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Clause 16 - Loans for mortgage interest

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 15th October 2015.

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To require that the waiting period before an application for a loan for mortgage interest can be made is 13 weeks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, ill or not.

Housing costs are never far away from our discussions in this Committee, and the clause brings the subject back into focus in a new and unexpected way. It is not at all clear to me what the Government are trying to achieve with this strange proposal. Support for mortgage interest—SMI—is a benefit that has been in existence in some form or another since 1948. It is the same age as the welfare state and the national health service and is paid exclusively to those on the lowest incomes. It is an important part of the social safety net, the entire principle of which is undermined when we start talking about replacing benefits with loans, which is what the proposal would do.

We have tabled mostly probing amendments to clauses 16 to 18. We do not believe that interest-bearing loans have a place in the social security system at all, but we have sought to highlight some of the most serious flaws in the proposal in the hope that the Government might reassure us that the consequences of the changes have been adequately thought through because, at first blush, it seems to us that they have not.

Towards the end of Tuesday’s sitting, we began to air some of the arguments about waiting periods. The Government made clear their intention to fix the waiting period for SMI loans at 39 weeks, which is three times its current level. That is without a doubt a substantial change. The waiting period was set at 13 weeks in 2008  when the global financial crisis prompted the then Labour Government to shorten the waiting period as part of a range of measures intended to prevent homeowners from going into arrears and facing repossession of their homes.

A research report published by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2011—I recommend the Minister reads it because it is very interesting and enlightening—says that the measures were successful. It stated that the changes

“resulted in more people being assisted, more fully and sooner. Borrowers accrued lower levels of arrears or none at all”

and

“lenders have been more willing to forbear and not seek possession.”

The report was published in 2011 and can be found on the Government’s DWP website.

Reversing the process by reverting to a 39-week waiting period is counterintuitive and likely to be counterproductive. It seems likely to increase the probability of homeowners facing repossession and homelessness when they fall on hard times. If the measure is about saving money, making things more difficult for people who find themselves falling on hard times when trying to buy their home and more likely that repossession will happen earlier is counterintuitive because of the costs to us all to look after the people whose homes have been repossessed. As we discussed on Tuesday, I was disappointed that there was no mention of that in the latest Government impact assessment.

The Government have not been able to provide any reassurance that there is a robust evidence base or, indeed, any evidence base at all for the contention that the charge will not risk an increase in homelessness. The best that the Minister could do on Tuesday was to tell us:

“The Council of Mortgage Lenders has not said that the 39-week wait will drive repossessions. That is an eminently respected organisation, and it would have said if it felt that was the case.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform and Work Public Bill Committee, 12 October 2015; c. 360.]

I was interested and frankly surprised to hear that, and thought perhaps I had misheard it. I gave the Minister the benefit of the doubt at the time, but I am afraid I do not now. I wondered if the Council of Mortgage Lenders had looked into this in a bit more depth than the Government, so I went back and looked over its submission to the Committee. Imagine my surprise when I found that the view it had expressed on the waiting period was the exact opposite of what the Minister told us! For the sake of clarity, I will quote the submission at length, because it is a very helpful document:

“If the waiting time is extended, as planned, we believe that it will result in more cases of repossession as lenders will not be able to allow their customers to continue to accrue mortgage arrears over this period especially where the customer is unable to make any payment. Lenders already have to carefully balance allowing a person to remain in their home while not allowing their financial position to worsen. Extending the waiting time will only cause additional consumer detriment.”

There we are. The council is against it. The one piece of evidence that the Minister was able to cite in support of extending the waiting period turns out to be nothing of the kind.

The Government have to do better than that. In order to persuade Members on the Opposition Benches, the Government ought to make an effort to produce  some evidence or opinion from someone apart from Government Ministers that shows that the proposal is a good idea, and that extending the waiting period for mortgage lenders to get repayment will not mean an increase in homelessness. That, I appreciate, is an uphill task, but it is one they have set themselves.

I appreciate that I am a cracked record on this, but we must go beyond the rhetoric and look at evidence. Social policy should be based on evidence, and I will be interested to hear whether there is any evidence to show that extending the period from 13 weeks to 39 weeks, as the Government want, will actually help anybody.