Social Housing: Furniture Affordability

– in Westminster Hall at 3:58 pm on 24 May 2023.

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Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys 3:58, 24 May 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of furniture affordability and social housing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I am surprised to be starting the debate early—I was taken unawares, but strike while the iron is hot, I always say. I am delighted to be here, partly because this has been a very tricky debate to secure. Every time I go to the Table Office, they rewrite the topic. To get pulled out of the hat, I re-submit it with that same title and it gets rejected, so I have to rewrite the title again. That causes confusion.

Then we had no idea which Department should reply to the debate. Was it the Department for Work and Pensions? Was it the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities? Even the Minister did not know, but I am delighted that she has made it here today. Maybe she will enjoy the experience—who knows?

On hearing mention of the term “furniture poverty”, many people say, “What do you mean?” Some Members did so when I walked in the door. Many take it for granted that they have a chair to sit on, a fridge or freezer in which to keep food and a cooker with which to cook it. Far too many people in this country lack such basics. Some 26% of those in social housing lack one or more of the major pieces of furniture in the average household, compared with just 3% of homeowners.

Take something as basic as flooring. In social housing, more than 700,000 people—9% of those in social housing —do not have any flooring. The situation is worsening because of the cost of living crisis. Furniture inflation is running at 35%, which is even higher than food inflation. Appliance inflation is running at 21%. The answer is not to just go down to IKEA to get something cheap, because inflation at IKEA is at 80%.

The problem is not just the cost of furniture. There are some underlying problems. The first is the lack of a savings culture in this country. The average savings of people in my constituency are just £95, and most people in my constituency could not cope with an unexpected bill of even £500. That puts them in a very vulnerable position in the first place. We could have a whole debate just on the lack of a savings culture.

The second reason is the disappearance of cheap and readily available credit for the most deprived in my constituency. The usual financial service providers have withdrawn from that market entirely, leaving people with nowhere to go for credit other than to those who charge very high costs. That causes further financial problems for them.

The final reason is the lack of microinsurance products. The insurance sector has pulled out of allowing people to pay a very small amount to insure a fridge, cooker or any other piece of furniture. People are therefore flooded with large unexpected bills to replace significant items. When faced with that financial impact, they are often tipped over to the more dangerous forms of lending. I can spare the Minister a debate on illegal moneylending, but only because I recently had an Adjournment debate on the subject. Those unexpected bills push many in my constituency into risky doorstep lending. Often they borrow from illegal moneylenders, but sometimes they borrow from friends or family members. That is a type of illegal moneylending that is quite disguised, and it is a real problem.

Furniture poverty is not just about lacking items, but about the associated costs. The charity Turn2us calculates that not having a cooker can add more than £2,000 to the annual expenses that an average family of four face, because it means that they must rely on takeaways, which are becoming increasingly expensive. People who do not have a fridge cannot buy in bulk, store food for the future or plan meals. That leads to further costs, as they must rely on local convenience stores—again, we could have a separate debate on the difference between food prices in convenience stores and in supermarkets. Lacking a washing machine adds about £1,000 to the average bills of a family of four, because they have to go to the launderette to wash their clothes, which they often require for work. Launderettes are a rapidly disappearing phenomenon anyway, and significant energy costs mean that the prices they charge are going up.

There is a vicious, vicious cycle here. Let us take two examples. People may think that a dining table is almost luxury item and not necessary for a household at all—that it is something someone might go to John Lewis for, perhaps. I would argue that if we are talking about social mobility and life chances in my constituency, nothing is more important than the dining table. In smaller houses, that is where children do homework. If they have nowhere to do their homework, their educational performance will decline. There are 2.4 million people in this country who do not have a dining table, so when I hear about social mobility and everyone fretting over how to get more working-class people into Oxford and Cambridge, that is not “life chances” to my constituents. To my constituents, “life chances” means having a dining table as a space to do homework—something as simple as that.

I mentioned flooring earlier. I would love to have an hour-and-a-half debate on flooring. I put the Minister on warning: that is on the way.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys

Flooring, yes—I am about to talk about it. You will learn something. End Furniture Poverty, the charity that has helped me on this topic, is doing a separate piece of work on the issue of flooring, which I will come on to.

Let me share a quote from one individual in social housing. He says:

“It’s cement downstairs and upstairs it’s wood with a lot of nails sticking out. It is a hazard…I have a young child.”

The lack of flooring is perhaps one of the great unknown scandals of 21st-century Britain. When someone enters into a new social housing tenancy and moves into a new flat or property, in all likelihood the social housing provider has ripped out the flooring in advance, often when it is in perfectly good condition. They do so because they believe that that is what they should do with void tenancies, and it means the person moving in is faced with a great bill to replace the flooring. Often it is simply beyond their means and capacity to afford it.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys

I was waiting for the moment. I was looking eagerly at the hon. Gentleman, and he has finally taken the bait.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward. Covid had a medical effect on everybody, but it also brought about many broken relationships. What I have found in my constituency over the last three years is that families are parting because of domestic abuse, and the ladies are moving with their children into houses that are not furnished. In my area, I am fortunate that we have churches and charity groups that can help to furnish houses, but there are so many domestic abuse cases that not everybody can be helped. I support what the hon. Gentleman is putting forward. At this stage, maybe the Government, and particularly the Minister, should be looking to see what can be done to help people who have had to move out of their property because of domestic abuse and who find themselves with nothing but the clothes on their back, and certainly not the furniture that they need for their house.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys

I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and he anticipates my 13th point, which I will come to, about why that does indeed matter.

The Minister might have thought that I was acting as a Labour Member of Parliament for the past few minutes, as I have been bemoaning the state of affairs and demanding that more be done. Of course the Government are doing something, but the challenge is that local government is not quite doing its part as well. The Minister will be more than aware of the local welfare assistance scheme. It is worth £167 million, which has been passported over to local councils to disburse as they see fit. Unfortunately, not every council uses that money to its fullest extent.

It is a wonderful pot of money, because it allows so many options: for example, that is where those fleeing domestic violence ought to go for help and support. The whole point of the local welfare assistance scheme is to meet that sort of need, but unfortunately, as End Furniture Poverty has discovered, 35 councils have now scrapped their local welfare assistance scheme, despite getting funding from the Department for Work and Pensions. Many more are spending less than 10% of what they have been allocated, which means that the burden is falling on a wider range of groups. Many charities, benevolent organisations and even churches are filling the gap that councils ought to be filling, including, sadly, Blackpool Council, which I gently chastise. I do not normally do that, but in this case I do, because it has shrunk its LWAS budget. The local welfare assistance scheme is there, but it is not being used by councils.

I urge the Minister not to overlook the existence of the local welfare assistance scheme, because since I started banging on about local welfare assistance about three years ago, the pandemic has come along, as has the household support fund, which dwarfs the LWAS in budget. The Minister now has a choice to make, and I am keen to hear her views. The household support fund is being put to so many different uses by so many different councils that it is marginalising the local welfare assistance scheme, but that means that there is now a focus on targeted pots of money for grants given to particular groups in society, which is how the household support fund has been devised, defined and decided on. That means less focus on the situation-specific support that is needed, such as for those fleeing domestic violence —as Jim Shannon said—who get squeezed out of the household support fund. If local welfare assistance schemes are not maintained, people cannot access the emergency support that they need to replace their furniture and white goods.

I urge the Minister to review the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Every time we have these debates, Labour Members say they want that Act to be reviewed. Even I am calling for it to be reviewed, not because I want to reverse much of what was in it, but because I want to look at the evolution of Government decision making, which I feel has been a bit patchwork. We make one change and then another, and then another, without considering the golden thread that ought to run through them, which is whether we are preventing people from falling into destitution. That is why the household support fund and local welfare assistance schemes are so important. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet me and End Furniture Poverty to discuss its ideas about how both schemes can be strengthened.

Of course, this should not just be down to the Department for Work and Pensions. One of my frustrations is that so many Departments are doing so many different things. It is often the Treasury. One of my great frustrations has been the slow gestation, and almost the non-birth, of the no-interest loan scheme, which would have enabled people to borrow money at no interest to purchase the white goods that they lack. I think the Minister needs to look at what other Departments are doing in support of that.

The private sector is doing stuff, too. Iceland—the supermarket, not the country—has a superb arrangement with a social housing provider called Clarion Housing Group to fund freezers for people who do not have one so that they can manage their food requirements more prudently and get more for their money. There are many, many ideas out there.

Another aspect of furniture poverty, particularly in social housing, is partly flooring and also the wider issue of furnished tenancies. Hon. Members might think that furnished tenancies are quite common. People often look for furnished flats and apartments in the private rented sector—Members of Parliament who are down in London for long periods of time certainly do that—but in social housing, they are vanishingly rare. A great deal of effort is being put in to encourage social housing providers to consider at least making 10% of their tenancies available on a furnished basis. I am pleased to say that Blackpool Coastal Housing does just that. It has recently approved a business case to do so, and it makes a lot of effort to improve furniture reuse, but that is by no means common across the social housing sector as a whole.

This is not about putting greater burdens on social housing landlords. A social housing provider in Yorkshire and Humberside called the Thirteen Group has gone down the path of improving its offer of furnished tenancies. It has seen its arrears fall from £7 million to £4.8 million, and the cost of a void tenancy has plummeted by £500 as those moving in can sustain their tenancies far better, because they are not lacking the essential ingredients of a household. Even the number of unstable tenancies that the social housing provider is carrying at any one time has reduced by more than half. It makes the point that it is not spending more money doing that; it is actually spending its money much better.

The Minister might wonder what in heaven’s name this has to do with the Department for Work and Pensions. This is about social housing, so it is for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Actually, the funding for a lot of that capital investment comes through the services charges that are permitted through the universal credit system. I urge her—once again, we can discuss this if and when she meets End Furniture Poverty—to ensure that the mechanisms within universal credit that allow these services charges to be made are slightly easier to understand for the tenant and the social housing provider to boost the demand for at least 10% of tenancies to be furnished.

It is clear that we do not speak about furniture poverty enough in this country. The Government are trying to do a lot to put in place a safety net beneath the safety net, but the problem is perhaps the fondness of Government Members not to ringfence things in local government, and to allow councils to spend as they see fit. That means that when we pull a lever here in Westminster, we find that it is not attached to anything out in the community.

Furniture poverty needs to be part of the national conversation. It does not get debated here enough and I am not sure that it is properly understood by many Members of Parliament, yet if they went out to the more deprived parts of our constituencies, they would see it in house after house. I hope that the Minister will agree to have the meeting so that we can all learn a bit more, not least about flooring, about which I could have a separate debate. I also hope that the Department for Work and Pensions, in particular, can look again at how local welfare assistance schemes and the household support fund interact, and how universal credit can support the introduction of more furnished tenancies in the social housing sector.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:15, 24 May 2023

I thank my hon. Friend Paul Maynard for his tenacity in securing this debate. I also thank you, Ms Elliott; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is a pleasure, too, to respond to my hon. Friend. I thank him for his typical care and great regard for the most vulnerable in his community and our society, and for his focus on basic life chances, which are incredibly important. I hope to provide a multitude of responses for him this afternoon.

I am keen to touch on launderettes. The cost of those small businesses—particularly for those in work, those caring, those who need suitable drying facilities and small businesses that want to support people in the community—has been a great concern to me as a constituency MP. We should all be very mindful of that. Jim Shannon spoke about domestic abuse, and I am keen to pick up on that point shortly.

I reassure the House that we are committed to a strong welfare system that, most importantly, supports those who are most in need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys pointed out. In 2023-24, we are spending around £276 billion through the welfare system of Great Britain and around £124 billion on people of working age and their children. For 2023-24, we have increased benefit rates and state pensions by 10.1%.

The decisive action that we have taken over the past year and during the pandemic reflects our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in these changing economic conditions. I am proud to be the Minister who is taking forward the next stage of the cost of living payments, made up of £650 to more than 8 million low-income households. This year, a similar number of eligible households are receiving their first payments of up to £900. I am pleased to confirm that we have made 8.3 million payments of £301—the first cost of living payment this year—to people on means-tested benefits. I was also pleased to sign the regulations that will provide more than 6 million people across the UK on eligible “extra costs” disability benefits with a further £150 disability cost of living payment this summer, to help with additional costs. Included in our cost of living support package is the energy price guarantee, which continues at the same rate until the end of June.

My hon. Friend mentioned the household support fund, which is on top of everything that I have just described. We have extended the fund by another year until March 2024. That enables local authorities in England to continue to provide discretionary support to those most in need. The fund can help with the cost of energy, food and, as my hon. Friend said, other household essentials, including furniture and white goods. I reassure him that in drawing up the fund, I looked at the particular issues, families and circumstances that he talked about. In fact, I recently visited Wolverhampton to see this being put into action in relation to bed poverty, whether that means the type of beds, sheets or bed clothes needed to keep people warm and snug at night.

I am empowering local authorities to do the right thing, look at their need and ensure that their household support fund supports their communities. I have been grateful for the feedback, engagement and consistent conversation with local authorities. We are empowering them to spend as they see fit in their communities. Devolved Administrations will receive those consequential funding pots as usual, also to spend at their discretion. Blackpool’s allocation of the extended household support fund comes to almost £3.5 million. That will make a difference.

Before I deal with some of my hon. Friend’s points, let me turn to the point that the hon. Member for Strangford made about domestic abuse. On the need to provide support on the basics, I assure him and the House that we are working with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and with the employers domestic abuse covenant at DWP to make sure that we support people to stay in and get into work and through any changes in their household situation. Indeed, I was working on that with my team yesterday. The Home Office is also working with Women’s Aid to provide £300,000 for one-off payments to support victims and survivors of domestic abuse. The funding will provide payments of £250 and £500 to support families in exactly that situation. I am keeping a keen eye on that sort of thing.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for that; it is helpful and encouraging. My understanding is that, during covid, there was a phenomenal number of relationship breakdowns and that domestic abuse was part of the reason in many of those cases. That means that a wife or partner and the children move out and they have nothing. When it comes to the large number of people who need that service, is there enough and adequate money to assist them when they need it?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I reassure the hon. Member that I am looking at every area—including policy, universal credit, work across Government, work with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and work across the violence against women and girls piece with the Home Office—to make sure that that is exactly the case. There is work to support people to get, stay and declare in work, as well as the Ask for ANI and J9 programmes in our jobcentres, so that nobody coming forward feels that their finances need to keep them in an unsafe place. I remind the House: this is criminality in the home and it needs to be stopped and declared, and those who are impacted should be roundly supported. I hope that helps the hon. Member.

On the local welfare funding assistance, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys mentioned part of the unringfenced local government finance settlement. Councils do not have to provide local welfare assistance, but HSF is a form of that, and I understand his points. Many councils provide upstream support to stop people falling into destitution, and some of the things that he said about that are concerning. I am concerned about how this works and interacts with the household support fund, so I undertake to look closely at what he said. Blackpool Council, for example, provides its own discretionary support scheme, which can provide the essentials that he mentioned. Some local authorities operate local welfare schemes beyond the household support fund for essential costs. However, his point was incredibly well made.

On helping people with funding to manage the cost of living challenges, I point the House to the work of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which recently announced a new allocation of £76 million of dormant assets funding. That includes £45 million for financial inclusion programmes delivered by Fair4All Finance. Beneficiaries include 69,000 individuals struggling with their personal finance, who will have access to a no-interest loan to help them to get out of problem debt. As my hon. Friend said, it is so important that we unlock every way of helping people to make good choices.

The latest allocation is part of nearly £900 million unlocked through the UK dormant assets scheme. This is about financial inclusion initiatives to support people in vulnerable financial circumstances, particularly in the country’s most deprived areas. Through my previous ministerial role, I know that sometimes people come forward with problems because perhaps behavioural or SEND issues mean that furniture has not been looked after or is not safe—bunk beds are a particular issue—and needs to be replaced regularly. That puts a huge strain on those with the least resources.

Through the Fair4All Finance scale-up programme, £5 million of dormant assets funding has been invested in support of the Coventry-based company Fair for You, which creates affordable loans to tackle furniture poverty. I will undertake to write to my hon. Friend and other Members on this subject.

Let me turn to the issue of adequate flooring and the basic needs of housing tenants. I continue to listen with interest to the recent discussions on the letting of social housing without adequate flooring. I understand that the practice varies across the sector. Some landlords will remove flooring in between tenancies because of the poor condition, and in most cases, that is done for health and safety reasons. Floor coverings are not currently covered in the decent homes standard. It is vital, however, that adequate flooring is seen as an integral part of the physical condition of the property. We will undertake to look at that as part of the decent homes standard review.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the DWP has a big say in this issue. We support social housing and we support those providers, and it is absolutely right that we make sure that people in need have the basics and can be supported when it comes to decent homes. I will take away and look at that point. I thank End Furniture Poverty for its report. It has highlighted, along with my hon. Friend, the points around social landlords and the issue of redistributing furniture between incoming tenants. The report shines a light on that issue and the experience that people have.

While we are tackling poverty by ensuring that people are working and supported through really tough economic times, it continues to be our firm belief that the financial circumstances of all households improve through work, hence our in-work progression focus and our focus on matching people with vacancies that could be just down their road. It is vital that we understand the issues that hold people back—the barriers and extra worries that keep people awake at night.

It is important to reiterate that the Government are fully committed to providing opportunities for people across the UK to succeed, and to understanding what their barriers may be and what may be holding them back. As my hon. Friend said, it is important to have a cross-Government focus on tackling poverty—I point out our focus on food security; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is another area I am looking at, as well as housing costs and needs—so that we can be clear, as every constituency MP would want, that we are targeting our support to the most vulnerable families, and ensuring that they have additional support in changing times.

I say to anybody worried: there is a benefits calculator on and a household support fund link. If you feel as though you should have had a cost of living payment, there is a link there to make sure that you let people know about it. Please tell us, and remember that in a Jobcentre Plus, we can do very much more for you than perhaps you realise.

Question put and agreed to.