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[Mr James Gray in the Chair] — Housing Benefit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:48 am on 13th October 2010.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 9:48 am, 13th October 2010

If the hon. Lady had been paying attention, she would have noticed that I opened my remarks by saying that I am not speaking in defence of the coalition Government's proposals-anything but. I am just setting the scene by pointing out that the problems are inherited. I do not agree with how the matter is being dealt with, but Her Majesty's official Opposition should not come here today and pretend that they are the saviours of the social housing market, given that the record shows that they built only-let me repeat the figures-6,470 council houses in 13 years, in contrast with the previous Conservative Government, who built 507,200 in their first 13 years.

Let me now say that I do not agree with the proposals on housing benefit. I know that the Minister will be aware of them, but I draw his attention to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke-particularly Matthew chapter 19, verses 13 to 15, Mark chapter 10, verses 14 to 15, and Luke chapter 18, verses 15 to 17, which includes the phrase "suffer little children." I do not want this coalition Government to make children suffer, but that is what will happen as a result of the proposals on housing benefit. I wish to put it on the record that I have already initiated one debate on child poverty in this Chamber since the general election. Another record for the previous Labour Government is that they left 3.9 million children living below the official poverty line. What an appalling legacy. I do not want that figure to increase; I want it to be eliminated.

I am grateful to the Local Government Group, particularly Mr Ben Kind-the public affairs and campaigns manager-for sending me a briefing in advance of today's debate. That document states:

"The housing benefit measures announced in the June 2010 budget, including capping local housing allowance rates, paid to tenants in the private sector, and setting them based on the 30(th) percentile of local rents, are likely to increase homelessness costs, since they will diminish the willingness of private rented sector landlords to let to housing benefit customers. This will have hugely variable and disproportionate effects on different parts of the country."

On the local housing allowance, the briefing points out:

"Councils will continue to have a duty to house those who are homeless and this will be a challenge to council homelessness budgets. Although the precise extra cost is still hard to estimate, temporary accommodation costs seem certain to be higher."

I know that from my own constituency of Colchester. It is a relatively prosperous town in a relatively prosperous part of the country, but there are pockets of deprivation. The simple fact is that housing a homeless family is far more expensive for the public purse than putting them in a proper, decent house.

I refer colleagues to the full debate that I had on child poverty, in relation to which I was contacted by the Child Poverty Action Group. In that debate, I pointed out that it is no good for any Government, either this Government or the previous Government, to come up with wondrous schemes and policies for the betterment of people if the basic pieces of the jigsaw-the framework and the corners-are not in place. Such a basic building block is a house. If children do not have decent housing, the rest of the Government's proposals are almost meaningless.

Social housing is already extremely scarce-I have mentioned the failures of the previous Labour Government-and an increase in the number of people who are priced out of privately rented housing will place additional demands on housing stock. Meanwhile, the increase in the non-dependant deduction could have a negative effect on family and community stability to the extent that young adults feel that they have to move out of the family home. That could have the adverse effect of encouraging the concealment of the presence of and incomes of some family members, which will add to the level of fraud and error in the system.

I do not wish to defend the relatively small number of people in society who abuse the system. Unfortunately, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail think that everybody on housing benefit is abusing the system. The minority who do are destroying the case for genuine people who are not defrauding the system, but who are depicted as scroungers. Of course, we need to tackle that problem, but we must not alter the whole system to deal with just a few scroungers.