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29 Jun 2010 : Column 179WH—continued

Mr Field: I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to continue with what I have to say; these issues affect all of us in the capital. In his Budget statement, the Chancellor said that we could no longer have a state of affairs where people who do not work are living in homes that ordinary working people simply could not afford for themselves. Putting aside that principle, housing benefit has also become an enormous trap, as the hon. Member for Islington North rightly said, for its recipients in
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London, and I agree. In the past few weeks, I have canvassed people in the Churchill Gardens estate, where the precise situation that the hon. Gentleman described is prevalent. In other words, people are living next door to one another, one in a council property paying rent that is very low by the standards of the vicinity, and another in a property that has been sold two or three times and is now in the hands of a housing association, effectively being passed on to nominations from the local authority at three or four times the rent of the property next door.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): Has the hon. Gentleman spotted a potential inconsistency in the argument of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who says that the unemployed in the north of England, for example, should give up their homes and move to London, while those on benefits in London should give up their homes and move to the north of England?

Mr Field: I fear that there are many inconsistencies going back not only over the past six or seven weeks but, I suspect, over the past six or seven decades. One inconsistency is that we had a Labour Mayor of London for eight of the past 10 years, and housing development was almost at its lowest. In many ways, having overly stringent rules prevented many developers from deciding to develop; they sat on their hands and waited for property prices to increase. The situation has made unemployment a logical option for many people living in London, because it has been forced on them, due to the huge poverty trap. That has meant that unemployment in the capital, even in the boom years, was the highest of any region in the UK.

The announcement in the emergency Budget of a cap to limit the cost of a four-bedroom property to £400 per week has caused incredible concern among my constituents. I suspect much of that concern is caused by the uncertainty of how such a cap will be applied in individual cases, and I want to highlight a couple of typical cases that have come to light in the past week or so. Most of the concerns raised with me so far have come from elderly or disabled constituents, many of whom have been unable to get on to Westminster city council's list for a council property, so instead they live in the private rented sector and have their rent paid by housing benefit. One such constituent is Mr Roger Aves, a disabled resident who requires a live-in carer. He wrote to me:

Another constituent, William Richards, is an 80-year-old pensioner from Pimlico. He said:

referred to earlier-

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As many of us know, some of the most illustrious and sought-after areas in central and outer London are often cheek by jowl with council estates. Mr Richards says:

It is vital that the likely impact of any changes is made clear to people such as Mr Aves and Mr Richards, and we need certainty at the earliest opportunity.

My local authority, Westminster city council, supports the cap and lobbied for some time on reform of housing benefit, as it is essential to reducing the welfare bill, particularly with rates of £2,000 per week claimed for larger properties in Westminster-rare, but none the less real cases.

Ms Buck rose-

Mr Field: I am sure that the hon. Lady wishes to defend the honour of Westminster city council.

Ms Buck: Does the hon. Gentleman share my sense of irony that Westminster is supporting the cap now after making almost £6 million for the council tax payer in recent years through housing benefit being above the rents paid for temporary accommodation? Is he not aware that to be politically in line with the Government, Westminster is cutting its throat and the throat of its council tax payers to the tune of nearly £6 million?

Mr Field: The hon. Lady makes a very valid point; one of the main absurdities of the housing benefit system is that there is so little incentive for local authorities, whether in London or across the country, because they can get the money back from central Government. That situation has to change.

Westminster council estimated the worst-case costs at £8.1 million, reflecting the expense of the long-term temporary accommodation contracts that the council was encouraged to enter into under the previous cap regime. Many would welcome the Government's implementing the new caps and mitigating the associated risks. In particular, places such as Westminster need the guidelines around local connection to be changed. Under the existing guidelines, local authorities affected by the caps are required to try to house people in their vicinity. I think that Westminster city council is particularly concerned that the courts will find against it if it tries to house families out of the borough, leading to additional costs and more uncertainty and family disruption.

The guidelines need greater flexibility, and the Minister must recognise that there are specific issues in London, for boroughs of all political complexions, that need to be thought through. We need to ensure that local authorities can, to an extent, house out of borough when it has not proven possible to find temporary accommodation in the area at the new capped rates.

There is much more that I would like to say, but I appreciate that other Members wish to contribute so I shall end my comments with these thoughts. Given that the proposals are due to come in over the next few months, in the run-up to the next financial year, I wish to say only that many Members on the Government Benches welcome the review of the housing benefit
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system, the flaws of which have been glaringly obvious to all of us who deal frequently with housing cases. I accept that there will be differences across the House as to how the changes should take place. If the case for change is successfully made, we will require a much closer working relationship with the boroughs, and clear and frequent communication with London Members, who will be receiving ever more letters from anxious constituents in the months ahead, so I hope the Minister will pledge to ensure that there is proper communication, which will be essential.

It is also vital that the most vulnerable in our communities are properly reassured. If they are not, we risk undermining the most compelling aspect of the case for reform, which is that the measures should primarily be about fairness, with the hard-working being rewarded and the truly vulnerable being properly and fully protected.

11.30 am

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate.

I shall not rerun all the figures that have been heard already. I agree absolutely with what my hon. Friend said, and I also agree, up to a point, with the contribution of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field). The central issue is the implicit threat to so many of the most vulnerable people in my constituency from what the Government propose on housing benefit. I freely and openly admit that I am a cynic when it comes to their policies on what I still regard as social housing-I prefer to call it council housing, but let us make it broader than that.

It seems that we will have, yet again, a rerun of the attacks that were made on social or council housing under the first Thatcher Administration-the coalition Government are actually Thatcherism mark 2-and we can remember what happened during that time. We saw a massive explosion in homelessness. I do not think that there was a single street in London during that time that did not have its community of homeless people sleeping in doorways, many of whom had serious mental health as well as physical health problems. The waiting lists grew ever longer, and families were placed in bed and breakfast accommodation where they were allowed into what were, in the main, utterly appalling conditions. I visited many of them, and I speak about what I actually saw. If those images had been presented to members of the Kennel Club as fit places for dogs to live, there would have been riots in our streets. Families in such accommodation had to leave it at 9 o'clock in the morning and were not allowed back until 5 o'clock at night, in many instances.

Out of the desperate need of those families-every black cloud has a silver lining-came a growing number of charitable and voluntary organisations that attempted to get certainly the children off the streets of London, where the then Government had deemed it was entirely right and proper for them to be. Many of the children were of pre-school age, and, of course, there was nothing like Sure Start and no free nursery provision in those days.

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What is being proposed by the present Government for housing benefit will recreate precisely those conditions all over again. No one in this Chamber would argue that the housing benefit system should not be examined closely-many of us have been arguing that for a considerable time-but to believe that we can improve it by punishing those who have no homes without the support of housing benefit seems utterly absurd.

For example, rents in my constituency and in that of every London MP who is sitting here this morning are way above the national average and, in many instances, way above the London average, yet the Government propose that a cap should be placed on housing benefit. I cannot in all honesty see the landlords who are presently benefiting from the system saying, "Oh dear, are we charging too much? Perhaps we should bring the rent down." They will simply not accept the same number of tenants whose rent payments are dependent on housing benefit. That is also something that has been growing over the past few years.

Then we look at the north, where people who cannot get work in London are apparently supposed to go to look for jobs. Rents undoubtedly are much lower there than they are in London, but one knows precisely what will happen. The landlords will say, "Oh, goody." If the Government are prepared to pay a certain amount for a house, flat or whatever, up the rents will go. There will be absolutely no saving of any kind for the national purse, but there will be real, serious human tragedies played out on our streets yet again.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North said, the proposal will impact horrendously on children. He did not say that-I am paraphrasing-but that is what he meant. It will impact horrendously on children who cannot do their homework or make friends because they have nowhere to bring friends after school to play or have a cup of tea. It will impact terribly on parents who are constantly left feeling guilty, because they see the damage that is being inflicted on their children.

The proposal will also have appalling repercussions on the wider community. All hon. Members receive letters and complaints from constituents about noise-in many instances, it is perfectly natural, normal noise. Children make noise, and if three or four of them are in an extremely small flat with nowhere to play-more than likely up a tower block-they will make noise, and that will create the usual neighbourhood dramas that we all have to deal with day in, day out.

I go back to my original hypothesis, which arises from my cynicism and hard-won experience of many years ago, that this is just another brick in the wall of the attempt by the present Government to destroy social housing as we all understand it. They want all properties that at present could be deemed to be social-whether council, housing association or some other form of social housing-to be taken out of that sector and placed in the private sector. It seems that they want to put all housing in the private sector and to remove all kinds of support for people who will never be able to buy a house of their own or meet what will be the soaring costs of renting in the private sector, certainly in London, because they want London to be a place where rich people live. They do not want it to be a place where poor people live.

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This is a step up from the gerrymandering-I exclude the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster-that we saw in Westminster. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who is sitting one seat away from me, knows precisely where I am going with that. That kind of gerrymandering involved decanting people from areas of Westminster and bringing in those who were deemed to be Tory voters. I have to tell the Government that the fallacy that only rich people vote Tory is absurd. I know many people whom they would not regard as being even vaguely well off who are solid, absolutely committed Tories and will be all their life.

The idea that the way forward is to create virtual ghettos of a different kind is absolutely and utterly unacceptable in a country such as ours, certainly in this century. We cannot go down the road of arbitrarily deciding which properties can be charged for at a certain level in this way. The proposals for housing benefit are monstrous, and they will, as they inevitably do in such areas, impact most on the most vulnerable.

I sincerely hope that the Minister, who I am surprised to find sitting here supporting such policies, will rethink them. If he will not do that, I hope that he will report on what he hears this morning in the hope that those above his pay grade will think again about something that could be so destructive for this city.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): It might be helpful if I announce at this point that I intend to call the first of the two Front-Bench spokesmen at 12.10. If hon. Members who are trying to get in do the maths, they will realise that it will be difficult to get everyone in. However, the more disciplined hon. Members are about the time that they take, the more likely it is that we will get more of them in.

11.38 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Thank you, Mr Howarth. I shall follow your stricture and keep my remarks to 10 minutes or thereabouts.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. He is right: many of the usual suspects are present for it. They include some ex-Ministers who share responsibility for the housing situation that we have in London.

It is fair to say that housing has been neglected by successive Governments and that the problem in London has not emerged in the past couple of months. There are different figures for how many households in London are looking for or waiting for social housing, but 350,000 has been quoted to me. Whichever figure one takes, a substantial number of people need social housing.

Clearly, as a result of demographic changes in London, pressure on housing will increase as the population increases. Demand might rise further if the coalition proposal to safeguard housing rights for people who are looking for work and perhaps coming to London has an impact, which it could. The proposal has some merit, but for it to work, we need some spare capacity in housing in London. I would not want such a proposal to displace people who are waiting for housing in London and who, in many cases, are being advised that they could wait for seven, eight, nine or 10 years. Such waiting times are being quoted to some people in my borough.

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Clearly, too, the housing benefit changes, to which many hon. Members have already referred, will have an impact. There is some evidence, certainly in the commercial sector, that some landlords are responding to the present financial situation and, if not knocking down prices, holding prices for leases that run for four or five years.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The situation may or may not have changed but the policy certainly has, so does the hon. Gentleman support what the Housing Minister said about looking at having no secure tenancies for new lettings in the future? Does he support the £250 to £400 cap on housing benefit, which must affect his constituents as well as mine?

Tom Brake: Some valid points have already been made in the debate and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the reasons for my being here today is to listen to the Minister, who is a sound and honourable man, explaining-hopefully, explaining away-some of the apparent contradictions in a number of the proposals. I know from his background in local authorities that he believes, contrary to what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) said, that council and social housing in this country has a strong and sound future. I am sure that he will defend that principle.

Glenda Jackson: Going back to my theme, we have heard such a proposal before but presented in different words: essentially, it amounts to a property-owning country. That is good old-fashioned Thatcher dogma, simply re-dressed in another way. We saw what happened when that dogma ran the first time: a massive loss of homes, businesses and families. The Government will create that all over again.

Tom Brake: That is the hon. Lady's interpretation of the coalition Government's proposals across a number of policy areas, but it is not one with which I can agree. I agree that we need to guard against the potential impact of the proposed housing benefit changes on migration from central London to outer London boroughs or beyond, but I hope that Opposition Members accept that we are in rather a difficult financial position at the moment. I am keeping a tally of their proposals on how to address that position. They have accepted the need to cut 20% from a number of departmental budgets, including those of the Departments for Work and Pensions and for Communities and Local Government, so we need to hear some sort of explanation. Indeed, the hon. Lady said that housing benefit should be looked at, but presumably not with a view to increasing the funding available. I hope to hear at least an outline of some possible Opposition solutions or improvements to the coalition Government's proposals. I shall wait and see.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that if we invested in housing with affordable rents, through housing associations and councils, we would immediately cut the housing benefit bill enormously: instead of paying £400 a week, we would pay £120 a week?

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