case that when our constituents have an extra child, one family member goes to sleep in the sitting room on the sofa or, if the kitchen is big enough, they sleep there. That is how out of date the standards are.

The material deprivation standard in the Bill will transform all that absolutely, which is why it is so important. The Bill will make it possible for children over 10 to have bedrooms of their own. One can understand why that is such a controversial thing to say. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North is absolutely right to say that the biggest increase in overcrowding is in social rented housing, where the state sets the standards. That is where the biggest problem is. We need to change that, so that the poorest families and children get something better.

I do not want to go on too long, but I have a few questions. In particular, I ask my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to give some commitments, as Hansard is important in interpreting legislation, and what he says can be used in court. First, what is included as a bedroom in the bedroom standard envisaged in the Bill? Until now, a sitting room or a kitchen that was big enough could be a bedroom, which has made it almost impossible for any family to be deemed statutorily  overcrowded. As I understand it—perhaps my right hon. Friend will confirm this—the intention behind the proposals is that a bedroom that is de-designated as a bedroom by the people who live in the property cannot be counted as a bedroom. That changes what the family are entitled to.

Let me give an example. I am not trying to test your patience, Mr. Key. We need to give some concrete examples; otherwise, it sounds like we are just having a theoretical debate. I became interested in overcrowding as a result of my first experience as a councillor in London. I had been involved in housing in South Africa, where I had gone around the townships. I had seen plenty of township houses where the kitchen, although big enough to sleep in, was used as a kitchen/dining room, and where there was also a living room and two bedrooms. I ran a housing project that built three bunk beds in one of the bedrooms. With two children in each bed, and the two parents in the other bedroom, a family of six children and two adults could sleep reasonably comfortably in a four-roomed house.

As a councillor in this country, I went into a council flat that was supposed to have three bedrooms. The family comprised six children and two adults. They had retained the one sitting room; they had a kitchenette and they had turned one of the bedrooms into a dining room. When I went into one of the remaining bedrooms, I was astonished to see that there were three bunk beds up the wall, with two children in each one. The parents had the other bedroom.

The council said that the family were not overcrowded, because they could use the dining room as a bedroom, which is what it was meant to be. The family said no, because they had turned it from a bedroom into a dining room. If the family says, perfectly reasonably, that they are de-designating a bedroom and turning it into a second living room because they need the space, will that be regarded as permanent or as a wilful misuse of the space, which is what happened in the case of the family that I met?

Secondly, under the bedroom standard, people are paired off: the married couple is paired off and has one room; children of the same sex over 10 can be paired off and have a bedroom; for the younger children, different arrangements can be made, with those of different genders in one room. Will the pairings be decided by the family? Will the pairing of the couple sharing a bedroom be regarded as permanent? I ask that because if a couple who have a boy and a girl in their early teens and who are living in a one-bedroomed flat with a sitting room tell their housing officer that they do not want their children to share a bedroom, because they are past the age of puberty and that is not proper—a lot of people think that—the housing officer will tell them that the father can share a bedroom with the son and the mother can share a bedroom with the daughter. That will be how they are supposed to live. The idea that the couple can share a bedroom is not accepted: the family are not seen as overcrowded and they just have to make do.

I once tried to explain that to a family—I only tried it only, and we got only part way through the discussion. The situation was not helped by the fact that the family was from a culture with different attitudes towards sharing bedrooms. They did not appreciate the fact that it is not accepted in Britain that a married couple  should be entitled to share a bedroom. I have never again tried to explain that to any constituent. I want an assurance from my right hon. Friend on what is a pair. I also want an assurance, in relation to the bedroom standard, about what happens to a child under one, because at present they do not count at all. I also want to know what happens to a child under 10, because it implies in the Bill that two can share a room whereas, under our present overcrowding standards four can share a room, I think. We need to be absolutely clear about what happens, because it is children under 10 and under one who are important for child poverty. I want to know what space allocations they are expected to have.

In addition, the list covers sharing a house with a disabled adult but not with a disabled child. I want to know what happens and whether there are any guarantees on having, not just a play area but a stairlift if the child is disabled.

Finally, there is the question of precedence. I want to know what precedence the standards in the undergrowth of the Bill have over other bits of legislation. Otherwise, we have a wish list that will not be enforced because it is just that: a wish list. I will try not to test your patience, Mr. Key, but I have an example of why precedence is so important.

I had a constituent with three children. She had been in prison for stabbing her partner. The children were all aged under three and they lived in a two-bedroomed flat. The pressures were made worse by her having another baby. Even after meetings with my right hon. Friend’s colleague, the Minister in the Lords in charge of child protection, it was impossible to find a piece of legislation that put any pressure on the Liberal Democrat local authority to re-house that family. There was no money going in to the family so they were in absolute poverty. The material deprivation was clearly profound but there was no possibility of tackling the child poverty and material deprivation suffered by that family by getting them moved.

Unless the standards in the Bill are given priority over other standards, we will not be able to tackle one of the real drivers of hardship and suffering among children. Children cannot bring friends home for tea if—as in one case in my constituency—their 15-year-old brother is autistic and spends all his time walking up and down the living room. They cannot get their homework done or bring friends home if they have to share a bedroom with two siblings. If we are to tackle child poverty and the material deprivation that poor families suffer, it is important that the wonderful standards set down in the list are made enforceable by law. I ask my right hon. Friend to give clear assurances on how the standards are to be regarded, how they are to be treated and what priority they are to have over other overcrowding standards, including the statutory one, which was bad 75 years ago and is completely unacceptable today.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 12:15 pm, 27th October 2009

The Committee owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Northampton, North for her remarks. She is clearly very knowledgeable on the subject and I will listen with great interest to the Minister. He is a Treasury Minister, so I hope he has a good brief from the Department for Communities and Local Government in his pack when he comes to answer the hon. Lady’s specific points.

I am also grateful to the combined ministerial team for sending a helpful note yesterday evening that gave the Committee further guidance on the difference between the bedroom standard and the parts of the material deprivation measure that relate to housing. The note says that

“the standards within the material deprivation measure are in fact, quite tight.”

I am not entirely clear about the relationship between the two, so I would be grateful if the Minister could elaborate on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness put his finger on it earlier when he said that, in basic terms, we are talking about supply and demand. The bottom line is that there are too many people for the number of houses. We can solve that in two ways. We can increase the number of houses or we can look at some of the demand factors, which, in part, relate to the fact that we are living longer, and to family breakdown and immigration. They are all part of the mix, so it is a big policy area. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue—it takes me back to 2001 when she was Housing Minister and touched on such matters. In fact, the first Bill Committee I ever sat on as a Back Bencher was when she was a Housing Minister.

My last point relates to another area of ministerial responsibility for the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. When I think about the decreasing supply in the private rented sector I relate it to aspects of the local housing allowance regulations that landlords and tenants up and down the country say are making life more difficult for families, and reducing the supply. I do not know whether the Minister can comment on that aspect of LHA when he replies to the quite proper points made by the hon. Member for Northampton, North.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will speak only briefly because the hon. Member for Northampton, North is very knowledgeable. I congratulate her on bringing forward the key issue of housing standards. When we consider child poverty, we have to acknowledge that the vast number of children living in temporary accommodation is a disgrace. It is one of the worst things that can blight a child’s prospects, and it is absolutely right that we discuss it in the context of the Bill.

The hon. Lady raised a couple of issues, to which I hope the Minister will respond specifically. One is the list of things that count as material deprivation. There are many good things on it—housing-related issues, such as separate bedrooms, and on the adult definition, issues such as keeping the house warm—so housing is already included in one sense. However, how was the list determined? I hope that the Minister can give us some more information about that. One of the best things about the Bill is that it covers material deprivation literally—in a bricks and mortar sense that the public can understand. It is not just “60% of median equivalent income before housing costs”, but, “Can you keep your house warm?” The lists are excellent, but because they are critical to the success or failure of the child poverty strategy, we need to know where they come from and that they command broad public support. One could think of 100 things that one might put on such a list. Therefore, my first question is where does this list come from?

Secondly, where does the score of 25 come from? Although 60 per cent. of median is a bit arbitrary so too is a score of 25 on material deprivation. Where did that come from? If we are to take account of housing and various other things, we need to know the basis for it.

I have a slight suspicion that amendment 17 would have the opposite effect to what the hon. Lady intended. To count as poor under clause 3, a person has to tick box (a) and box (b). If they also have to tick box (c) as well, it becomes harder to be counted as poor. As the Bill stands, if a child is living below 70 per cent. of median and in material deprivation, they are poor. However, if we add (c), which would insert “bad housing conditions” and that child is not badly housed, we have just taken them out of poverty—perversely—on that definition. I am sure that is not what the hon. Lady intended, but that is what amendment 17 would do.

I very much support the fact that the hon. Lady has brought the issue of housing to the fore. It is critical to the well-being of children, but I am not convinced that this is quite the set of amendments to do it. None the less, I look forward to the Minister’s response on her key points.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 12:30 pm, 27th October 2009

The point made by the hon. Member for Northavon is a good one, but I am sure that the purpose in tabling the amendment was to prompt not only the full and frank Government response we shall doubtless receive but consideration of other ways of strengthening the housing element.

I make no apology for repeating my congratulations to the hon. Member for Northampton, North on raising the issue. It is a matter of genuine bewilderment for me to observe that although one would have thought that the Labour Government would prioritise housing, they have failed to do so in pure number terms. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire says, whatever regulations are set up, it is a matter of supply and demand. There either are the houses or there are not. If there are not the houses, it will be the poor and the vulnerable who are squeezed out and find themselves in inappropriate conditions.

Even with regulations in place, if the housing is not available the regulations will be breached and people will live in unsuitable housing. I congratulate the hon. Lady but I wonder why she is not joined by more of her colleagues in putting pressure on Ministers to do more. Fewer affordable housing units have been built and those that have been built have been smaller because of regulations brought in by the Government and because of the grant system. We have fewer and smaller units, and families with more than one or two children can easily find themselves living in grossly unsuitable housing—housing that would have been considered grossly unsuitable by Labour and Conservative MPs in 1935. Now in 2009 the same standards apply and the pressure is increasing.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Before I give way to the hon. Lady I should like to pay tribute to Zacchaeus 2000 and Professor Peter Ambrose’s briefing paper, “Bad, Getting Worse and Very Expensive”, on children and overcrowding. That is the situation that we ask Ministers to respond to today.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

The argument is getting circular. If we ask about the level of statutory overcrowding we are told that it is very low. It is very low because the standards are so bad. I do not point out the circularity of the argument as an excuse, but as part of the reason why it is hard to get the point across about the real mischief of overcrowding.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I thank the hon. Lady. I agree. I certainly do not dismiss the importance of regulation but I was supporting the point my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire made about supply and demand. It is incumbent on the Government in such a highly planned country as the UK to ensure that the system of regulations, and the way they are applied by local authorities and inspectors from Bristol pronouncing over the heads of local people, works in a way that matches housing need with housing supply. There has been a complete failure in that respect by this Government, which is why things are bad, getting worse and very expensive, and it is those with the lowest incomes who pay the price.

I am bewildered and surprised that more MPs from both sides do not spend more time experiencing the lives of their constituents and talking to them about what really bothers them. If they did, there would be more momentum in this place to insist that changes were made and housing was supplied.

The hon. Lady has made all the other points that I wanted to make. The kitchen as a place to sleep—in 2009 it is absurd and grotesque to have people living in such conditions. It is things like that and the failure to deliver on them that make me particularly sceptical about the Bill and its supposed eradication of child poverty and its setting of targets in statutory form. On the ground fundamental things such as housing are bad and getting worse. If I were convinced that the Bill would change overall broad policy to ensure that people on low incomes could access decent housing I would be much more supportive of it.

It is a tribute to the decency and tolerance of the people of this country that during the long period when so few units have been built, and those units were grossly small and inadequate, when there has been uncontrolled immigration, people have been living longer, there have been big increases in households and the Government have not supplied the housing that is needed, extremists found a way of getting elected only in a proportional representation election for the European Parliament. I do not think that the British people—particularly those who suffer the most at the bottom of the housing ladder—will stay so tolerant for long if this Government or the next do not take housing more seriously.

A

Far more extremists have been elected by First Past The Post to Councils than have been elected to the European Parliament and London Assembly by Proportional Representation.

Submitted by Anthony Tuffin

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

I had not intended to contribute to the debate, but I have been antagonised into so doing. In truth, there are enough houses to deal with overcrowding, homelessness and housing need. The issue is with distribution. More than 2 million second or empty homes are available to us. The question is not simply one of physical capacity.

Overcrowding, which was raised so powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North, is concentrated almost exclusively in 30 local authority areas. There is a tail of problems elsewhere. It is a  problem for local authorities in London, Slough, Luton and some inner cities in other parts of the country. Local government needs more freedoms, but I am reluctant to tear up targets and controls on local authorities. It is an indictment of local government in those specific areas that it has not risen to the challenge.

The reason for the overcrowding crisis in this country is that the supply of social rented accommodation has been in freefall for three decades. Right-to-buy properties were taken out of the stock of social housing and not replaced. Above all, they were not replaced in the places where they were lost, nor using the same style and size of accommodation.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Since I was elected to this place, I have been trying to discover why fewer affordable housing units are being built under the Labour Government than at any point during the times of austerity, recession, economic difficulty and turnaround of the last Conservative Government. Why have they failed to provide affordable units for the people one would have thought they would see as a core constituency that they—like all of us—should serve?

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

I was about to respond to that point. I have a germ of agreement because there is some truth in it. The Government rightly spent billions of pounds—I do not have the figure at my fingertips—on the decent homes initiative to get substandard local authority social housing up to a decent condition. Almost all of my constituents in such accommodation have had new kitchens and bathrooms and external work done on their properties. That was long overdue and was done at huge expense. A great deal of value has been accrued from it. That money was therefore not spent on social housing construction.

I have argued since 1997 that we should spend more on housing. I doubt that would be supported by the Conservative party, which is planning to take a substantial amount of money out of the social housing budget. On top of the decent homes initiative, more money should have been spent on building new homes.

Local authorities up and down the country—including in areas where overcrowding is most acute—say that they will not build more social homes. Those authorities are largely Conservative controlled, although some are Liberal Democrat controlled and the occasional one is Labour controlled. Southwark and possibly Newham are among the councils that say, “We do not want any more social homes because we have too many people living on low incomes in social homes and we want a different tenure mix.” There is an argument for that. However, I do not hear local authorities in Wiltshire, Norfolk, Hammersmith and Fulham or Barnet saying that they want a different tenure mix with more social housing to meet the needs of their local people and other people with housing needs up and down the country. That is a problem.

As it happens, there has been a significant increase in the construction of social housing in London in the past few years, driven by Mayor Livingstone. We will wait and see whether, given the tearing up of the targets, that will be carried through by Mayor Johnson. It is true that across the country as a whole, the social housing construction that we need has not taken place, but in the areas where we need it most, it has begun to feed through. However, it is now being blocked. There  are a number of responses to the crisis rightly mentioned by my hon. Friend, and the right kind of supply in the right places is what we need to deal with it.

My last point to Ministers is that I am absolutely clear that the Department for Communities and Local Government has failed dismally for the past 12 years to recognise how critical overcrowding is to children’s life chances. It is frankly embarrassing that for years and years, my hon. Friend and I, and others, have been saying, “Update the standard, make overcrowding as much a priority as homelessness—if not more—and help us deal with this.” If the Bill and the thinking behind the amendments are a way for us to exercise leverage on DCLG to do so, I support them wholeheartedly.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

We have had an interesting debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North made an extremely impressive case. She is a committed campaigner on these issues, as has been clear to everybody in the Committee. She was also right to highlight the scale of the overcrowding problem in my constituency. I urge her not to press her amendment, partly because, as the hon. Member for Northavon said, it would have the opposite effect to what she intends, partly due to the risk of distracting from the tight focus on poverty that we debated in the amendments to clause 1 and partly because I think that the amendments are not the right measures for dealing directly with the issues that she raised.

However, my hon. Friend certainly raised extremely important issues about which the Committee will want reassurances. I am struggling a little to answer the detailed points that she raised, but I can give her some information in response. The best way to deal with them might be to come back with further detail when I am in a position to do so. I am certainly happy, as I know she is, to convey to our colleagues in DCLG the strength of the views that she and others in the Committee have expressed as they have reflected on what to do about overcrowding.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to underline the importance of ensuring that children live in suitable, good-quality housing and the impact of housing conditions on health and educational development. I was talking to one of my constituents on Friday about the problem that her child did not have somewhere to do her homework, exactly as my hon. Friend said. By the end of next year, we will have invested more than £40 billion—the figure to which my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North alluded—and completed work to make 3.6 million social homes decent. That is 95 per cent. of the total. It has been a big programme of investment, which was necessary because of the previous Government’s neglect and an absence of investment in housing in the past. However, there is certainly more to do, and recent announcements on supply and overcrowding will help to ensure that we maintain momentum.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

However new and shiny the kitchen, does the Minister still think it appropriate, this year, that a family should be sleeping in it?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I certainly do not. I hope, however, that the hon. Gentleman will reverse his opposition to the Government’s bringing forward investment in housing as part of our response to the recession. That will help us to make some headway on matters.

I will set out how the Bill addresses housing, and I hope that that will be helpful. The combined low income and material deprivation target requires us to ensure that fewer than 5 per cent. of children are living in households experiencing both material deprivation and an income below 70 per cent. of the median before housing costs. Of the 21 items currently used to define material deprivation, two relate explicitly to housing. One relates to whether families have enough money to keep their home in a decent state of decoration, while the other relates to the number of bedrooms in the home, a point particularly welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North.

The items were chosen following independent expert analysis of how to identify families living in poor housing conditions. The question in the material deprivation survey about the number of bedrooms asks, as my hon. Friend said, whether the household has enough bedrooms for every child aged 10 years or more of a different gender to have their own bedroom.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 12:45 pm, 27th October 2009

I was very surprised by the figures; in about 82 per cent. of the households that responded, the children said that they did have enough bedrooms. Was that because there were enough bedrooms in total, or because there were enough bedrooms if the parents slept in the sitting room? I was not clear about that, as it seems unlikely that there would be enough bedrooms if only bedrooms were used as bedrooms.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

Perhaps I could come back to my hon. Friend on that, but the survey is quite subjective. It asks whether there are enough bedrooms, and it records the answer. I do not think that it goes into great detail about the sleeping arrangements in the home. Its intention is to establish the self-reporting of material deprivation as part of the measures under the Bill.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

May I ask for a statement of fact? I might be stupid and may have missed some documents, but will my right hon. Friend tell us where the list of factors relating to material deprivation is set out, explain how we can get hold of it and say whether we have already been given a copy?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, there was information on that matter in the letter that went around yesterday, but the “households below average income” survey is the key source for the data.

If I explained a little more where we are in the process, it might clarify the position. Each of the 21 items used to measure material deprivation has a separate weighting, depending on how common it is for the general population to be able to afford them. An overall score is achieved by adding up the weight for each item that has lapsed because it cannot be afforded, and the score is then adjusted to one on a scale of zero to 100.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked how is it that a family is materially deprived if they score 25 or more on the scale. That figure emerged from the expert assessment. A lot of academic work has been done on the topic, with the result that 25 is about the right place to set the threshold. As I said, the measure is subjective, and the work is exploratory. A lot of it is new. That is the state of the art; that is where we have got to.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

In answer to question 203, Neil O’Brien made the important point that the data underlying material deprivation were very weak. Reading through his helpful policy note, it seems that there is quite a lot of continuity in the approach taken since the early years of this decade. Presumably, the weakness applies to that. Is the Minister satisfied that he has overcome the weakness identified in the data?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

The current list of material deprivation items was selected in 2003. Work is under way at the moment to update that list, and the view among the academic experts to whom I have referred is that it would be sensible to update the list every five years. In that way, we could allow the measure to keep pace with public perceptions of disadvantage, but it would not move too fast and thus confuse or disguise the picture, in relation to whether progress was being made. We have commissioned research to identify whether and how the current items should be updated to ensure that the measure remains a robust measure of contemporary living standards, and we are talking to academic experts as part of that. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North, that regulations will set out how material deprivation, including the housing element, will be measured, and that will enable us to do the updating in the way that I have described. I hope that that picks up the issues raised in her amendments 18 and 19.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Will those regulations give some priority to some of the more pressing indicators? It would be perverse if a child could have a friend over once a fortnight for tea and was able to go on holiday, but spent their entire childhood living in an appalling slum.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I think that my hon. Friend’s question is about the weightings that are applied to each of the 21 indicators. I am happy to give her some information about that, and she may want to comment. It is still an evolving science, and there may well be lessons to be learned from the debate about how that weighting should be applied.

I ought to draw attention to the fact that, along with the material deprivation target, housing is listed in clause 8 as one of the key areas to be considered when preparing a child poverty strategy. As with each of the building blocks underpinning the strategy, work is under way to analyse the impact of housing on child poverty, including both the direct impact on material deprivation and the importance of good quality housing for other related outcomes, for example parental employment, family health and children’s education. The duties in part 2 will also lead local authorities and those working with them to address housing issues that arise in their areas—my hon. Friend touched on that. For example, needs assessments will need to be undertaken to identify the quality of housing occupied by families with children living in poverty in the local area. By using housing items to help to define material deprivation, requiring the child poverty strategy to consider housing as one of the building blocks and ensuring that local partners consider local housing issues, the Bill will be effective in mitigating for children the effects of bad housing conditions and the other material effects of living in poverty.

I have talked a little about the two items relating to housing. As I have said, the items used are updated over  time to capture contemporary living standards—not the bare basics—and the fact that they will be in regulations means that they can be updated. The local needs assessment regulations, which my hon. Friend touched on, are in draft. She may want to comment on the detail of those, and there is an opportunity to do so. We have to ensure, of course, that local needs assessment regulations are deliverable, and that local partners have access to the data that they need in order to comply. We are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government on that, and there may well be an opportunity in that dialogue to pursue my hon. Friend’s concerns on overcrowding.

The items that we use at the moment for material deprivation come from the 2003 consultation on measuring child poverty. I mentioned that the child poverty unit has commissioned independent academic analysis to identify whether and which items need updating. If new items were needed, they would be included in the 2010-11 survey to measure income and material deprivation.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I asked specifically about what constitutes a bedroom and who decides what is a pair, and I also asked about precedence. I particularly wanted an answer in Committee because that will be important for later interpretation of the Bill. Will my right hon. Friend deal with those specific points? There were also issues about children under the age of one.

What precedence does the standard—it may be revised, and I take the point that it appears likely that housing will be included in the new list—take over other types of measures? That precise point was raised earlier: in the absence of the new regulations that the Government committed themselves to bringing forward some time ago, there is a plethora of different standards, and the basic one is abysmally low. That is the one that I read out, which was objected to 75 years ago.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

The point of being able to ask in Committee is so that the answer will be in Hansard. An exchange of letters does not have the same status. It is important to set out what is meant by the standard, which will have a profound impact on the standard of housing provided for our constituents. It will have a real effect on some of the poorest families and children. We need to know the sequencing of the standards in the Bill, in relation to measures in other legislation that affects housing for families and children.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I have said that I will need to check on some of the points and come back on them. However, there will undoubtedly be opportunities later in the Committee’s sittings, or on Report, for me to put that detail on the record, and I shall be happy to do so.

However, I want to sound a cautionary note, because of course the statutory regulations under housing law will take precedence. The Bill may well effectively apply pressure for change, but it would be misleading if I were to give the Committee the impression that the inclusion of a particular formulation in the material deprivation index will override housing law. However, I shall be  happy to come to the Committee or the House with the further detail that my hon. Friend has asked for, and ensure that it is on the record.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

On that basis, and as there will be plenty of other opportunities to pursue the points of concern, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

I remind the Committee of the convention that we should be careful not to bring beverages into the room.

The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Four o’clock.