Thank you, Mr Gray. I will be brief so that everyone can contribute to the debate.
I welcome the debate and congratulate my right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge on securing it, on what she said this morning, and, in particular, on her successful annihilation of the British National party in the general election, which she did on behalf of all of us.
As Members know, I represent Islington North, which is an inner urban constituency. It is perceived by the Daily Mail and Daily Express to be the fountain of all things that are bad in our society. The perceptions are of liberal intelligentsia, cappuccino society and restaurants where new Labour used to meet. I personally have never had anything to do with new Labour whatsoever, so I take no responsibility for that.
Unfortunately, that image has placed itself in the public eye as being fact but, in reality, it is not. My hon. Friend Emily Thornberry and I represent a borough which is the eighth poorest in the country. It has a large number of people living in council or housing association accommodation, a large number of people living in private rented accommodation, and probably one of the lowest levels of owner occupation in the country. I believe it is now down to about 30%, which is less than half the national average. The number of people living in private rented accommodation has gone up by a huge amount and now represents more than 30% of the population. They are not all on housing benefit, but some are.
The local authority has a huge housing problem to deal with, but, in the long term, it can be addressed only by purchasing existing properties and converting them into flats, where appropriate, and by building new properties where land becomes available, which is a huge problem in inner London. Indeed, during an earlier incarnation as chair of housing in Islington, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking managed to secure the purchase of a large number of street properties which were then converted into flats and remain so, so Islington has many street properties. Also, she presided over a considerable level of council house building in the early 1980s, despite huge opposition from the then Conservative Government, so it is not that enormous efforts have not been made to try to address the issue of housing stock.
However, as in every other borough, nothing had been done in the way of major repairs before 1997 because of central Government cuts, as my right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford said. The council was reduced to doing repairs only if tenants took legal action against it to get them done, and that was normal throughout London at the time. I accept the criticisms made by Bob Russell about the lack of new house building, but he should recognise the enormous repair problem that was left to the incoming Labour Government in 1997, and also recognise that decent homes standards have made a difference.
I have discussed the problems of housing benefit in countless debates; indeed, many Members in the Chamber today have taken part in them. This nation spends a vast amount of money on housing benefit, but I have no problem whatsoever with the principle of it. I absolutely support it, and where housing benefit is paid to people living in council or housing association accommodation, it is all straightforward.
What annoys me beyond belief is when two successive families come into my advice surgery-I shall not reveal names, as that would not be appropriate-family A lives in a council flat and gets housing benefit for the full rent, which is around £100 per week, and family B, who could be living next door in an identical flat with identical social conditions, receives housing benefit of £250, £300 or £350 a week. Why the difference? It is because family B's flat was bought from the council under right to buy, possibly with a large discount. Someone is able to live off the private rent paid for by housing benefit. That is wrong, and the Government must deal with it, but the problem cannot be addressed by punishing the tenant or attacking people who are in receipt of housing benefit, which is exactly what the Government are trying to do by introducing a housing benefit cap.
What is likely to happen in my community and in the communities of others here today, particularly inner-London Members, is that large numbers of our constituents on a low wage, income support or jobseeker's allowance and in receipt of housing benefit, will be faced with a horrible choice. The housing benefit will be cut, but the landlord will refuse to lower the rent. They will then be faced with a terrible choice. Do they take the children out of school? Do they move away from the area where their family live, where they may be caring for an elderly relative, where they have community links, where they have their general practitioner or local hospital? They have that kind of social support network, but they will have to try to find a private rented flat somewhere else, some distance away.