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[Mr James Gray in the Chair] — Housing Benefit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:01 am on 13th October 2010.

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Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 10:01 am, 13th October 2010

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge on securing the debate. She spoke convincingly about why the proposals are so misguided and I associate myself with all that she said.

I think that the Government's announced shake-up of housing benefit is well intentioned; they talk about reducing the welfare bill, getting more people into work and forcing private sector landlords to lower their rents. What is there not to agree with about that? However, anyone who has looked at the proposals will recognise that they are likely to have a devastating impact on families and communities up and down the country. Put simply, many decent, responsible people will struggle to keep a roof over their heads and will have to leave their homes.

As has already been said, in parts of the country, such as London, some high-rent areas will simply become no-go zones for people in receipt of housing benefit. Although, as Bob Russell said, much is made in the right-wing press about work-shy households living in Mayfair mansions, the vast majority of those who will be affected by the changes will be pensioners, people with disabilities, people caring for relatives and hard-working people on low incomes.

Only one in eight people receiving housing benefit does so because they are unemployed. In Lewisham, 9,600 people who rent flats on the private market are in receipt of housing benefit. The proposed changes to how the benefit is calculated will mean that those residents will lose on average £17 a week, or £884 a year, from next October. That represents an overall reduction in Lewisham of £8.6 million.

Furthermore, some of the largest families in the largest properties will also have their housing benefit reduced from next April due to the introduction of the weekly cap. Those are not people who have money left over at the end of the week; they often struggle to make ends meet. They already often experience shortfalls between the housing benefit that they receive and the rent that they pay. Last Friday, a gentleman came to my surgery and told me that because he had to pay for his mother's funeral abroad, he could no longer keep up his rent payments. The Government's proposals will make situations such as his worse, and the problems that many families currently face in tackling the shortfall between the benefit that they receive and what they have to pay in rent will become even worse.

I accept that one of the Government's solutions for tackling that hardship is to increase the payments made to local councils for discretionary housing payments. I am seriously concerned, however, that the scale of that increase will not even touch the sides of the problem in my constituency. Will the Minister consider doubling the planned increase in DHP, and has any assessment been made of the amount of money that will come to London for that? I am aware that organisations such as London Councils believe that DHP should be increased by £19 million in the capital to address the unique complications of the private rented sector here.

The problem in London is complex. One of the major fears of my local authority relates to the knock-on effects of the introduction of weekly rent caps in expensive central London boroughs, which have already been mentioned. It has been estimated that nearly 10,000 households will have to move from the five most expensive areas in London to lower-cost areas as a result of the proposed changes, but if anyone in this Chamber thinks that areas such as Lewisham have spare flats with suitably low rent just lying around and waiting to be filled, they are sadly mistaken.

Only one third of rents in Lewisham's private sector are set within local housing allowance limits, and one third are already occupied by housing benefit claimants. Lewisham has 17,000 people on the housing register and more than 1,000 homeless households in temporary accommodation. My corner of south-east London will simply be unable to absorb a further increase in housing demand because the supply of homes is already so short.

The sad reality of the proposals is that they will actually reduce the amount of housing available to people in need. Research undertaken in London has shown that landlords are likely to withdraw from the market for housing benefit tenants for fear that people will default on their rent payments and because anticipated rental income will no longer cover their costs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking referred to a study that indicated that 90% of landlords would not accept shortfalls in rent of more than £20 a week and that they would evict tenants or bring tenancies to an end as a result, and 60% of landlords have indicated that they would not accept any shortfall. However, I understand that landlords are saying that they would consider lowering their rents if housing benefit could be paid to them directly. Will the Minister consider reintroducing the direct payment of housing benefit to landlords?

Will the Minister outline what support he intends to provide to councils to deal with the problem of increased homelessness? Like many of my colleagues who have spoken this morning, I cannot see how the changes will not result in more and more people being priced out of their homes. Will he commit to maintaining and increasing the homelessness prevention grant, which will help local councils with the additional work that the proposed changes to housing benefit will undoubtedly create?

In conclusion, I urge the Government not to proceed with the proposals and to think hard about whether they fit with the claim that we are all in this together. Are they not, in effect, a vicious attack on some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society? One of the solutions to reducing the housing benefit bill must be to build more social rented housing. I accept that more could have been done on that over the past 13 years, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking has already said, the housing sector was facing huge challenges when the previous Government came to power in 1997.

What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the new supply of affordable homes? My concern is that some of the wider changes being made to the planning system, along with the reduction in capital grant available though the Homes and Communities Agency, will mean that those new homes simply will not be built.

Finally, the idea that the proposals will somehow miraculously get people into work is laughable, and the assumption that private sector rents will be lowered is deeply flawed. The proposals may well reduce the welfare bill, but at a huge cost to my constituents, who are already struggling hard to make ends meet.