Previous SectionIndexHome Page


5.14 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): I enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), but she rather spoilt her speech at the end because she failed to offer any solution other than the old failed solutions. We can only assume that that is what she was offering, because she did not offer anything.

I shall use this opportunity to step back a little and look at this conceptually. There is a growing consensus across the House--I regret that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is not in his place--that there is too much means-testing in our benefits system. The more the benefits system grows, the more people are drawn into means-testing and the more people are subject to the perverse effects of means tests. The more generous housing benefit provision has become--even if only by virtue of the fact that rising rents have led to rising housing benefit, and increased unemployment has led to rising benefit levels--the more people have adapted to qualify for it. There is a consensus in the Social Security Select Committee that people adjust their circumstances to qualify for means-tested benefits. More people end up on benefit, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will say that they are poor because they are on means-tested benefits.

How do we stop that trend? The Opposition complain about means testing, but they want to maintain the excessive generosity of such benefits and end up supporting the mechanism that creates the very problem that we need to deal with. Public expenditure grows as means-tested benefits generate their own demand.

Means tests generate a perverse moral climate. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead increasingly tells us in the Select Committee, what message does that send to people who are trapped in adverse circumstances? What a message to send to young people starting out in life: they

5 Jun 1996 : Column 635

can afford better accommodation if they take housing benefit and remain unemployed. Naturally, the Government are absolutely right to do everything possible to make a contract between the unemployed receiving benefit and the Benefits Agency. One must be actively seeking work. That is certainly an improvement, but we can do more to remove the disincentives.

Are we happy with a system that effectively proclaims to every young person, "If you leave home without a job, the state will provide you with self-contained accommodation as a right"? Are we happy that the benefits system should in effect proclaim to parents, "Throw your teenagers out with impunity; the state will provide; you needn't be responsible for the people whom you have brought into the world"? The Labour party seems to be saying, "Your son and daughter will be given self-contained accommodation as a right."

Most working people who pay taxes, including a great many poor people, are aghast at the way in which the benefits system seems to subsidise life styles that people, particularly older people, never dreamed they would enjoy, even in their later years. Many young people on benefits are not just claiming benefits. Part of the perversity of means-tested benefits is that we encourage people to hide their entrepreneurialism, their natural affinity to work and to earn. Very often, people are taking a bit more on the side than they are letting the Benefits Agency know about.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): Does my hon. Friend agree that all too often the state appears to be taking over from human parents, to become an individual's parent in terms of financial and other support, which does not encourage personal responsibility among young people?

Mr. Jenkin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Concepts that are popular among Opposition parties include social exclusion and social cohesion. The worst way to create social cohesion is to atomise society by making the state more and more responsible for the individual's circumstances, instead of allowing the natural institutions of society--the family and community--to take their share of responsibility.

Dr. Lynne Jones: What evidence does the hon. Gentleman have of the abuse that he claims? The Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that the Government should collate evidence to justify views of the sort that the hon. Gentleman is espousing--and only then introduce the regulations.

Mr. Jenkin: The Social Security Select Committee has just completed an extensive investigation into housing benefit fraud. It is argued that we have only scratched the surface and that Government figures grossly underestimate the scale of the problem. I do not fully accept that evidence, but that is erring on the side of caution. Labour Members have used the fraud issue to suggest that the Government are not exercising enough control.

Dr. Jones: I was referring not to abuse but to evidence to support the allegation that young people deliberately leave home to be mollycoddled by the state, and that it pays housing benefit to allow youngsters to live in luxurious accommodation.

Mr. Jenkin: I do not intend to produce such evidence now because the hon. Lady is using language that I did

5 Jun 1996 : Column 636

not use. The more generous housing benefit is and the greater its availability to young people, the more they are likely to avail themselves of it. The only way to restore society's natural values is to make people more responsible for the consequences of their actions and to ensure that families take more responsibility for their young adult offspring.

These regulations are conceptually adjusting the priorities. It is just at the margin. We are not creating a revolution. We are only questioning the hierarchy of priorities. Is it that young people should take jobs and that families ought to take responsibility for them--or is it that young people should as of right occupy self-contained accommodation funded by the state? Obviously all young people have a right to dignified accommodation, but as its quality increases, who should be responsible for its provision? Should it not be more the responsibility of the individual and his or her family and less the responsibility of the state?

I look forward to the time when the values and expectations of people in this country have radically altered. New Labour is interested in the so-called stakeholding society of Singapore. When the Select Committee visited that country, it was interested to find that Singapore's equivalent of our Department of Social Security is determined to avoid the mistakes that western societies have made in creating state dependency and poverty traps. It is difficult to imagine how that determination is manifested without observing it at first hand. It is ironic that new Labour is so enamoured of the stakeholder model of Singapore but shies away when that country's social policies are implemented in the United Kingdom. Labour wants to cherry-pick one or two aspects of the Singapore model but leave the rest behind.

The key challenge to those of us who take an interest in the future of the UK social security system is in devising ways of restoring individual and family responsibility, by gradually removing from the state as humanely as possible the excessive responsibilities that it has taken on. The regulations do exactly that. They chip away at the expectation that young people should receive so much from the state so early in their lives.

The Labour party offers not a policy that tends towards responsibility, self-determination and individual empowerment but opposition that is very much old Labour. We heard in the speech of the hon. Member for Selly Oak a call for a return to rent controls, large public housing schemes and an ever-rising bill for housing benefit. That is not the recipe that has brought success to housing or social security policy in this country or any other in Europe or elsewhere in the world that has tried using large-scale public expenditure to solve social problems. We should aim at eventually achieving alternative models that give people social security in the fullest sense--not just satisfy our consciences by doling out large sums of public money.

5.26 pm

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale): We cannot consider the regulations in isolation but must view them together with all the other Government measures that have affected under-25s. Since 1988, that age group has received lower income support. I have never understood why younger people are supposed to manage on less money than any others. Their food, clothing and other costs are exactly the same.

5 Jun 1996 : Column 637

From October, the unemployment benefit element of the jobseeker's allowance for the under-25s will be reduced to income support level, yet again penalising that age group. That double action will mean that £10 a week will be lost to those young people.

We want facts, figures and other evidence from the Government to back their claims. The Government say that young people expect to live in bed-sits or shared accommodation, that housing benefit is an incentive for young people to leave home and that the current level of housing benefit encourages them to do so. Have any surveys been undertaken? If the Minister has time to reply, can he cite evidence to show how many of the 870,000 young people in question live in self-contained accommodation? We must have that figure before we can judge how the regulations will work.

Where is the evidence that young people are more likely to request or occupy more expensive accommodation than their contemporaries who are in employment? The Government have produced none. The Government talk about young people milking the system, but where is the proof? How many people go into shared accommodation?

The Government are attempting to change young people's life styles without giving us the facts behind their proposal. Even the Social Security Advisory Committee said that young unemployed people aged under 25 had the same general preference for accommodation as those in employment, and that no evidence suggests that young people are encouraged to leave home because they could get a flat on their own.

I fear that the regulations will make young people less mobile. The Government must deal with the fact that there are many legitimate reasons why young people leave home. They do so because, in some cases, they have been sexually or physically abused. They do not talk about it and they do not want to involve social services, but that is a good reason for their leaving home. It is not, therefore, that they are encouraged to leave because they are going to get a good housing benefit level. Some of those young people have genuine reasons.

Young people in self-contained accommodation are not going to move to find work. Surely the Government want young people to move around the country to find work, but, if they are in self-contained accommodation in one region, they will find that, if they move to find work but do not do so, they will end up in a bed-sit.

These changes could cause severe hardship for youngsters under 25 because the shortfalls between the rent and housing benefit must be met from somewhere. If those young people cannot find rented accommodation at the rent levels that will be set, because of the jobseekers' provisions and all the other debts that they will get into, they could face poverty. In the long term, quite a few of them could face homelessness.

Many of those people will be forced into potentially dangerous accommodation. Some of the standards in multiple-occupancy accommodation are not good. I do not know whether the Minister has been around such accommodation, but I have. Some of it is a fire risk and some a death trap.

Even the Children's Society was coming out against all young people being forced into multi-occupancy accommodation. It was talking about vulnerable young

5 Jun 1996 : Column 638

people, who find it difficult to communicate with each other and who would have a problem sharing a bathroom, a kitchen, a stove or washing-up facilities. The problem is that, if they could not cope with that shared accommodation, they could find themselves out on the streets.

The Minister has talked about giving concessions for young people coming out of care, and I am glad that he is considering taking that further. I am also pleased that he is considering Scotland as well, because that was an oversight. I am glad that he will deal with that problem. I am also concerned about young people in bed-sit accommodation. They could be subjected to drugs, harassment and abuse. I am not saying that that would happen in all multi-occupancy accommodation, but the Minister should be considering that point.

In relation to the change from paying rent in advance to paying rent in arrears and not paying any deposits, many of those young people will not be able to find accommodation because multi-occupancy houses will not be available and, if they are, landlords will probably not take them in.

The problem is that, once landlords know that under-25s are allowed to go into only bed-sit or multi-occupancy accommodation, standards will fall. Many more investigators will have to check the standards of those properties, because some landlords will be good and will meet their responsibility but some will not. I hope that the Minister is aware of the Government's responsibility in that.

Certain young people face a harsh future with these regulations, which come in next October. As I have said, some will face homelessness and some will face living in poor accommodation. I hope that the Government will think again before it is too late. I will vote to revoke the regulations.


Next Section

IndexHome Page