Local Housing Allowance and Homelessness — [Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:51 am on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North 9:51 am, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.

Central London, which includes my constituency, is the largest private rental market in the country. There is not one property for rent in the entire borough available to people on the local housing rate. That includes not only some of the high-value property in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, which I would not expect to be accessible to those on local housing allowance, but some of the poorest wards in the country, such as Paddington. It includes hundreds—probably thousands—of properties that were council flats, have been sold under the right to buy and are now rented back to private tenants. Flat 3, say, which is socially rented, costs £150 a week, yet the property next door, which is privately rented, costs £500 a week.

What does it mean that not a single person in my constituency can afford to rent in the private rented sector? It results in cases, such as one I received the day before yesterday, of a mother who has been privately renting for many years and whose landlord has evicted her through a no-fault procedure—no doubt, they will get more money from another tenant. The local authority has put her in emergency accommodation on the other side of London, as is often the case. That rent for emergency accommodation, incidentally, will be around £500 a week.

That woman has a child with a statement of special educational needs in the borough. The borough has now said that the care plan cannot be moved to another borough, so her child cannot get the 20 hours of educational support that they need in the borough where she is currently in emergency accommodation. She has to go through the whole statementing process again, but she will not be able to do that before September. Her child is clearly in need. I would say the local authority is in breach of its statutory duties. The mother is totally desperate.

Another mother has two children who are blind. She has been in the private rented sector a long time. She wanted to stay in the same area, because her two blind children know their routes to their school and college. However, the shortfall in her benefit payments is now so severe that she has to use all her children’s disability allowance to meet the shortfall. That is probably legal, but it is clearly not what that benefit is intended for.

The situation is even worse for young people: under-25s can only get a single room and under-35s are also constrained. I am currently dealing with the challenge of trying to get a number of young people away from serious gang violence. One young man was sleeping with a machete under his pillow, because he was so terrified. For seven months, we have been trying to find somewhere he could afford to rent in London—in London, not just in the borough. There was not one property available in my constituency that was affordable, and only 0% to 15% of properties in the whole of London are affordable.

I am sure the Minister will refer to the targeted affordability fund, which has, thankfully, stood between us and total meltdown, but those complicated additional top-ups into schemes are not the answer. They are bureaucratic and complex, and they do not last. Similarly, discretionary housing payment is cited, as if it could plug the gap. Arithmetically, we know that it does not. DHPs are intrusive and complex. One woman was absolutely howling with grief to me because when she was filling out the form for a DHP, to fill the gap on her private rented property, she was told by the officer that in her budget breakdown she could not include taking her disabled child to the cinema—that expenditure was considered to be unacceptable if she was going to make a discretionary housing payment. I am sure we all have many examples of such untenable situations.

We know that for the foreseeable future we have to place in the private rented sector people whose incomes are too low to pay the rents and who will not be able to get into the social rented sector because there is such a catastrophic shortfall of socially rented properties, given that the right-to-buy scheme was not replaced and new building has not happened. It is all very well talking about meeting new targets, but we know that there has been a 90% fall in construction of social housing in the last nine years.

If people will be in the private rented sector, we have to act on quality and security. The Government are making some noises on that, which is good. We also have to act on affordability. I have been working with Sadiq Khan; I am pleased that the Mayor is bringing forward proposals to look at rent control. For the foreseeable future, we cannot just pour public money into supporting rents, which are rising again after a short levelling off. We cannot just expect public money to fill that gap, so we do need that. In the meantime, while we are trying to build and while we are waiting for the Government to act on control of rents, we urgently have to close that gap.

That means ending the freeze and restoring the housing allowance, so that at least the 30th percentile of renters in every single rental market, not just a few, can afford housing—and we need to keep it there. Without that, we will find more and more people, such as my constituents, swelling the ranks of the homeless—we already have 58,000 homeless families in London alone. They will be driven deeper and deeper into poverty, which will scar their lives forever and from which it will take them many years to recover.