Housing Benefit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:55 pm on 15th March 2001.

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Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate 3:55 pm, 15th March 2001

Ms Buck and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) painted graphic, if depressing, pictures of the desperate situations in their constituencies because of their local authorities farming out to a private company the delivery of housing benefit to their residents. In the light of those contributions, I should say that my borough--the London borough of Camden--has received two charter marks for the excellence of its delivery of the housing benefits system.

I am somewhat bemused that neighbouring authorities with similar problems did not ask my borough of Camden for advice or hints on how best to administer the housing benefits system. Perhaps there was a different Government in office when the change in benefits delivery came in, and they were not allowed to go to a local authority.

In his opening remarks, the Chairman of the Select Committee referred to his shock at some of the rents that are charged in London. Mr. Ennis made a contribution that was not London-based. I join him in congratulating the Chairman and the Select Committee on an excellent report. I sincerely hope that the Government will take on board its recommendations and, as far as London is concerned, that they will process some of the changes more expeditiously than they seem to be doing at present.

I am grateful for a handy little booklet about London that was published this year by the National Housing Federation and entitled "A Tale of Two Cities". It contains many facts that I imagine most London Members are familiar with, but I thought that it might be helpful on the subject of rent levels. The London Research Centre rents bulletin, which was published in March 2000, indicates that a two-bedroomed property costs on average £285 a week in the private sector. One would expect to pay nearly £380 a week for three bedrooms. I am dealing with a case in my constituency involving a studio flat that is currently renting for £390 a week; the landlord wants to increase the rent to £650a week.

Another point that may be useful with regard to London--I do not think that I am overly stressing London's housing crisis--is that more than 70 per cent. of all new lettings by London housing associations are to households that have no wage earner. That fact is from National Housing Federation statistics released in January 2001. Yet London's population continues to grow. In common with my hon. Friends who touched on the point, I strongly welcome the Government's commitment to affordable social housing, the release of capital receipts and the money for local authorities to enter into partnerships for new build, refurbishment and rehabilitation of properties. However, for a considerable time to come, the majority of people in London will find homes for themselves and their families only within the private rented sector and with rents at the levels that I have elicited, housing benefit will clearly be vital.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North highlighted the fact that housing benefit is claimed by some of the most vulnerable in our society. We know who they are: pensioners, people with disabilities and single-parent families. I hope that the Government will attack with some speed the issue of how people are kept in poverty by the present structure of housing benefit. The Government have introduced policies to encourage single parents back into the work force because of the benefits that that can provide. Those benefits are not exclusively financial, but include a sense of worth and dignity and a model for children of how life could be. I hope that the Government will examine the situation where a woman--it seems to affect women particularly--finds a job, but the minute that she starts work, she is in danger of a reduction in housing benefit and of losing the family home. That must be tackled with some speed.

I wish to mention some issues in my own constituency. The London borough of Camden's delivery of housing benefit is excellent. However, some constituents who come to my surgery will never be housed by a local authority because they will never fit into the statutory categories in London. They are exclusively dependent on the private rented sector, and are finding increasingly that, due to failures in the delivery of housing benefit, private landlords are unwilling to let to tenants who--perhaps only in the first instance--may need to pay their rent via the housing benefit system. I believe that to be true throughout London.

The issue has also impacted on several housing associations that are responsible for properties in a much wider area of London than my constituency. A housing association in my constituency that has worked in the sector for a considerable number of years, and which has a high reputation for being efficient, innovative and practical, at one stage was looking at a cash shortfall of £6 million. That is almost unsustainable in a sector where those who are engaged in such matters and who are subject to pressures on the ground and from London Members of Parliament must be able to concentrate their efforts on increasing the affordable housing stock. They have to spend hours, if not days, tracking down local authorities to find out when they will receive rent for the properties that the housing association is managing well. That is unacceptable, given the level of human commitment and the costs to housing associations. It is not the only housing association that I know of in London that has suffered such a serious shortfall because of the inadequacies that its tenants have experienced in obtaining housing benefit.

The problem has severely affected those mainly voluntary organisations that operate hostels for rough sleepers who are temporarily in that position. It should be possible to ensure that such people are not, as one administrator said, almost hung out to dry because of the failure of housing benefit to reach their coffers. The hostels are improving all the time; none the less the available bed space or room space is known. Invariably, because of London's housing crisis, they are full. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, housing benefit is part of the social security system and, in a sense, it is paid by the state to individuals in that way. Why cannot such establishments receive annually the cost of the total housing benefit? If, at the end of the year, a couple of rooms or beds were not used 365 days of the year, a repayment could be made to central Government or the money could be rolled on into the payments for the following year.