A pilot of the new service in what I should perhaps describe as the greater north-east of England, will involve closing 13 inquiry centres and testing the new service between 3 June and 31 October 2013. That will help in gathering more information to ensure that the service is absolutely right for the customer, and a decision on whether to roll out the service nationwide will be made

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in December 2013. If the roll-out proceeds, the new service is expected to be launched between February and May 2014.

In conclusion, HMRC is making the changes in order better to meet the needs of the 1.5 million customers who need more help with their tax and benefits. HMRC is modernising its approach to break free from the outdated network of bricks and mortar and to provide a more flexible and accessible face-to-face service for people who really need it, including on the Isle of Wight. The proposals will target help at those who need it most, in a way that is better for them and more cost-effective for both them and the taxpayer. As a responsible employer, HMRC is taking all the right steps to minimise the impacts that the changes will have on its staff.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): The sitting is suspended until 4 o’clock.

3.34 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Bee Health

4 pm

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. This year’s Budget quite rightly supports those people who are working hard and contributing to our economy. Life is tough for many hard-working people, and we are doing all we can to support them. Particular focus has been directed at people investing in British businesses and employing more people. The national growth strategy has identified sectors of our economy that are strong, that are growing and that have the opportunity to generate increased wealth for our nation by making more things and exporting them overseas. In the next 10 minutes or so, I would like the Minister to think about another army of workers that needs our support right now—Britain’s bees.

Agribusinesses, farmers, and food and drinks manufacturers are quite rightly identified as significant contributors to our economy and to our future prosperity. In my constituency, this sector is helping to lead the way towards sustainable, export-driven growth. Food, drink and farming businesses employ nearly a third of working people across Cornwall. Local products include the iconic pasty, the native oyster, wine, cider, beer, soft fruit and vegetables, and even tea, which is grown at Tregothnan and exported to China.

Nationally, the agri-food and drink sector contributes £85 billion a year to the UK economy and provides employment for 3.5 million people. Without a strong work force of bees, we will not be able to realise the potential of this sector in the coming years. Nearly all the drinks and food that I have mentioned need bees as pollinators. Bees deliver that service better than anything else in our ecosystem. It is estimated that manual pollination, which is the only option if a catastrophic decline in bee numbers takes place, would cost British farmers up to £1.8 billion every year. Don’t get me wrong—like all wildlife, the bee population is important in its own right, and as part of a balanced ecosystem, which is vital for our health and well-being. However, as we are so rightly focused at the moment in Parliament on the economy, the focus of my speech is on the economic benefits of bee health.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done much to try to understand why the bee population in Britain, the EU and the USA is declining. In the UK alone, the number of managed honey bee colonies fell by 53% between 1985 and 2005. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs understands that pollinators, including bees, are essential to the health of our natural environment and to the prosperity of our farming industry. DEFRA has estimated that pollination is worth several hundred million pounds every year. Also, bees are among our greatest allies in delivering DEFRA’s twin priorities of animal health and plant health. The Department is implementing the healthy bees plan, working with beekeepers to provide training and respond to pest and disease threats. Within that plan, DEFRA’s national bee unit provides inspection, diagnostic and training services to beekeepers. Before I entered Parliament, I was a trainee beekeeper, and I very much appreciated the helpful advice of those helping me to learn the craft, particularly inspectors.

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Work under the “Biodiversity 2020” banner is delivering more and improved habitats for bees and other pollinators. A further bee-supporting project is the entry-level stewardship scheme for farmers, which promotes the growth of beneficial plants for bees and pollinators. Natural England is working hard with farmers to help them to identify areas of land to provide these habitats, and £10 million has been allocated to a range of research projects that will help bees and pollinators.

Taken as a whole, these measures represent a lot of different activities that are focused on trying to understand why bees are declining, and on taking action to reverse that trend. Most recently, DEFRA has been involved at the EU level in considering the restriction of some chemicals that are used mostly by our cereal crop farmers as pesticides. Just last week, the chief scientific adviser told the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I am a member, that he did not feel that there was sufficient evidence to ban the chemicals that are under consideration, but that we should keep the decision under review while awaiting more scientific evidence. He also said that we need to bear in mind the impact of withdrawing the chemicals in the pesticides, including the impact that would have on food prices, especially the prices of winter wheat and rape.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I will be brief. My constituent Hugh Sykes, who is the chairman of the Winchester and District Beekeepers Association, and whom I have met many times, has been in touch with me—along with hundreds of other constituents—on this subject, and he contacted me specifically about the recent vote on the issue in Europe. Does my hon. Friend know why our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs abstained on that vote? Also, although I appreciate what she is saying, does she not agree that until the science is proven on this particular pesticide—the Secretary of State said that he was a sceptic on the subject of this particular pesticide, as are many people—we should perhaps hold back from using it, given that there is clearly something greatly affecting the bee populations in our constituencies?

Sarah Newton: Like my hon. Friend, I have been contacted by many hundreds of constituents on this issue—I am sure that all MPs have—because many of our constituents take such a close interest in our environment and care for it, which is to be welcomed as it is a really good thing. There has been some excellent campaigning work done by, for example, Friends of the Earth.

As far as I understand from my correspondence with the Secretary of State, the reason for the abstention, which was backed up by the chief scientific adviser, is that the evidence is not clear as to how harmful some of these chemicals are. DEFRA operates on the precautionary principle when making decisions. It has agreed to ensure that the research in this area is kept open and continues, and it has also agreed that if any harmful impact is detected, it will, of course, act. I hope that my hon. Friend, when he has listened to more of what I have to say, will understand that I think we need a more holistic approach to how we are handling this problem. Much as I would love to think that there is one silver bullet, there probably is not, and we need to consider all the different contributing factors that have been leading, undeniably, to bee decline.

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I return to the impact of reducing the use of these pesticides. Reducing their use would also reduce the quantity of crops, and that could have a detrimental effect on the bee population because it would reduce some of the bees’ foraging habitat, as well as reducing biodiversity.

Bees have been in decline for some time, as I am sure the beekeepers with whom my hon. Friend is in regular contact have been telling him. We have been hoping to discover a single reason, such as a disease that was causing the collapse of colonies and that could be cured, or one particular chemical that could be identified and banned. However, I think we have come to realise that there will not be a single solution, and that this is a complex problem.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. I can well remember those halcyon days of the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was a young boy down in Clady outside Strabane. In those days, the sun shone regularly; it does not seem to shine as much now. Does she feel that the change in weather conditions is one of the factors contributing to the decline of bee numbers across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland? The reason I well recall that time in Clady as a young boy is that bees’ honeycombs were something that we prized zealously and refused to share with anyone. I am hoping that those days will return and that the bees can come back, because they are important for the countryside. There were bog meadows and open land, and there was not the same agricultural intensification that there is now. Does she feel that those things are also important factors, and that perhaps we need to see more land set aside?

Sarah Newton: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I know, for example, that last year beekeepers in Cornwall, like beekeepers all over the country, had to feed their bees in the hives because of the appalling weather. Where we have bees in managed colonies, that is fine, but the wild bees and solitary bees are not receiving that sort of care and attention, and they will be even worse affected by the weather. Without those beekeepers feeding the bees in their hives, we would have seen an even greater loss of bee numbers. Look at the weather outside today. Lots of flowers are blossoming, which the bees would naturally be pollinating, but what with the freezing temperatures and the winds, the bees will, rightly, be huddled up in their hives, relying on beekeepers to feed them until the wind drops and temperatures rise, so that they can venture outside. Undoubtedly, climate change will be having an impact on bees. When I talk about research, I shall mention that as one factor contributing to what is happening to all the bee colonies.

The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies that these are complex problems and only a range of activities can resolve them. We need a holistic approach, looking at the many contributing factors in a joined-up strategy, led by DEFRA and involving other Departments. I am asking the Minister to ask the Secretary of State to consider implementing a British bee strategy that would work across Departments and with stakeholders to develop a holistic action plan, with identifiable outcomes and budget allocations.

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Parliament rightly demands evidence-based policy making, so let us start with the science. The Government have committed large sums to the science budget. An annual research spend of £4.6 billion has been ring-fenced in the 2010 comprehensive spending review, with additional investment of £1.3 billion in research budgets over the next three years. The UK has world-class universities of which we are rightly proud, and the science and innovation that they generate are a potential source of prosperity, as scientific discoveries are commercialised by businesses working with universities, creating beneficial products and services.

In addition to the DEFRA budget allocated for bee and pollinator research, I should like to see the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills working with the major research councils to identify a pot of money from the existing, and recently increased, funding for science. This could be used to commission university-based scientists, working in partnership with industry, to create a new generation of pesticides and fungicides that have less harmful effects to pollinators; to develop disease-resistant seeds to prevent the need for chemical treatment; and to explore different methods of crop husbandry to prevent the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals in the environment. All these have the potential to improve bee health, and are areas of science in which we already have a great deal of expertise.

It is important to recognise that the UK’s crop-protection sector has a vital role to play, but as with any market, it can work well to deliver innovation and quality. It is worth remembering that in the UK a pesticide is released on to the market only after an average of nine years’ extensive research. However, as recent news about antibiotics has shown, sometimes Government intervention is needed. The chief medical officer has recently warned that, because antibiotics are relatively cheap and not very profitable to pharmaceutical companies, they have made little investment in innovation. As a result, we face humans becoming immune to current antibiotics within the next 20 years—a risk to our well-being greater than climate change. The chief medical officer has called on the Government to use some of the money earmarked for investment in science to discover the next generation of antibiotics. She has also highlighted the need for international collaboration on the management of antibiotics. We need to think in the same way to tackle declining bee health.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s suggestion about creating a British bee strategy; that is vital. She makes the case powerfully for a strong, healthy bee population to ensure pollination in agriculture and biodiversity in our environment. Does she agree that it is important for a focus to be maintained across Government, and to bring together all the different resources from Departments to try to tackle and reverse this decline in bee numbers?

Sarah Newton: That is important. As I said, DEFRA has done a huge amount, and this Government should be proud of their track record in tackling the issue, but we need to step it up with more urgency and draw on all the resources of Government, not just on DEFRA. DEFRA is quite a low-spending Department, and it needs the extra sums that are available, particularly in

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BIS, for science and innovation, so that it can bring those extra resources to bear. DEFRA has done well to be still investing in bee research, having had to make cuts in expenditure—it is to be commended for that—but the scale of the challenge is so great that we should be reaching out to BIS and other pots of science money and commissioning research. Not only would that be beneficial for our bee population, agriculture, farming and the environment, but once these products are developed they could be exported and could generate a great deal of wealth in our country.

All this takes time. Root-cause research would take years—pesticides can take nine years to come to market—so there are things we need to do in the interim. We should listen closely to the calls of Friends of the Earth, which put together a national bee action plan, with some sensible steps that could be taken. I should like the Government to consider that.

We could create bee worlds by encouraging local authorities and the farming sector to work together to increase the availability of good feeding and nesting sites for bees. The mayor of Truro, Lindsay Southcombe, is using her year as mayor to highlight what we can do locally. We can do lots of things at a local level. We need to protect existing sites, conserving the lowland and upland meadows where bees thrive. We should ensure that science-based advice and guidance is provided to farmers and other bodies, setting out how those habitats can be better protected. This advice can be provided only if adequate expertise on bees is retained within Government agencies. For successful delivery of habitat creation and restoration for bees locally, we must ensure that that expertise is available at all levels in local authorities. We do have the bee inspectorate, and that must be preserved, but it must also be built on.

Finally, we need to consider commissioning research on new pest-control technologies and drawing on global best practice, with the aim of developing pest-control methods that maintain farming yields while minimising the impact on pollinator populations. That is the clear call of Friends of the Earth, which believes that stakeholders can be brought together and can help develop best practice, working alongside the Government, that can then be rolled out across the UK.

The evidence that bee populations are declining is clear. We have talked about that in respect of honey bees, but it also applies to wild bees and solitary bees. If we stand by and allow this decline to carry on, it would hit key sectors of our economy hard. The Government’s investment in a range of activities and research aimed at slowing this decline, and better understanding it, is to be welcomed. Now is the time to move to the next stage: to put together a holistic cross-departmental strategy aimed at developing new biodiversity-friendly approaches to crop protection that the rest of the world will welcome. Now is the time to show British bees, British farmers and the British food and drink producers that we are on their side, and will work with them to tackle this significant problem for our health, our well-being and our environment.

4.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and

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Falmouth (Sarah Newton) not only on securing a debate on an important subject, but on the balanced way that she presented her arguments.

A healthy bee population is crucial not only to agriculture, but to the environment and the economy, so we have to get this right. I have a record of raising these issues when in opposition: some five or six years ago, I was one of those who was pressing strongly for a proper approach to bee health and for the then Government to invest in it. It is therefore a particular pleasure for me to respond to this debate on behalf of my noble friend Lord De Mauley, whose responsibility it is, and to highlight what we have been doing to improve bee health, and our future plans.

Over the past five years there has been a welcome resurgence in interest in keeping bees. Many new beekeepers have turned to local and national beekeeping associations for information and support on how best to look after the pollinator species. The British Beekeepers Association, for example, reports that its membership has increased from some 16,500 in 2009 to 25,000 in 2013. The Government are playing their part in supporting and maintaining that growth in interest. The main focus of our efforts to protect bee health is through the work of the national bee unit, which is acknowledged as having one of the best bee health surveillance programmes in Europe.

It might be helpful if I quickly set out what the national bee unit does. First, it has an inspection and enforcement role: the unit has a team of some 60 professional bee inspectors out in the field controlling notifiable diseases and surveying for exotic pests. Thanks to their work and the results of the random apiary survey, which is internationally probably one of the biggest bee health surveys of its kind ever undertaken, we now have a detailed understanding of the health status of the nation’s bees and can use that information to target our inspection programmes to best effect. I am pleased to report that the incidence of the two notifiable diseases—European and American foul brood—remains nationally low, with infection rates around half those observed during the 1990s. Also, most importantly, no evidence has been found of exotic pests, such as the small hive beetle, and the pests remain absent from the UK.

Secondly, the national bee unit and its inspectors provide advice and support to beekeepers on pests and diseases, with emphasis on varroa management, during their inspection visits, or through training and education programmes jointly run with beekeeping associations. Last year, the unit took part in nearly 500 training events attended by more than 22,000 beekeepers. Guidance is also provided online: the unit’s website, BeeBase, provides a wide range of information for beekeepers to help keep their honey bees healthy and productive. I am pleased to report that the number of beekeepers registered on BeeBase has increased from some 12,000 in 2006 to more than 29,000 today. All those services are provided by the inspectors without charge.

Protecting bee health is not something the Government can achieve by themselves, nor should it be. The various challenges and threats can be properly addressed only through effective partnership working. The Government are co-funding a range of beekeeping association-led initiatives that are already beginning to deliver improvements with, for example, 400 new beekeeper trainers being trained and a suite of new training materials and courses

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already available. One of those programmes is the development of an apprenticeship scheme to encourage young people to become bee farmers, and we are working with the Bee Farmers’ Association to develop the programme further.

That is the context of what we are doing, but I know my hon. Friend and many of our constituents are worried about the perceived threat from the neonicotinoids. I take that threat extremely seriously. We must take any threat to bees and pollinators seriously, and we have kept the evidence on neonicotinoids under open-minded scrutiny. We have consistently made it clear that we will restrict the use of such products if the evidence shows the need. That is the crucial point for us at the moment as a Department that works on the basis of evidence. Although the potential for toxic effects has been shown, Government scientists and the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides last year advised that the evidence then available did not indicate harmful exposure in the field. The field evidence is limited, however, and focused on honey bees, so we commissioned research on the field effects of neonicotinoids on bumble bees. That work has just been completed and the results are positive, although not conclusive. In particular, the researchers found no relationship between colony growth and neonicotinoid residues in pollen or nectar in the colonies.

Following completion of the study, DEFRA has drawn up a short assessment of all the key current evidence, which I have arranged to be placed in the Library— hon. Members might like to look at it. The assessment cannot exclude rare effects of neonicotinoids on bees in the field, but suggests that those effects do not occur in normal circumstances. We are also analysing the implications for the environment and for agriculture of possible restrictions on neonicotinoids. If neonicotinoids were not available, farmers would switch to alternative insecticides that remain legally available, and it is important to understand the implications of that.

The European Commission proposed significant restrictions on neonicotinoids, which, as my hon. Friend mentioned, was put to a vote on 15 March. The United Kingdom abstained. I underline that we did not take that step because we have closed our mind to taking action; we abstained because the Commission’s proposal was not well thought through. We have urged the Commission to complete the scientific assessment, taking account of our new research. We have also emphasised the need to assess the impacts of action, so that the measures taken are proportionate to the risks. We will continue to make that case in Europe.

The difference between the laboratory tests on which much of the information is based and the field trials that we have now undertaken is that the dosage levels are not comparable. The dosage in the field is much lower than that used in the laboratory experiments, so the toxicity might not be demonstrable or replicable in field conditions. We need to investigate that important aspect further.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): A number of European countries certainly believe that the evidence justifies a moratorium—we know that from the vote. The Minister’s Department also believes that there are risks, although it is not convinced that the risks are high enough to justify a moratorium. Would he, as a secondary step, or perhaps as a compromise, consider doing what

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many have recommended, which is introducing a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids for non-farm applications, such as golf courses, private gardens, urban areas and so on? That might help the scientific process and the journey that DEFRA is currently on.

Mr Heath: We will consider the effectiveness of all propositions that are on the table. My concern about agricultural use is that we need to assess carefully the environmental consequences, including the consequences for bee health, of using other substances, such as pyrethroids and organophosphates, as an alternative. I will certainly consider what my hon. Friend has to say.

We have joined some of the UK’s major research funders to fund projects aimed at researching the causes and consequences of threats to insect pollinators, including honey bees. Understanding the threats will help us to identify the best possible action to support those species for the future. That is the key, given the role of pollinators in agricultural production, estimated to be worth more than £500 million, and in our overall food security. The initiative’s total spend is up to £10 million over five years, to which DEFRA has contributed £2.5 million. We look forward to seeing the results of those studies over the next two years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned that there are other stress factors, and she is absolutely right. The other stress factors include weather—the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—pest infestations or infections, nutrition and hive management. We need to consider all those factors in the round. She also mentioned the key importance of having a bee strategy, and emphasised that pollination is more than just about the role of honey bees. Lord de Mauley has announced that he is considering exactly what she suggests—the development of a more holistic health strategy to cover all pollinators—and he has been meeting interested parties, such as Friends of the Earth, to explore what added value that approach might bring.

I end by stressing to hon. Members that the Government are committed to continue playing their part, working in partnership with beekeepers and other interested parties, to sustain the health of honey bees and other key pollinators. This is an extraordinarily important subject, and I and my noble Friend Lord de Mauley are determined to get it right. We must do so by considering all the consequences and taking action as seems appropriate on the basis of the evidence. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the debate.

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Under-Occupancy Penalty (Birkenhead)

4.30 pm

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): 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

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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

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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.

4.42 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): Good afternoon, Mr Benton. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) on securing a debate that is of considerable importance to his constituents. I entirely accept that the effect of this nationwide policy is different in different areas, and that a higher proportion of working-age households are affected in the north-west than in some other parts of the country.

Mr Frank Field: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: I thought that that was fairly uncontentious, but I will give way.

Mr Field: While the Minister is washing his hands, can he tell us how many of his constituents will be affected?

Steve Webb: I am representing the Government rather than discussing my constituents, but clearly far fewer of mine are affected than the right hon. Gentleman’s, which is no great surprise to anyone.

The right hon. Gentleman’s speech was made in a vacuum, without mention of the fiscal context or how we treat other tenants. He used various lurid adjectives to describe the policy, as though it was some uniquely unfair concept that where benefits are paying someone’s rent, the level of benefits should have regard to the size of the household. He suggested that this is some unprecedented, evil thing, the like of which he has never

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come across in 30 years in Parliament—except that he was a Minister in my Department and, intermittently, a supporter of the previous Government, who introduced the local housing alliance. As I am sure he knows, with that allowance we say to private sector tenants on housing benefit that, broadly speaking, the rents we pay will reflect household size: generally, if not universally, someone can have private rent up to, now, the 30th percentile of rents for a household of the size it is. For some years, therefore, we have said to 1 million LHA private sector tenants, “We won’t pay benefit for an extra bedroom. If you want one, that’s fine, but you pay for it.”

If that policy is fair and appropriate for private sector tenants, why is it squalid, evil and unprecedented for social tenants? Surely consistency and fairness—a word the right hon. Gentleman used—mean that we should treat people the same way, whether they are private sector or social tenants. One might argue, indeed, that social tenants generally have the advantage of a subsidised rent, which private sector tenants do not have, and we treat private sector tenants unfairly in the sense that we do not give them an extra bedroom.

Mr Field: The Minister knows perfectly well that the local housing allowance level we set was above the average amount for those in social housing, so there is still a real difference in the rent levels for what someone can command in the private sector compared with the public sector.

Steve Webb: The right hon. Gentleman reinforces my point: people in the private sector were having to pay higher rents than those in the social sector, and they could not have a spare bedroom.

Mr Field: No, taxpayers were required to pay higher rents.

Steve Webb: People in the social rented sector still benefit from subsidised rents and, potentially, spare bedrooms. The figure used by the right hon. Gentleman was of more than 800,000 spare bedrooms in households where the rent is paid for by housing benefits.

To give a sense of scale, we are asking a household with one spare bedroom to contribute £2 a day on average for having the spare bedroom. I do not belittle the financial pressures that many households are under, because it would be entirely wrong of me to do so, but we know from experience of the private rented sector that some households will decide that, notwithstanding the financial pressures on them, £2 a day for the advantage of that extra bedroom is a price that they will pay. There will also be many other responses. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned taking in lodgers, and some housing associations and local authorities have given their tenants advice on how to do that. It is good use of a spare room, because it provides accommodation to someone, such as a young single person perhaps, as well as extra income to the household, and deals with the problem.

There will be some movement in the social rented sector. In the right hon. Gentleman’s area, 20 housing associations and local authorities have come together to form Propertypool Plus, doing exactly what they should be doing, which is pooling their stock and giving

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a much greater chance of having something to suit a particular family than an individual housing association would have. If we facilitate someone moving from under-occupied accommodation into a house that fits, someone else who is living in overcrowded accommodation can also move to a house that fits, which seems to be an entirely good thing, although the latter person’s voice was silent in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman.

I looked at the Wirral housing strategy for 2011 to 2026, and the council has realised that under-occupation is an issue. Before we invented our policy, the local authority stated:

“Research has identified that there are a number of people who are under occupying their home, regardless of tenure,”

going on to say that

“the Council will seek to help people by offering a range of services”

to help them live in more appropriate accommodation. There is therefore recognition in Wirral of a mismatch between the homes people are living in and the homes that they might need, perhaps particularly in the case of older people, although I stress that pensioners are exempt from our policy.

Creative things are being done in the right hon. Gentleman’s part of the world. For example, Wirral metropolitan borough council has obtained £2 million of Homes and Communities Agency funding to work on empty properties and plans to bring 765 empty properties back into use over a three-year period. He is right to say that supply is a crucial part of the story. We want to ensure that the supply is there for people, but that will not happen overnight. We also know that initiatives to deal with under-occupation have not really worked. Simply saying, “Would you like to move to somewhere smaller?” when there is no reason for anyone to do so, has not worked, and we have to regard the spare bedrooms in social housing in this country as a precious resource, because there is not enough housing.

The right hon. Gentleman colourfully described bricking up spare bedrooms, but I can save the landlords he is seeking to send down that track the trouble. If, for example, they want to designate a property with one bedroom occupied and a spare bedroom as a one-bedroom property, they can do so. They do not need to brick anything up or knock any walls down; they can simply designate it as a one-bedroom property. They will take the lower rent, but the tenant is not under-occupying. The reduction in the spare-room subsidy would not apply because there is not a spare room; it is the landlord who takes the financial hit in that situation. Knowsley local authority has, on occasion, followed such a policy. If landlords decide that that is the best solution, we have no problem with that. Obviously, we get the saving, because we are only paying the rent for a one-bedroom property and not a two-bedroom property, so if local authorities and other landlords can bear the financial impact, that might be a part of the mix. I do not think that many will be able to do so, but questions of bricking up rooms do not arise.

I have come across cases in which housing associations have designated a box room as a second bedroom and they have been gaily claiming the rent on a two-bedroom property. Then this measure comes in and it is quickly apparent that it is not really a bedroom; it is just a box room. Part of the answer is for landlords to be honest

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about the nature of their properties and say whether there really is a spare bedroom that someone could sleep in. They should then designate the property accordingly.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned fairness. I have referred to fairness between social and private tenants, but what about fairness between overcrowded households, households on the waiting list and those who are in under-occupation? In Wirral, there are 21,280 households on the waiting list for a home. Where is their voice in this debate? I may be wrong, but I do not think the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the people on the waiting list or the people who are overcrowded. Fairness is surely about them as well as the people already in occupation.

We recognise that there are some people who should not be affected by this measure. That is why, for example, we have exempted pensioners. People living in their lifetime home, who have retired and have no prospect of working again, are exempt. We have also taken the view that local authorities need money to deal with what one might loosely call hard cases. In Wirral, in the year that is coming to an end—2012-13—roughly £500,000 of discretionary housing payments were available; next year it will be not far short of £1 million. For individuals whom it would be wrong or inhumane to expect to move, money is there to make up the shortfall. Nearly £1 million in that local authority and about £150 million nationwide is a huge sum of money, provided to make sure that where the room is not really spare and where it would be inappropriate to expect someone to move out or put someone else in the room, local authorities have got the resource to respond appropriately.

It is vital that local authorities spend the money, yet we have come across cases of local authorities underspending their discretionary housing payments. Hon. Members berate the Government and say how terrible the policy is, but their local authority is sitting on cash that it has not spent to help people who have a shortfall in their housing benefit.

Mr Field: Could the Minister give us examples of authorities that underspend?

Steve Webb: My understanding is that the right hon. Gentleman’s own local authority had a discretionary housing payment contribution of £464,000 for the current year, but has a carryover that takes it up to £522,000. I am happy to write to him with figures for the country. That is not a one-off example. It is surprisingly common. I have spoken to local authority leaders in the past few weeks who have said, “We are not spending the money we have got.” We and they need to make sure that the money that is specifically there for hardship is actually spent.

Mr Field: The carryover for Wirral is quite modest. One of the reasons for that is that the Government give an annual grant that has to be spent over 12 months, and the local authority is not sure how many will present themselves in the twelfth month.

Steve Webb: We expect local authorities to budget, but of course this measure comes into effect on a single day, and good landlords and good local authorities have already been looking at the existing stock of people.

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It is by definition a stock of people that does not turn over very much, so it is pretty predictable. My plea to local authorities is to use the money that we have given them.

We have given local authorities discretionary money, initially with two groups in mind. The first is people whose houses have been substantially adapted for disability. We accept that if there is a spare bedroom in a house that has been completely redone to reflect wheelchair access or whatever, it is not cost-effective, sensible or humane to say, “You’ve got to move,” and then either the public purse has to pay for another property to be done up or the people have to live somewhere inappropriate. We estimate that, nationwide, roughly £25 million of the potential saving from the measure would be related to properties of that sort. Our initial plan was to try to define that centrally in regulations: what is a substantially adapted property? We then took the view that it is better left to local discretion, so we made the money available locally.

We did the same for foster families who have a spare room because they are between foster children. Most people would accept that foster parents need to have a spare room. Initially, we thought that we would support that through £5 million of discretionary payments, but the message we got back was that foster families wanted to have a right to a room and not to be reliant on a discretionary payment from the council. We have now passed regulations, which will come into force next month, that give foster families the right to a spare bedroom, subject to certain constraints. We have also recently made it clear that where, for example, a child with a disability or health condition cannot sleep in the same bedroom as a sibling, the family can go to the local authority, which, having satisfied itself that it is a valid claim, can allocate an extra bedroom.

I stress that the measure is not a crude one-size-fits-all cut. We have to save money. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have to save money and that housing benefit is one of the biggest working age benefits that we have. He knows that two thirds of the housing benefit bill is for social tenants and that we have already cut back on the housing benefit bill for private tenants. In the context of needing to save money on social tenants’ housing benefit bill, not paying for spare bedrooms seems to be a place where we can find savings, subject to the crucial proviso that we protect the most vulnerable.

We have protected the most vulnerable through discretionary housing payments. Of course, although local authorities can use such payments for substantially adapted properties, the clue is in the title: they are “discretionary” payments. Local authorities have the payments for this purpose and for other changes. They have core discretionary housing payments that they had anyway, before any of the measures came in. Local authorities have that pot of money, which is of course not limitless and does not cover everybody, but at least it gives them the flexibility to respond to people as they come to them. The crucial thing for anybody listening to our proceedings who is concerned about the impact of the measure is that if people genuinely need the additional room, and if the options that some would take up, such as swapping, taking in a lodger or working extra hours, are not options for them, they should approach the local authority.

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The right hon. Gentleman said that if people move into the private sector, it will cost money, but that is a very static way of looking at things. When somebody moves out of the social sector and into the private sector, a social sector property will be freed up that someone perhaps paying a high rent in the private sector will move into. It is not self-evident that in cases where someone moves from the social sector to the private sector, it costs money overall. Yes, we are trying to save money, and half a billion pounds will be saved by the measure, but let me set that in context: in the final year of the previous Labour Government, we were trying to fill a hole not of half a billion pounds, but of £150 billion a year. The right hon. Gentleman objects to the measure, but it illustrates the scale of the task we have been faced with. Even a measure such as this, which has been controversial and difficult, saves only half a billion pounds, and we have had to take many more such decisions to deal with the fiscal deficit.

Good things are going on in local authority areas such as that of the right hon. Gentleman. I welcome the fact that housing associations and councils are pooling their stock to enable people to exchange. My local housing association and others have had what they call “speed-dating” events—I am not being flippant; that is what they call them. They try to bring together people from among their tenants, some of whom have a spare room and some of whom are desperate for a family home. I think of a constituent of mine who contacted me after receiving a letter about this. She said, “I am living on my own in a three-bedroom house. What are my options? Actually, could my brother and sister-in-law move in?” I said, “Absolutely. Talk to the landlord.”

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That was an ideal outcome: it meant that the housing stock was better used and someone else had suitable housing.

To summarise, the way in which people respond to the measure will be individual and varied. Some will be able to exchange with someone else. Some will stay where they are, regarding £2 a day, on average, as worth paying for that spare bedroom. Some will fill the spare bedroom with a lodger. As the right hon. Gentleman colourfully suggests, some landlords will redesignate properties, so that in effect there is not a spare bedroom, and the landlord will take the cost. Some people will go to the local authority, and we have put money into the pockets of local authorities such as his—nearly £1 million in the Wirral—so that the most vulnerable people can go to their local authority and make their case and be heard.

Again, I urge the local authorities to spend the money that they have been given to help people, because we have sought to protect the most vulnerable. We have sought to protect families with disabled children, fosterers, and people with service personnel living at home. We have given local authorities the ability to respond on a case-by-case basis. None of these decisions is easy, but they are necessary decisions that we have sought to mitigate where possible. We are trying to bring about a beneficial effect: to make better use of scarce social housing stock and to create fairness between private and social tenants, which, I have to say, in the past, we have not had.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.