Under-Occupancy Penalty (Birkenhead)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 26th March 2013.

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Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead 4:30 pm, 26th March 2013

Mr Benton, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, on not only a personal but a regional level, as I will explain. I am grateful to the Speaker for giving me the opportunity to debate this issue, which unfairly affects my constituency, yours and others in the north-west.

I have been in the House for more than three decades, and I have witnessed many so-called welfare reform measures, but I have never witnessed a measure as grossly unfair as this one. As the Minister well knows, under-occupancy is a supply-side issue, yet we are trying to control the demand side to make people on low incomes fit into the regimented holes into which the Government would like them to fit.

I know the Government have a fig leaf to parade around to cover their nakedness, and no doubt we will hear about it. They will say that there is a huge number of people in social housing properties who have too many bedrooms and a shortage of social housing. If only those damn people would move from their under-occupied properties to ones that fit, a major problem would be solved. We all know that it will not be, for reasons that I hope to explain.

I feel so strongly about what the Government are doing to my constituents and similarly placed constituents around the country that I call on both social housing and housing association landlords to defy the measures, not by not operating them, but by doing what landlords did after the nine years’ war, when a Government similarly stretched for money imposed a window tax. In many instances—we see it in older properties in our constituencies—landlords bricked up windows. I hope that landlords will brick up the doors to spare bedrooms and, where appropriate, knock down the walls, so that the properties can safely fit the tenants. I have never before asked for direct action. I do so now because I feel that the measures are grossly unfair. In more than three decades, I have never debated such a vicious cut. Even if most people wished to do what the Government want them to do, they would be unable to do it.

The background to the case is that the Government claim that there are 1 million spare bedrooms throughout the country, and that the subsidy for those spare bedrooms costs £500 million. If only they could get people to move around to fit into the accommodation that the Government would like them to have, £500 million in public expenditure would be saved. The means of doing so are as follows. From April this year, those who have one so-called spare bedroom will lose 14% of their housing benefit, and those who have two spare rooms will lose 25% of their housing benefit.

This is the last opportunity for the House to debate this wretched measure before it comes into effect in our constituencies. We know that about one third of social tenants will be affected, and that their average loss of benefit will be £14 a week. We know that 40,000 will lose their entitlement entirely, and, as I said, a higher percentage of tenants in the north-west will be affected than in London and the south-east.

In this debate, I will rely on figures supplied by Riverside, one of the larger housing associations offering accommodation to my constituents. Some 25% of its tenants will be affected by this vicious little measure, and 20% of tenants of Wirral Partnership Homes will be affected. Let us look at the facts that Riverside dug out. In the three years between 2008 and 2011, in one part of my constituency, Tranmere and Rock Ferry, 500 new tenancy allocations were made. Of those households, 302 needed one bedroom, yet only 126 one- bedroom flats were available. Even if those tenants wanted accommodation that fitted their needs as defined by the Government, they would not be able to meet the policy. Riverside sensibly asked those who would be affected by this vicious little measure what they intended to do to try to balance the books. Some 32% said that they would try to move to smaller properties, 11% said that they would ask people in their household to help them pay the rent, 16% said that they would ask people outside their household, 17% said that they would try to earn extra money, 9% said that they would take a lodger, and 42% said that they would probably fail to pay the rent.

I want to dwell on two aspects. One is the 17% who said that they would try to earn more money. One of the Merseyside police’s worries about the measure is that there has been a significant increase in the number of people being encouraged to use spare bedrooms to grow pot. One consequence of this Government action will be to enable those gangs who try to enrol vulnerable constituents to make extra money in that way. That will be a real first for the Government. They should be proud, shouldn’t they?

Let us then look at the 42% who will fail to pay their rent. They will face eviction due to significant reductions in their income. Of course, they will try for a time to cut down on other necessities, such as fuel. I can switch on the heating, but unlike me, many of my constituents do not switch it on during the day. They will now spend even less time with their heating on. Others will eat a far less healthy diet.

When push comes to shove, what will those with children do? They might let their rent fall into arrears, which the Government do not seem to realise is a far better option than not paying other bills, because other bills attract penal rates of interest if they are not paid, and as yet—although no doubt there will be a measure to help them—local authorities and housing associations cannot enforce this wretched little measure by charging interest on debts that accrue.

My plea to housing associations is not to evict. As a result, their revenue will be affected. All the housing associations in Birkenhead have gone down the route of going to the banks to pledge their future revenue against loans. Once the revenue is not forthcoming, what will the banks do? I would prefer the housing associations to go bankrupt rather than bankrupt my constituents. One of the not-so-hidden consequences of this vicious little measure is that housing associations will risk going bankrupt. What will the Government do then? They will not be able to allow them to remain bankrupt. I hope that a plan B that is slightly more effective than the plan B for the economy is on the stocks.

Let us suppose that the tenants could move. The housing stock is not available, but suppose they could. We know from those who have managed to find alternative accommodation that it actually costs more. For example, one-bedroom places in Birkenhead average £71 a week, but in the private sector they are £88 a week. If every wonderful tenant in Birkenhead affected by this vicious little measure did what the Government wanted, the savings would not be made and the housing bill would go up, defeating the measure; the Department for Work and Pensions, which wants people to move around to free up accommodation, would have to have a serious conversation with the Treasury about why the idea has failed to deliver the £500 million cut.

Housing associations should follow the example of the landlords who took action after the nine years’ war to ensure that they and their tenants did not pay an unfair tax. If tenants request such action, the doors to spare bedrooms should be blocked up, as the windows were, and their walls should be knocked through to make one larger room, where it is possible and safe to do so; that would apply only where no downsizing options were available. It would not solve the problem of a grossly unfair tax, but it would mitigate some of the worst results by freeing tenants from this poll tax.

The Government are of course unlikely to achieve the £500 million cut in housing benefit demanded by the Treasury, but their cover is blown anyway: for the reasons I set out, even if all the tenants could move to smaller accommodation, the Government would make no savings in public expenditure at all. Indeed, as suitable accommodation in the private sector is more expensive, the housing benefit bill will rise.

Why am I for the first time advocating direct action? I do so because this tax is so grossly unfair, and it is being levied on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Wicked actions require a different response from us parliamentarians.