It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing this debate.
I shall not rerun all the figures that have been heard already. I agree absolutely with what my hon. Friend said, and I also agree, up to a point, with the contribution of Mr Field. The central issue is the implicit threat to so many of the most vulnerable people in my constituency from what the Government propose on housing benefit. I freely and openly admit that I am a cynic when it comes to their policies on what I still regard as social housing-I prefer to call it council housing, but let us make it broader than that.
It seems that we will have, yet again, a rerun of the attacks that were made on social or council housing under the first Thatcher Administration-the coalition Government are actually Thatcherism mark 2-and we can remember what happened during that time. We saw a massive explosion in homelessness. I do not think that there was a single street in London during that time that did not have its community of homeless people sleeping in doorways, many of whom had serious mental health as well as physical health problems. The waiting lists grew ever longer, and families were placed in bed and breakfast accommodation where they were allowed into what were, in the main, utterly appalling conditions. I visited many of them, and I speak about what I actually saw. If those images had been presented to members of the Kennel Club as fit places for dogs to live, there would have been riots in our streets. Families in such accommodation had to leave it at 9 o'clock in the morning and were not allowed back until 5 o'clock at night, in many instances.
Out of the desperate need of those families-every black cloud has a silver lining-came a growing number of charitable and voluntary organisations that attempted to get certainly the children off the streets of London, where the then Government had deemed it was entirely right and proper for them to be. Many of the children were of pre-school age, and, of course, there was nothing like Sure Start and no free nursery provision in those days.
What is being proposed by the present Government for housing benefit will recreate precisely those conditions all over again. No one in this Chamber would argue that the housing benefit system should not be examined closely-many of us have been arguing that for a considerable time-but to believe that we can improve it by punishing those who have no homes without the support of housing benefit seems utterly absurd.
For example, rents in my constituency and in that of every London MP who is sitting here this morning are way above the national average and, in many instances, way above the London average, yet the Government propose that a cap should be placed on housing benefit. I cannot in all honesty see the landlords who are presently benefiting from the system saying, "Oh dear, are we charging too much? Perhaps we should bring the rent down." They will simply not accept the same number of tenants whose rent payments are dependent on housing benefit. That is also something that has been growing over the past few years.
Then we look at the north, where people who cannot get work in London are apparently supposed to go to look for jobs. Rents undoubtedly are much lower there than they are in London, but one knows precisely what will happen. The landlords will say, "Oh, goody." If the Government are prepared to pay a certain amount for a house, flat or whatever, up the rents will go. There will be absolutely no saving of any kind for the national purse, but there will be real, serious human tragedies played out on our streets yet again.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North said, the proposal will impact horrendously on children. He did not say that-I am paraphrasing-but that is what he meant. It will impact horrendously on children who cannot do their homework or make friends because they have nowhere to bring friends after school to play or have a cup of tea. It will impact terribly on parents who are constantly left feeling guilty, because they see the damage that is being inflicted on their children.
The proposal will also have appalling repercussions on the wider community. All hon. Members receive letters and complaints from constituents about noise-in many instances, it is perfectly natural, normal noise. Children make noise, and if three or four of them are in an extremely small flat with nowhere to play-more than likely up a tower block-they will make noise, and that will create the usual neighbourhood dramas that we all have to deal with day in, day out.
I go back to my original hypothesis, which arises from my cynicism and hard-won experience of many years ago, that this is just another brick in the wall of the attempt by the present Government to destroy social housing as we all understand it. They want all properties that at present could be deemed to be social-whether council, housing association or some other form of social housing-to be taken out of that sector and placed in the private sector. It seems that they want to put all housing in the private sector and to remove all kinds of support for people who will never be able to buy a house of their own or meet what will be the soaring costs of renting in the private sector, certainly in London, because they want London to be a place where rich people live. They do not want it to be a place where poor people live.
This is a step up from the gerrymandering-I exclude the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster-that we saw in Westminster. My hon. Friend Ms Buck, who is sitting one seat away from me, knows precisely where I am going with that. That kind of gerrymandering involved decanting people from areas of Westminster and bringing in those who were deemed to be Tory voters. I have to tell the Government that the fallacy that only rich people vote Tory is absurd. I know many people whom they would not regard as being even vaguely well off who are solid, absolutely committed Tories and will be all their life.
The idea that the way forward is to create virtual ghettos of a different kind is absolutely and utterly unacceptable in a country such as ours, certainly in this century. We cannot go down the road of arbitrarily deciding which properties can be charged for at a certain level in this way. The proposals for housing benefit are monstrous, and they will, as they inevitably do in such areas, impact most on the most vulnerable.
I sincerely hope that the Minister, who I am surprised to find sitting here supporting such policies, will rethink them. If he will not do that, I hope that he will report on what he hears this morning in the hope that those above his pay grade will think again about something that could be so destructive for this city.