“My concern is when the new rule comes into effect this year, I’ll need to downgrade to a one bedroom flat as the housing benefit won’t pay for the extra room”.

I took up his case and have been told that he is not exempt, but that if he had an overnight carer staying in his flat he would be exempt. I am sure that the Minister would agree with me that it is very disruptive for someone who has a long-term illness to move home, and possibly area. I do not think that the Government intended the policy to have such an adverse effect on seriously ill and vulnerable individuals. However, part of the problem is the lack of flexibility given to organisations such as Stockport Homes to respond in a way that gives them discretion in those very difficult cases.

Stockport has 1,500 tenants affected by the rule, who now need rehousing in one-bedroom flats; but we have a turnover of only 300 one-bedroom properties a year. Where are people expected to go? The alternative, of course, is the private rented sector, but recently there has been an increase in private rented sector repossessions in Stockport, and landlords are not keen on taking people in receipt of housing benefit. Also, we have a smaller private rented sector than elsewhere. That means that people will inevitably have to move out of the area.

Different areas have had different local housing policies. For example, under previous housing policies, families in Stockport have been offered a three-bedroom flat or house if they have a boy and a girl both over five years old. However, the new policy means that if they receive housing benefit they can have a three-bedroom flat only if they have a boy and a girl over 10, so families currently living in three-bedroom flats or houses in my constituency will be hit by the rule. Moving out will be very disruptive for children, who will have to change schools. They will lose their friends and their parents will lose family and community links. Often, those are the very families that other agencies are concerned to support in a settled environment.

It does not make sense to me that the policy of one Department can so adversely affect the policy of another. Localism, and local partnerships working together to support families, should mean that some flexibility is given to local social landlords about the implementation of the policy. That would mitigate some of the disruptive impact on families who, through no fault of their own, were rehoused under previous housing policies.

Kate Green: On the point about discretion, the local authority will be able to use the discretionary housing payment, to the extent that there is money in the pot; but does my hon. Friend agree that it will be first come,

23 Jan 2013 : Column 118WH

first served? If her constituents’ circumstances are presented late in the financial year, there will be no money to enable the discretion to be exercised.

Ann Coffey: My hon. Friend makes an important point; and the payment is meant to be temporary. It will not support someone on a long-term dialysis programme.

Finally, it is difficult for Stockport Homes to let two-bedroom flats, and that is the reason for the current under-occupancy. Now it is going to have to advertise outside the area for tenants for those properties. It is a strange social policy that results in people having to leave the area where they have family and community links to make way for people to come in, from outside, to an area where they have no such links. That is another unintended but serious consequence of the proposals. My plea to the Minister is that he will consider giving social landlords some discretion so that the worst of the consequences to vulnerable individuals and families, who we all agree should not be affected, can be mitigated.

3.16 pm

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate.

One of the justifications for the changes is that they will bring about a better use of currently available housing stock and that somehow penalties for under-occupancy will force tenants to leave their homes—I stress they are homes, not houses—releasing two-bedroom properties and thereby alleviating overcrowding. The theory might get off the ground if there was evidence that such exchanges were possible and practical; but the evidence is that whereas 180,000 social tenants are allegedly under-occupying, just under 68,000 single-bedroom properties became available last year. We have heard today that it would take an age to achieve what is intended. There simply are not the properties to go round. That analysis does not even begin to take into consideration new entrants to the market. The waiting lists are considerable. The policy simply does not stack up.

In Middlesbrough the policy will have an impact on 2,410 claimants. The reduction in benefits across the piece will be something short of £1.5 million. Of course in the areas of my constituency where people are already struggling, and finding things hard, the additional burden will be the final straw for some. There will be untold misery. I heard from Citizens Advice recently about my constituent David Holdsworth, who lives in a three-bedroom property with his wife and severely disabled 33-year-old daughter. He is paralysed from the waist down and has continence issues. His wife is his full-time carer and sleeps in the spare room. Because of his disability it is not practical for her to stay with him. They have been informed that the bedroom tax will affect him, because they have a spare room. He cannot afford the cut to his benefits, and the solution that has been put to them is that he and his daughter should move into a home and his wife should move into a one-bedroom property, breaking up the family.

Another example concerns a gentleman who lives in a three-bedroom property. He is the father of triplets and his three daughters live with their mother, but

23 Jan 2013 : Column 119WH

during the school term they stay with him for periods in the week. One of his daughters is autistic, and he says that she needs her own room, for reasons specific to the family. According to the bedroom tax he has two spare rooms, and his benefit will be cut by nearly £30 a week.

Some weeks ago my hon. Friend and I called at the door of a lady in Pallister park in my constituency, who was living in what had been her family home. She and her husband and daughter had lived there 38 years. Her husband had passed away, and her daughter had moved on to life with a husband and family. My constituent has been told, after 38 years, that she has a spare room and must leave. In reality, that resource—that home—is used. She is a grandma and takes the two children so her daughter can go out to work. Now she is being told she must leave the house. No one-bedroom properties are available to her, so her only option is to go miles away, and disrupt that family unit totally and utterly. That is a consequence of this terrible measure.

Anxiety is an issue. Not everyone knows what is coming, but many people are getting used to the idea and are knocking on the doors of constituency offices, and going to their citizens advice bureau. The terror and worry of thinking that they will lose their home is something that hon. Members who should be in the empty seats on the Government Benches do not begin to understand.

Niall Cooper, national co-ordinator for Church Action on Poverty said:

“There is a real danger that people will be pushed into the hands of loan sharks by the housing benefit cuts…For some this will push them over the edge”.

We know where they are going with the annual percentage rates that they may face—into spiralling debt with homelessness on the horizon. This dreadful provision should be revoked immediately, and people should come to their senses before it is too late.

3.20 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for this debate. We could be here for much longer, as is increasingly the case with our debates on these so-called reforms. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will not waste time pretending that the aim of the measure is to re-allocate social housing. There are other ways of doing that, and building more houses is one of the more important ones. However, the measure does not do that. If every local authority successfully reshuffled people in houses, almost certainly the same proportion would be on housing benefit, so there would be no saving. The Government have the saving in their budget, so it is not about that and they should not bother to pretend that it is.

A constituent who is in her 50s lives in a two-bedroom housing association house near the city centre, and has been there for six years. She has received a letter suggesting that she could take in a lodger. Her second bedroom is very much a single bedroom and very small. I do not know whether most people who support the measure ever go into the sort of houses that are being built. The kitchen is off the living room, which is fine for a family, but how does that work with a lodger who may be a

23 Jan 2013 : Column 120WH

stranger? Not only would she be sharing a bathroom, perhaps with a younger person whom she had never previously met, she would be sharing a kitchen off the living room. That is not even semi-practical, and my constituent was outraged at the prospect, but £50 from her benefit is very steep.

Many local authorities will do their best to help people, as will housing associations. They will look at the allocation policy to see whether they can make things easier, although they will merely be moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. They may manage to move some people, but the majority of homeless applicants are single people who will have to be housed in one-bedroom houses if they need housing benefit. Local authorities will be juggling one group of people with another. Even if some tenants in two-bedroom houses are moved into one-bedroom houses, homeless people who are waiting for one-bedroom houses but cannot be moved into those two-bedroom houses will wait even longer.

This week, I looked at what was available not just in my constituency, but throughout my city. Some 36 one-bedroom properties are advertised. The council and all the housing associations, bar two very small ones, advertise together. Ten of those properties are sheltered housing, and people who are not eligible cannot be housed in those houses, so that is 10 out of the way already. Another 11 properties are ground-floor flats, which are mostly allocated to people with what is called gold priority—top medical priority—for housing, because they are on the ground floor and if a ramp is necessary it can be put in.

Some people with gold priority may also be affected by the bedroom tax, which might be convenient, but the chances are that they will not. If we give those ground-floor flats to able-bodied people who do not need them, people who are waiting to get out of a third or fourth-floor flat for medical reasons will become angry. People frequently bend my ear about that if they think it is happening. People who must be moved because of the bedroom tax cannot be prioritised.

That leaves 15 houses available for let this week. A one-bedroom third-floor flat has attracted 110 online bids—that is not the total because paper bids can also be made—since last Friday. A one-bedroom first-floor flat in the city centre attracted 303 bids. Even a one-bedroom flat in a multi-storey building has attracted 35 bids. Those are active bidders, not people on a waiting list that might be described as not real. Those people are probably not yet affected by the bedroom tax, but the houses are simply not available. The real reason for the spiralling housing benefit bill is not under-occupancy of social housing; it is the huge expansion of the private rented sector and its high rents. That is what the Government should be addressing to bring down the housing benefit bill.

3.25 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): This is the third debate I have attended on this issue in the past two days, which gives an indication of its seriousness. The Minister replied to one of those debates yesterday so he should be increasingly aware of the concern about it. I shall focus on the occupancy provisions as they affect disabled people, because we have heard much from other hon. Members about other issues.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 121WH

I shall refer to two cases, having been approached by parents of adults with disabilities who will be profoundly and specifically affected by the changes. One, Mrs Rosemary Burslem, asked me to specify the particulars of her son’s case. She is in her 60s and has an adult child, David, who has severe disabilities. He has autism and needs overnight sleep-in staff, as well as one-to-one staff support during the day and two-to-one support when he goes out in the community.

In the view of David’s mother, who has looked after him for many years, it would be inappropriate for him to share a house with anyone with a learning disability because his behaviour is very challenging. He regularly takes food out of the fridge, as well as cutlery and crockery to bedrooms for no apparent reason. He flushes the toilet regularly, and switches electrical items on and off. His behaviour is regularly obsessional, which makes it virtually impossible for him to share accommodation with anyone. David has what Mrs Burslem describes as mega-tantrums. She says they are like the tantrums of the terrible twos, but 30 times worse because he is in his 30s. He is angry, frustrated and feels unwell, and is unable to work or live easily with other people. He then acts for no apparent reason, and all that makes it extremely difficult for him to live with anyone else.

The difficulty with the proposals is that they do not recognise or take account of such circumstances. I know that there are discretionary housing payments, but the reality is that that family is coping now with the uncertainty arising from the proposal.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): Without full details of the case it is difficult to discuss it, but the hon. Gentleman said that the lady is in her 60s. Will he clarify whether she is above or below state pension age?

Ian Lucas: She does not live with David, so I am not sure whether that is relevant.

The problem is that the proposal is causing uncertainty to the family now, and there is no certainty about whether discretionary housing payments will be for an extended period or affect them permanently. I will forward full details of the case to the Minister. I do not expect a specific answer now.

I have been contacted about another case of adult parents who share a house with an individual who suffers from spina bifida and hydrocephalus. An additional room in their house is used for the storage of oxygen and other disability aids, and a separate room is used as a living room by the individual concerned, who has specific and profound additional needs. Under these proposals, none of the particular circumstances for those individuals is taken into account, and they are some of the people who we all think—and I am sure the Minister thinks—should have our support, but they have no guarantee that they will continue to receive it. The fact is that this set of proposals is creating enormous worry for people who have huge burdens in caring for people whom they care profoundly about. They have contributed enormously to society by helping to look after those people for very many years, and we are letting them down badly.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 122WH

I implore the Minister to look at the particular applications of the rules in those cases to ensure that those people can be looked after. When they came to me and said, “Look into these matters,” I could not believe for one moment that the system would not include discretion to cover individual cases such as those. The proposals are ill-conceived and are causing enormous distress up and down the country. The Government, and I am sure the Minister, did not intend to create such situations. He needs to look at the proposals again.

I heard the Minister’s response yesterday, and in it, he referred to the deficit, but the reality is that the Government, at the same time as they are letting those people down, have chosen to give a tax cut to the richest people in the country. That is the type of political choice that we all have to make, and the reality is that the Minister has supported that choice. He needs to get his act together to change his approach and support the people who need support, and not the people who have most.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): All Members have been very disciplined in their speeches, so we are almost on time. It seems to me that in a debate of this kind it would be a shame, and wrong, to cut the time for the two remaining Back Benchers, so they will each have five minutes, and the Front Benchers therefore will have nine minutes each.

3.32 pm

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bayley, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate.

Like other hon. Members, over the past few months, I have been contacted by many of my constituents who simply do not know what to do about the policy’s implications. There is not a smaller house for them to move into, and they are not going to be able to afford their rent.

One of my constituents lives in a three-bedroom house, which he needs, as he looks after his children at weekends—similar to some other examples we have heard—but his housing benefit will be cut. If he has to move to a one-bedroom house, does it mean that it is right that his children only get to see him if they all sleep in the living room at weekends? Where should they do their homework? Would he even get access to see his children if he does not have somewhere for them to sleep, if the courts were involved in making a decision?

I have also been contacted by a couple who foster up to six children at a time, and again, they are not exempt from the cut. Is the Government’s policy honestly to cut housing benefit for foster parents, which means that they have to downsize and that they cannot foster children any more? What on earth are the Minister’s plans for the children who will then not be able to be placed with foster parents? Another constituent has sent me his monthly expenditure breakdown. The only thing he has left to cut is his contents insurance, and even then, that will not make up the difference.

What about tenants whose house has been specially adapted for them? Councils do not have the money to adapt another tranche of houses for all the people who have an extra bedroom. Some councils are considering knocking down a whole block of flats—from two-bedroom

23 Jan 2013 : Column 123WH

flats into one-bedroom flats—to try and deal with this. The Minister is nodding his head. Does he honestly think that that is what councils should be spending their money on? Okay, he does. We have that on record. I am a bit shocked about that.

I also want to raise the impact of the bedroom tax on serving members of the armed forces and their families, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). A prisoner can be away from home for up to 52 weeks and not have their housing benefit docked, but if someone is a serving member of the armed forces, their housing benefit will be docked if they are away for 13 weeks or more. It is astonishing that Ministers are giving prisoners more flexibility to claim those benefits than serving personnel. They are choosing prisoners over patriots. Some 96,000 members of the regular forces do not live in service accommodation, and I want to know how many of them will be affected. The Minister seems to be indicating that they will not be affected. Perhaps he can explain how that is, because we are aware of examples where they will be. Service families and personnel could be hit for doing their duty for their country.

Reservists will be affected too. They do not live in forces accommodation, so surely an even higher percentage of them will be hit. The Government are trying to increase recruitment to the reserve, so how do they think the prospect of having a housing benefit cut will affect those plans? They must publish the impact of the bedroom tax and set out very clearly who will be affected. It is the least they can do to clear the matter up for our forces. Either Ministers do not realise that serving personnel and their families will be affected, or they think that it is right that prisoners should have an exemption, while those protecting our country do not.

I want to read out a couple of lines from an e-mail that I received from a constituent about the impact that the policy will have on him:

“I am 40 years old, receiving incapacity Benefit, and live alone in a 2-bedroom flat. I struggle to make ends meet as it is at the moment, and literally keep track of every penny I spend. I do not drink, or smoke, or go on holidays, or socialise—my existence…consists of hiding from the world in a cold flat (I cannot afford to use the central heating) and reading. I cannot even visit my parents because I cannot afford £4 bus fare.

Come next April, I will no longer be able to afford to live. I do not enjoy my life, but have struggled to retain it. These changes are likely to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I am sure I am not the only person considering this.

I would like to know, in your opinion, what I can realistically do next year to survive.”

I have replied to my constituent, but I could not tell him how he can survive when the impact of this policy is felt, so I wonder whether the Minister could tell my constituent what he can do.

3.37 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this most important debate. I, for one, am not surprised to see the Government Benches empty, because people cannot defend the indefensible.

I want to speak on behalf of the 2,400 tenants of Bolton at Home and more than 4,500 tenants of Wigan and Leigh Housing who will face unaffordable bills because

23 Jan 2013 : Column 124WH

the Government have decided that the poor should pay the price of the wrongs of the rich. The policy demonstrates an absolute lack of understanding of the nature of social housing and communities.

The majority of social housing in the north-west is three-bedroom, and families with two children have rightly been allocated three-bedroom houses so that each child can have their own room, and also, because that is the available housing stock. Please remember that many of those families have one or both parents in work, in low-paid jobs. Housing benefit is an in-work benefit.

What is going to happen now to constituents with a boy and a girl? They are currently nicely housed in a three-bedroom house. Is it the Minister’s expectation that they would move into a two-bedroom house until one of the children reaches the age of 10, when they would have to move into a three-bedroom house? What happens when one of the children moves out? Are they then expected to move back into a two-bedroom house, and then into a one-bedroom house when both the children move out? That is even if all the housing stock is available. Just imagine the monetary costs—how could people on low wages or benefits afford new carpets and curtains each time they have to move house, or does the Minister expect them to have bare floorboards and newspaper at the windows? What about the children’s schooling? Will they have to keep moving schools, or will the family have to find additional money for transport to school? Fundamentally, what about the community? Social housing is not only somewhere that you sleep; it is where you live and become part of a community—a community that will be fractured by this ridiculous, ignorant policy. The policy will also have a perverse effect. Already in Bolton, groups of three young men are applying for three-bedroom family houses, so that they can each claim shared-room rate.

Hon. Members have talked about many other aspects of this policy, so I will finish by talking about Isobel, who came to see me about her situation—I have changed her name. Isobel lives in a three-bedroom house. She has a daughter who has just moved out, into a fairly insecure relationship, and she has a 17-year old son with Down’s syndrome. Isobel is a full-time carer and she herself understandably suffers from stress and depression. Isobel’s son—I shall call him Carl—is severely affected by Down’s syndrome. He has what I can best describe as autism-like symptoms. He cannot cope with change to his routine or environment. He needs everything to be in its place and everything to be done in the same way at the same time every day. Indeed, while Isobel was visiting me in the surgery, she received two phone calls to come home as quickly as possible because Carl was becoming extremely agitated by her absence.

Isobel has told me that Carl could not cope with a move. Moreover, Isobel gets support from her community. Neighbours understand Carl’s behaviour and support her both physically and morally. What is she supposed to do? She cannot work; she cannot move. What is the Minister’s answer to that question? I hope he will not say that she could get a discretionary housing payment. Bolton at Home does not yet know how much it will get, but it has already worked out that it will not have enough money to support everyone in need.

The Government do not seem to understand that social housing is a positive choice for low-paid workers, for carers and for a number of others. It is not something

23 Jan 2013 : Column 125WH

that is transient. It is the home in which someone wants to live their life and to bring up their children until they move into their bungalow or sheltered housing. Surely the Minister cannot continue with this mean, ignorant and, frankly, incompetent policy.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): We have made up a minute, so the Front Benchers now have nine and a half minutes each.

3.41 pm

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I not only congratulate but thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for calling this debate. The number of my hon. Friends who have taken part and the brilliant, passionate and well informed speeches that they have made show how important this issue is for so many of their constituents.

We agree with the Government in wanting less overcrowded and less under-occupied social housing. We want to see sensible, practical welfare reform. We also agree that the housing benefit bill needs to be reduced. The problem with the Government’s plan is that it is unlikely to ease housing supply or to save money. In fact, it could end up costing more. It could also mean, as so many of my hon. Friends have said, that disabled people, war widows, foster carers and the families of members of the armed forces all lose out. As we have heard, some could even be made homeless.

However, despite all the criticisms, defeats in the House of Lords and warnings from housing associations, local authorities and experts at charities such as Shelter and Crisis and organisations such as the National Housing Federation, Ministers are determined to press ahead. As a result, in a few months, about 660,000 tenants will be charged up to £20 a week for bedrooms that Ministers say they should not have or they will be forced to move. Ministers claim that living in a council flat with a spare bedroom is

“a luxury the country can no longer afford”.

I will set aside the nauseating spectacle of a millionaire Minister telling poor people that they are living in luxury and will instead consider whether the policy will work. It is supposed to make under-occupiers move into smaller accommodation, but the Government’s own impact assessment makes it clear that all the savings that it is estimated the policy could make are based on the assumption that no one will actually move at all. Instead, all the savings come from reductions in people’s benefits. This policy is literally based on making some of the poorest people in Britain poorer, and it is being implemented, as we have heard, at precisely the moment when millionaires and the super-rich are getting a tax cut.

Let us consider a practical example. Someone with terminal cancer who is receiving employment and support allowance and is in the support group, which is for people who are not expected to work again, has a spare bedroom in a two-bedroom council house because their child moved out recently. They would be happy to move into a smaller home, but the council does not have one available. According to the National Housing Federation,

23 Jan 2013 : Column 126WH

although 180,000 social tenants in England are under-occupying two-bedroom homes, only 68,000 one-bedroom social homes became available for letting in 2009-10.

Usually, there simply will not be a one-bedroom social home for the cancer patient to move into, and more one-bedroom homes will not become available as a result of the policy because, after all, it is not possible to under-occupy a one-bedroom flat. Therefore, they would lose £14 a week, on average, which they would need to make up to their landlord from their benefit income. That is £60 a month straight out of the pocket of someone with terminal cancer. How are they supposed to cope with that loss of income? The Government suggest that they work to make up the difference, or take in a lodger. For people with terminal cancer or the most genuinely disabled people, work is often not much of an option, and it certainly should not be forced on them. Taking in a lodger simply is not an option for many vulnerable households either.

Therefore, one of three things could happen, not just to the family I am talking about, but to hundreds of thousands of others, too. First, they could lose income and be pushed into poverty. Secondly, they could move out to a smaller home in the private sector, but that means higher rent and higher housing benefit bills, and a policy that is supposed to be saving money will end up costing much more. Thirdly, they could end up in rent arrears, be evicted and even end up homeless.

Let us be honest: homelessness is a real possibility. Even the office of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—a man not known as a bleeding-heart liberal—warned that the Government’s housing benefit reforms could make 40,000 people homeless and that the policy could cost more than it saves. The Government claim that discretionary housing payments will help to make up the shortfall between housing benefit and rent, but both the National Audit Office and the Child Poverty Action Group find that the funding available is likely to be woefully inadequate.

I would therefore like to ask the Minister a few questions—first, about the cost of this policy. We have heard already that the policy will make savings only if it does not work, and it is set to push people into private rented accommodation, making supporting them all the more expensive. Will he tell us why the Government have estimated the costs of the policy on the basis that no one moves, but loses benefit instead? Will he tell us what estimates they have made of the number of people likely to move into expensive private rented accommodation? Given the serious concerns about the cost of the policy, can he give us an assurance that under-occupancy deductions will not be increased if the Government do not make the expected savings?

The Government seem to have casually accepted that as many as 40,000 people could be made homeless by the policy. What does the Minister say to the housing association that has told us that it expects to have to evict one third of its tenants? How many children does the Minister think will have to move school as a result of the policy? Have the Government put any measures in place to ensure that local authorities can cope with the increase in the number of homeless people? What estimate has been made of the cost of supporting homeless people and getting them back into housing?

I would also like to ask some questions about the people who will be forced to rely on discretionary housing payments after the changes. The Government

23 Jan 2013 : Column 127WH

have indicated that they expect disabled people with adapted housing and foster carers to apply for the funding. Why should they face the prospect of being moved out of adapted homes on the basis of whether their local authority has enough money left in the DHP pot? Surely, that is a monumental waste when significant time and money has already been invested in their homes. Discretionary housing payments are short term, and new applications must be made every few months, so how are disabled people and foster carers supposed to plan their lives when they cannot be sure that they will be able to afford their house in a few months’ time? Local authorities desperately need to know how much funding they will have, to plan their responses to the changes, so why did the Minister tell the House at the end of October that the Government still have no idea how much money will be allocated to local authorities for the next two years?

It has also emerged that not just disabled people and carers might be forced to rely on short-term discretionary housing payments, but soldiers. The Daily Telegraph recently reported, as we heard earlier, that the families of service personnel will face deductions if they keep a room for a family member away on duty. Why should brave men and women serving their country in the armed forces have no room to come home to, because under-occupancy deductions have caused their family to move? What assessment have the Government made of whether the policy contravenes section C.4 of the armed forces covenant, which states:

“Members of the Armed Forces Community should have the same access to social housing and other housing schemes as any other citizen, and not be disadvantaged in that respect by the requirement for mobility whilst in Service.”

Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the Ministry of Defence on this issue?

As I said, there is no dispute about wanting to tackle overcrowding and under-occupancy or the need to get the housing benefit bill under control, but as Labour Members have shown, the current plans are unlikely to ease housing supply or to save money and could end up costing more. Worse still, they will put people in debt and risk making them homeless. Labour’s alternative where under-occupiers would face deductions if they had been offered a smaller property and refused it would have worked and would have saved money. The fundamental truth is that the best way to get the benefits bill down is not to attack the families of disabled people, soldiers or poor tenants, but to get everyone back to work. That is what Labour’s jobs guarantee would do. Britain needs reform that is tough, fair and, most of all, works.

3.48 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate. This is indeed an important issue. This is the second debate on it this week to which I have responded. It is good to have the opportunity to put on record the response to a number of the issues that have been raised and to deal with the myths that are growing up around service personnel, but it is worth briefly setting this debate in context. Most of my remarks will be about the specific matter in hand, but it is almost being implied that the Government woke up one morning and thought,

23 Jan 2013 : Column 128WH

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could take some housing benefit off people?” It is important to understand why this is being done.

In the final year of the last Labour Government, every time the Government raised £3, they spent £4. The word “morality” has been used extensively in this debate. Borrowing money that we expect our children to pay back is not a progressive thing to do. Parents who go out and blow money on their credit card and say to the kids, “When you grow up, you can pay it off” would be regarded as irresponsible. That is what we have to deal with now. Whichever party had taken control in 2010—

Sheila Gilmore rose

Steve Webb: No, I will not give way. Both parties set out deficit reduction plans, which involved spending cuts worth tens of billions of pounds. Public spending consists fundamentally of public sector pay and social security and tax credits—those are the two big areas. Both sides agree that public sector pay has to be held back, but benefits and tax credits also have to be part of the mix. Within the benefits budget, where could we have looked? Where is the low-hanging fruit? Where are the easy things to cut? Of course there is precious little of that. Housing benefit is a large part of the benefits budget and it has been rising fast, so is there an area in the housing benefit budget—

Sheila Gilmore rose

Steve Webb: No, I will not give way. Is there an area in the housing benefit budget where we can save money and tackle some of our housing problems?

Sheila Gilmore rose

Steve Webb: I have said that I am not giving way. This is an area of the housing benefit budget where we can better manage the housing stock. Let me give a specific example. It has been said in this debate that for housing benefit not to cover a spare room is immoral; that is the tenor of what has been said. When Labour introduced the local housing allowance, private sector tenants did not get housing benefit for a spare bedroom. Where is the morality in saying to private tenants that they cannot have a spare room, when social tenants, who are paying a subsidised rent, can? They could be living next door to each other, and we are favouring the social tenant over the private tenant. Why should housing benefit not cover spare rooms for private tenants when it does for social tenants? It is simply not fair.

The second unfairness that we have to tackle is overcrowding. A quarter of a million households in England are overcrowded, and they have had no voice in this debate. They are trying to get family homes, and homes that they need. They are living in overcrowded accommodation—

Lisa Nandy: Build some houses.

Steve Webb: I should like to point out that the shortage of affordable social housing did not start in 2010. Somebody had 13 years to sort that out, and it needs to be tackled now.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 129WH

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. May I ask Members not to make remarks from a sedentary position? The Minister has quite a lot of points to respond to, and he has made it clear that he does not want to give way.

Steve Webb: Thank you, Mr Bayley. The second unfairness that we must tackle is the needs of people who live in overcrowded accommodation. A quarter of a million of them need to have a voice in this debate, because all too often they do not, and we must tackle that.

People have rightly said that these are family homes. They are not just houses; people have lived their lives in them. I accept that, which is why we have exempted people over state pension credit age. Essentially, someone who is a pensioner is not affected by these changes; we are talking about people of working age.

How will people respond to the change? There are a range of responses. It has been mentioned that housing benefit is an in-work benefit in some cases. Nationally, the average loss from this policy is £14 a week. For someone who is in work on a minimum wage, that is the equivalent of about two and half hours of additional work; it is not quite that because of tapers and so on, but we are talking about a few hours of extra work as one option—

Lisa Nandy: Where is the work?

Steve Webb: Again, the hon. Lady is talking from a sedentary position. She cannot control herself. On the day that we have published yet another set of figures showing another fall in unemployment and record growth in employment, she asks, “Where is the work?” The myth that there are no jobs available when we have more people in employment than ever before needs to be countered.

For some people, taking a job or working extra hours is an important part of the solution. It has been mentioned that taking in a lodger or a sub-tenant is not an option for some people, but for many it will be. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) said that that might be an issue. In general, housing associations and social landlords should allow orderly sub-tenancies—a person cannot just take someone in and tell the landlord after the event. There has to be a strong reason to refuse such an option. The presumption is that it can be done, so it is part of the mix.

I had a constituent who was a single person living in a three-bedroom social housing accommodation. She had a letter about under-occupation, so she phoned me up. She said that she had a brother and sister-in-law who could live with her. That is a better use of the housing stock; it meets their housing need and covers the shortfall. Such improved use of the housing stock benefits us all.

I want to address discretionary housing payments, which were raised by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) in her thoughtful contribution. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) also mentioned discretion. We are being asked to do contradictory things here. Where people have identified groups such as foster carers or people with major disability adaptations to their property, rather than central Government defining exactly what that means in every case, we have allocated

23 Jan 2013 : Column 130WH

the money that we think is needed to deal with the problem and given it to local authorities to respond on a case-by-case basis.

We think that such local discretion is right, but we have been asked to give local discretion, except in every such case also to have an absolute right to make a discretionary housing payment or to exempt people. That is the tension. There are all sorts of individuals whom we might think should be exempt. Trying to sit down and write a regulation or a statutory instrument to define exactly who all those people are does not work, which is why we have allocated discretionary housing payments—this year of £60 million and next year of £155 million—to local authorities. Let me take as an example Durham’s local authority. Last year, it had £177,000 of DHPs. Next year, it will be £880,000 of DHPs to respond to the sorts of people whom hon. Members have mentioned.

I want to respond to the issue about service personnel. I assume that the things that have been said are based on ignorance, rather than on an intent to mislead. Let us take the example of a married serviceman or woman. If one goes away, it does not matter, because there is still a one-bedroom need, so married service personnel are not an issue. Service personnel who live in service accommodation are also not an issue, because they are not social tenants on housing benefit.

We are talking here about service personnel who live in social rented accommodation with their parents and who are on housing benefit, so we are getting to narrower and narrower groups. If a member of the armed forces who is on a wage is living at home with his mum and dad, the benefit system says, “Ah, there is somebody in the house on a wage.” We expect that person to pay up to £70 a week towards the rent—it is called a non-dependant reduction. When the serviceman or woman goes to the front line, and if they are away for a long period, we no longer treat them as a non-dependant in the household, so we no longer deduct £70 from the housing benefit. When a young person goes away to fight for a long period, the parents’ housing benefit will in general go up. That is not the story that the Labour party has been putting out today.

We have been asked about foster carers. We think that the discretionary housing money that we have made available will assist around 5,000 foster carers. Let us bear in mind, though, that this is not all foster carers. I am talking about foster carers who might be in social rented accommodation, on housing benefit and in need of a spare bedroom, so a subset of all fosterers. Of course the fostering organisations would prefer a total exemption; I accept that. Failing that, their estimate is that these are about the right numbers of people, and we have had meetings and discussions with the fostering organisations.

The important issue of children was raised. The majority of people who are affected by this measure do not have dependent children. We are generally talking about older people. None the less, the position of families with children is important. It was suggested that two teenagers of the same gender should not be expected to share a bedroom. I do not follow that argument. I shared a bedroom with my brother until we were 18, and I do not think that it did us any harm. At a time when we have a great shortage of affordable accommodation, I cannot see what the problem is with older teenagers of the same gender sharing a bedroom.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 131WH

An important question has been asked about whether DHPs are temporary or permanent. In the past, DHPs were a temporary fix. If someone had a short-term problem, they needed a bit of DHP to bail them out and then they moved or did something about it. Under the new system, DHPs can be for the long term, because some situations will not change. If someone lives in a house that has been substantially adapted, that will not change. Local authorities are getting revised guidance and will have to think about DHPs differently, because some people need longer-term certainty, as has been properly said.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said that we had a size mismatch, and indeed we do. When a council is doing something about it—building houses to match the housing need—the hon. Lady asks how I can possibly think that that is a good thing.

Dr Whiteford: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: I have just 60 seconds to go. When councils build houses of the right size to match housing need, they should be applauded and not condemned.

The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said that we need to manage over-occupation and under-occupation. We have had decades to do something about that, but nothing has happened. Some housing associations have welcomed the opportunity to look at the housing allocations to make better use of the precious resource of social housing. I fully accept that there will be disruption as a result of this measure, which is why we have a two-year programme looking at all this work, evaluating the impact and publishing the research. If we need to make changes to the system as we go because there are perhaps groups or impacts that we have not thought of, we will be in a position to do that. The matter will be thoroughly researched, and we will publish the results. At a time when we need to save money, being fairer to people in the social sector and the private sector and tackling overcrowding as well as under-occupation is a fair way to reduce the spending deficit that we were handed by the Opposition.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I congratulate all Members—Back Benchers and Front Benchers—on sticking to the time limits, so everyone was able to get in.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 132WH

Global Hunger

4 pm

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bayley, and I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. I thank Mr Speaker for granting such an important debate, which could not come at a more appropriate time.

This is the year for the UK to take decisive action to end the worst scandal of our time, the blight of hunger. It is also fitting that this is the year when we take the leadership of the G8, nearly 10 years on from our pledge to make poverty history. It is time that we assessed our progress and made a further commitment to the world’s poor.

In the past decade, we have come a long way towards eradicating poverty in the world’s poorest regions. More than 50 million children have started going to school in sub-Saharan Africa, while deaths from killer diseases such as malaria have fallen by almost 75%. But we have not gone far enough. While one in eight women, men and children go to bed hungry every night, and each year 2.3 million children still die from malnutrition, the inhuman tragedy is unacceptable and we simply cannot rest on our achievements.

It is clear that the most vulnerable in our society are still not benefiting from our efforts to make poverty history. The millennium development goals have not yet delivered the structural changes that are so desperately needed. For that reason, today I will outline a vision that I believe this country can turn into reality, provided we seize this very important moment. We need to join the 100 organisations that are launching their campaign today to call on the UK Government to take action.

Sir Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a unique point in history and that we desperately need to seize this unique opportunity?

Mr Clarke: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I am delighted that he is shadow Minister for International Development, and I know that he will pursue these points with great enthusiasm.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to intervene in a debate called by my right hon. Friend, precisely because he, perhaps more than any other Member of the House, has committed himself to this issue over decades. That is recognised across the House, by Members from all parties.

My right hon. Friend referred to the new campaign that is being launched by non-governmental organisations. Leading up to Gleneagles seven years ago, the “Make Poverty History” campaign applied pressure and made a real difference, not only in mobilising public opinion but in affecting Governments. Does he hope that we will see similar public support for a massive new campaign that leads to the kind of changes we need?

Mr Clarke: Yes, I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I hope I might be forgiven for not giving way later on, because I hope to give the Minister at least 15 minutes—or as near to that as possible—to respond to the debate.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 133WH

I return to the thoughts I was offering. Food prices are more volatile than they have ever been, and even here in our own country hard-working families are struggling to feed their children. The message is simple: there is enough food in the world for everyone if we act now to address the structural causes of poverty. Hunger and malnutrition are not caused by a shortage of resources but by our inability to see beyond our own immediate needs. The time has come to look beyond politics, country borders and economic partnerships, and to make a decisive leap forward for the sake of humanity.

However, that prompts a question: what are the structural causes of poverty? They are the political choices made by Governments throughout the developed world that ingrain inequality and injustice. We have a global mission and duty to ensure that the poor do not become poorer while the rich become richer.

Small-scale farmers in the developing world produce more than half the world’s food—a staggering figure—but look at what is happening to their land. Obviously, sizable and suitable land is vital for farmers to grow food, but globally, in the past decade, an area eight times the size of the UK has been sold off or leased out. Such land deals, done behind closed doors and with no transparency or participation by the people affected, often see local people unfairly lose their homes, land and access to the resources that are vital for them to be able to grow or buy enough food.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Clarke: I am sorry; I said earlier that I wanted to give the Minister a reasonable amount of time.

The situation seems to me to be absolutely disgraceful. Beyond the way land is bought, sold and used, the system is opaque. Once food is produced, it enters the global market, which is dominated by a handful of multinational companies in a system with little transparency. That is not to say that those companies are inherently bad, but we would be foolish to overlook their incredible power. For example, 90% of the global trade in grain is controlled by five companies. Who benefits from that control? Shareholders, or people who are hungry? Companies have more information about us than ever before, yet as global citizens we have little useful information about their social and environmental impact. There are reporting requirements under the Companies Act 2006, but they are not useful to investors, producers, Government or civil society. Decisions continue to be made in the shadows, without participation by the people they affect. That cannot be right.

We in the UK could take a leading role to end the scandal. With the Prime Minister at the head of the G8, we can do a great deal. We could take action to ensure that small-scale farmers keep hold of their land to grow food. We could crack down on the tax dodgers depriving poor countries of resources to ensure the right to food.

Sir Tony Cunningham rose

Mr Clarke: I said that I would not give way, but I will on this one point.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 134WH

Sir Tony Cunningham: I was in Zambia recently, when a British company owed the Zambian Government £70 million in unpaid tax. Imagine how many hospitals, schools, clinics, vaccinations, mosquito nets and so on could be made available to the Zambian people for that much money.

Mr Clarke: I am glad that my hon. Friend managed to make that important point.

We could work for global agreement on new sources of climate finance, which is important. We could underpin everything with transparency, the rule of law and strong institutions. To do all that, we must fulfil our existing commitments on aid and investment for agriculture and nutrition, the very basis of a functioning society.

If we look back in the history of our great nation, to the time of social writers such as Charles Dickens, hunger was a plague on our society, but political leadership took Britain out of that abyss. If we look at the world we live in today, there are still many challenges. The poverty in our own country is very real. The recession hits the poorest families hardest, and resources are scant. There is always the temptation to see no further than our immediate needs, but I sincerely urge the Government and the people of our country not to make that mistake.

Britain is where it is today because of key political choices made during times that were also hard; the NHS and the welfare state were created when the country had barely recovered from the second world war. Now is the time, during hardship, when our effort counts most. As Martin Luther King, Junior, once said:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable...Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

We can make a difference. If the Government were to commit to enshrining in legislation the promise to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid, they would ensure that the UK is one of the first to reach a promise made 42 years ago, setting an outstanding example for others to follow. I will put that into meaningful context. Once reached, the 0.7% target amounts to 1.6p in every pound spent by Government, compared with 5.8p for defence, nearly 20p for health and just over 30p for welfare. That contribution would take us one step closer to a world free from hunger, but it is not enough; we must go further.

In the midst of a crisis, the UK has a vital opportunity in 2013 to lead a new drive to tackle global poverty and hunger. We will be one of the first major countries to reach 0.7%; we are the chair of the open government partnership; we will be working closely with the current presidency of the EU, the Irish Government; and, above all, we have the presidency of the G8. We must lead other countries at the G8 in increasing contributions to address hunger. We must collectively commit, at the very least, an additional £417 million a year to sustainable small-scale agriculture to achieve food security for more than 418,500 people.

Will the Minister tell us whether the UK plans to take forward those commitments? Of equal importance, it is crucial to establish when the Government will put aside parliamentary time to pass the 0.7% Bill, thereby fulfilling their promise.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 135WH

Women and children in the world’s most fragile places are the furthest from meeting the millennium development goals, and their well-being must be our priority. That is not only a moral duty; it makes economic sense. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that malnutrition causes a 10% loss in lifetime earnings for individuals, and reduces gross domestic product by as much as 3%. An estimated 20% of deaths related to lack of nutrition are caused by short stature, which is an outcome of childhood malnutrition. That is not a failure of production; it is a failure in the way we process, distribute, buy, sell and consume food and manage waste. In other words, the global food system is broken, and it is killing people.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, approximately 195 million children globally are stunted, and data from previous years show that almost 80% of those children live in just 24 countries. Studies have shown that if basic affordable measures are introduced to address key immediate causes, child death could drop by as much as 25%. It is by investing in children in the countries most affected by hunger that we will make the biggest impact.

Our children are our future, and to neglect those in greatest need is to harbour the resentment and bitterness that later erupts into the wars that we now see spreading across Africa and elsewhere. I am delighted that today our non-governmental organisations and charities are coming together for the first time in eight years to launch a major new campaign, which shows the politicians who believe in it that we are not alone. I hope colleagues can attend the launch tonight in Mr Speaker’s house.

Those charities and agencies are there every day, on the ground, all over the world helping people in need on our behalf, as I have seen for myself. Their supporters, the people of the United Kingdom, have time and again dug deep into their pockets, and generosity and compassion have prevailed. They are, therefore, in a strong position to invite politicians to add to what they have been doing, and they are about to do so again. Their call this time is that we do everything we can to close the widening gap and fix the food system for our common future.

Beyond state action, we need to ensure that every powerful force in the food system plays a positive role, including multinational companies. We can do that through creating transparency, which leads to accountability. By updating the Companies Act with a simple reference to human rights, the information that companies have to disclose about the impact of their operations can be made useful, and paint an honest picture rather than showing edited highlights. It is not too much to ask that those with great power are held to account. Transparency is about highlighting good practice and exposing bad practice, encouraging businesses to take a longer-term view of their business models and practices. At the same time, we can demand more transparency in how the Governments of developing countries spend their money—a type of transparency that we enjoy here at home—so that their citizens can also hold them to account, and so that we can ensure our money is well spent.

Campaigning is not always comfortable for Governments and politicians, but we can reflect upon what we can achieve: Live Aid, the jubilee debt campaign, the millennium development goals, the Make Poverty History campaign

23 Jan 2013 : Column 136WH

and the Green Climate Fund. Those things changed the world for the better, and we can do that again.

Timing is vital; the scale of the challenge should fill us with urgency. If we do not act now, the situation will get a great deal worse as food prices become more volatile and environmental shocks become more frequent and destructive, not to mention another generation’s full potential being lost to the scourge of starvation.

That sense of urgency should also make us hopeful, not only because of the opportunities that are before us this year or because of the commitment of our people, but because of the commitment here in Parliament. While world hunger is high up our agenda, and rightly so, it is time that we all worked together, using all our skills, resources and commitment to get child hunger off the table.

4.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Alan Duncan): I thank the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Workington (Sir Tony Cunningham), and hon. Members for their restraint in speaking, so as to give me adequate time to answer the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). Indeed, I also thank him for securing this important debate, which is very timely, because today UK NGOs will launch their IF campaign, which highlights the precise issue that we are debating this afternoon—global hunger. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is looking forward to speaking at the launch of the IF campaign this evening.

The Government recognise that global hunger represents a human tragedy that happens every day on a massive scale. Around 870 million people simply do not have enough food to eat, 165 million children are chronically malnourished and 2 million children die needlessly every year from malnutrition. So I am pleased to have this opportunity to set out the ways the Government are addressing the problem in 2013, a year in which the UK can play a transformative role in helping to end hunger.

The UK has a good, strong track record of taking action to prevent hunger. By 2012, the UK had met in full its commitments, made at the G8 L’Aquila summit in 2009, to provide resources to improve global food security. That has helped millions of people to fight chronic hunger and malnutrition in more than 20 countries. We expect to continue to provide a similar level of resources for the foreseeable future.

Looking to the future, the Government have committed to reach 20 million pregnant women and children under the age of five through our nutrition programmes; to help to ensure that 6 million of the world’s poorest people escape extreme poverty; and to ensure that by 2015 another 4 million people have enough food throughout the year.

Tackling hunger and malnutrition involves increasing the availability of food by boosting agricultural productivity. The UK Government support the agricultural research network—CGIAR—with resources for research to improve agricultural productivity, which will help to feed millions of people.

On the issue of land and its increasing attraction to investors, the Government believe that private sector investment in poor countries is key to achieving global

23 Jan 2013 : Column 137WH

food security and economic growth. We also believe that responsible commercial investment in small and large-scale agriculture has the potential to be transformational. However, it is vital that the rights and interests of people living and working on that land are taken fully into account.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing the debate, and the organisations that have put together the IF campaign. By 2025, nearly 1 billion young people will face poverty because of malnutrition and hunger during their youth. The Minister rightly mentioned agriculture and the use of land. What work are the Government doing to ensure that Governments in developing countries and large corporations are actively working with an effective and ethical tax system to ensure that money stays in those countries for sustainable development?

Mr Duncan: Let me complete what I was saying about land, and I will then turn to tax. On the land issue, the key point is that we welcome the successful negotiation of the voluntary guidelines on responsible governance of tenure, which were concluded by the Committee on World Food Security last year.

The UK Government absolutely recognise the importance of tax transparency in development. As the Prime Minister said at Question Time today, the UK will use its G8 presidency this year to tackle tax evasion and aggressive avoidance.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): The Department for International Development has an excellent programme in Rwanda for registering the land of smallholders. Is there a possibility of rolling it out in other countries to ensure that smallholders have their title registered for security?

Mr Duncan: Absolutely. A proper legal framework for ownership of land is crucial if property rights are to be exercised fairly, particularly among some of the poorest people. That building block in any country’s framework of law is crucial for the guarantee of such rights.

To tackle hunger, we need to improve poor people’s access to food. They spend a large proportion of their income on food, so are least able to cope when food prices rise unpredictably. UK aid provides money to a consortium, led by FARM Africa and Self Help Africa, which aims to increase the production and returns of nearly 1 million smallholders. We also provide support for safety nets so that the poorest people have a buffer to help them to survive and recover from economic or natural shocks that threaten their ability to feed themselves and their families. For example, DFID supports the Ethiopian Government’s productive safety net programme, which provides predictable cash or food payments to around 8 million people.

Robert Halfon: I fully support the campaign for enough food for everyone, and I particularly congratulate Save the Children. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK should support increased fiscal transparency in

23 Jan 2013 : Column 138WH

developing countries so that their citizens can hold their Governments to account and press for greater civil participation for local citizens to see better how their money is spent to increase food supply?

Mr Duncan: I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for such transparency, and indeed part of the menu of DFID’s activities in many of our bilateral country programmes is to enhance such political accountability and better governance of the people their politicians serve. We want to help countries to extend accountability, which we take for granted in this country, to their own people wherever possible.

Ultimately, our aim is to ensure that poor households, particularly those with young children, do not suffer from the sort of malnutrition that the right hon. Gentleman described. DFID is scaling up its nutrition programmes in more than 10 countries. We recently announced a new three-year £35 million programme in Yemen, for example, to treat and prevent under-nutrition among 1.65 million women and children. I take a particular interest in that country, where it is thought that perhaps a third of all children under five are malnourished.

We also contribute to research and development to improve the nutritional content of staple food crops. In Africa and Asia, with UK support, HarvestPlus is providing seeds and tubers nutritionally enriched with vitamin A, zinc and iron, which should benefit more than 3 million people.

Of course, no country or Government can tackle global hunger alone. Last year, the UK supported the launch of the G8’s new alliance for food security and nutrition, which aims to lift 50 million people in Africa out of poverty through economic growth and agriculture. This year, during our G8 presidency, the Government will attempt to improve and expand the new alliance. We will work to bring in more African countries and deepen its impact; for example, providing a strong focus on empowering women, who make up 40% of the world’s agricultural work force, and on promoting responsible private sector investment in African agriculture.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being generous. An issue that he has not yet touched on in any detail is the importance of tackling corruption, ensuring that any money, whether tax or aid, is used to deal with economic development and poverty. Can he include a comment about that?

Mr Duncan: Certainly. There are two aspects of the overarching label of corruption. First is the risk of our taxpayers’ money being fraudulently diverted, which happens minimally and against which we have the most rigorous safeguards in all our practices in the Department. The second is a broader issue. In many of the countries where we work, there is endemic or pervasive corruption in society and among politicians. We will therefore soon be publishing, as recommended by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, corruption strategies for each of the countries where we work, primarily directed at the pervasive corruption in the country itself but always with an eye on how our own funds are properly

23 Jan 2013 : Column 139WH

used, I hope, in that country. The hon. Lady is absolutely right, because ultimately those who suffer from corruption are the poorest.

The UK is a partner of the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, which is a coalition of developing countries, donors, international agencies, NGOs and businesses, spearheading efforts to build an effective international response to the problem of under-nutrition. As part of our Olympic legacy, in 2013 the Government will host a follow-up to last year’s hunger event to continue our focus and that of the world on the issue. NGOs play a vital role on the ground delivering key food and nutrition services. They help to build national awareness and consensus on problems that are often complex. The NGOs’ IF campaign will therefore provide welcome momentum.

While working hard to tackle global hunger, the UK will continue to provide humanitarian relief and respond to emergencies as they arise. This year, for instance, we will provide £15 million to support more than 500,000 people in five Sahel countries. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has a role as the co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda. The Government will have a role in shaping the future of development and an end to poverty. Finally, again this year, the UK will be the first G8 country to meet the commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on official development assistance, giving us greater capacity to address the challenge of hunger and poverty, among many other such challenges. In conclusion, I assure the House that the Government’s commitment to tackling global hunger for the very poor will continue with renewed purpose in 2013 and beyond.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): An excellent debate, which I am very glad to have heard. At the launch later this evening, I hope to see some of the Members who participated, including those who were present throughout the debate but were unable to speak, such as the hon. Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson), for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and for Ipswich (Ben Gummer).


23 Jan 2013 : Column 140WH

Progressive Supranuclear Palsy

4.30 pm

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I am delighted to have secured this debate, in which I will draw to the Chamber’s attention the needs of a specific group of people who need us to take action on their behalf.

In Towcester, in my constituency of South Northamptonshire, there is a national charity called the PSP Association, which is the only charity in the UK working solely for people with the neurological conditions progressive supranuclear palsy and the related disease corticobasal degeneration and those who care for them. PSP and CBD are diseases closely related to motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): Will my hon. Friend clarify how many people suffer from PSP compared with motor neurone disease?

Andrea Leadsom: I will address that later, but my hon. Friend is right to make that point, because it is believed that more people suffer from PSP than from MND, despite the fact that the latter disease is much more commonly known in general society.

PSP and CBD are similar diseases, and PSP is often used as shorthand for both conditions. In progressive supranuclear palsy, progressive means that it gets steadily worse over time; supranuclear means that it damages parts of the brain above the pea-sized nuclei that control eye movement; and palsy means that it causes weakness. Members may never have come across PSP before, but, sadly, it takes many lives.

PSP is caused by the progressive death of nerve cells in the brain, leading to difficulty with balance, movement, vision, speech and swallowing. Over time, PSP can rob people of the ability to walk, talk, feed themselves and communicate effectively. The average life expectancy is seven years from the point of diagnosis. Those who are diagnosed with PSP suffer severe and unpredictable impairments that have an enormous impact on the individual and their family. PSP is a dreadful disease.

I am pleased that since 2010, having written several times to the Department of Health, there is now better recording of PSP on death certificates, giving a clearer indication of the number of sufferers. Our attention, however, must now turn to diagnosis. Statistics show that some 4,000 people are living with PSP in the UK, but because diagnosis is still so uncertain, neurologists believe the figure could be as high as 10,000. Astonishingly, as my hon. Friend mentioned, there may be more PSP sufferers than sufferers of MND in the UK today.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She has mentioned the relatively small number of people living with PSP, but is not part of the problem that many health care and social care professionals do not fully understand the condition?

23 Jan 2013 : Column 141WH

Andrea Leadsom: Yes, my hon. Friend is right. That is one of the points that I want to put to the Minister today.

The PSP Association offers advice, support and information to people living with the disease. The association also funds research to find potential treatments for the condition. The charity’s aim is to ensure that people affected by PSP do not feel that they have to face the future alone.

Although the PSP Association operates with few resources and no statutory funding, it supports people living with the disease and their carers through a variety of means. The association has a telephone helpline and information advisory service, for example, and it offers support groups across the country and a small team of specialist care advisers. It produces a wide range of publications and communications.

The PSP Association is active in scientific research, and it has given projects £2.5 million in funding over the past 15 years to find causes, treatments and an eventual cure for PSP. I sincerely congratulate the association on its wonderful work, and I am delighted that many PSP supporters are here today.

I will share the story of one recent fundraising event. As patron of the PSP Association, I was delighted to be invited to the Dorchester—Sebastian Coe was the guest of honour—as the guest of Brigadier Michael Koe, the association’s founder and former chairman, and Christopher Kemball, the current chairman.

The tragic irony of PSP is that Brigadier Michael Koe, who is a constituent of mine, lost his wife to PSP. His four sons, who were determined to do something to raise awareness of the disease, decided to run in the London marathon. The brigadier blagged his way in to Lord Coe’s offices when he was still a Member of Parliament, using the fact that they shared the same surname although not the same spelling, to ask for help in promoting awareness of PSP.

Lord Coe offered his help. He went out and had photos taken of himself training with Brigadier Koe’s sons. For the next few years, he supported them in that way only to find that on the fourth anniversary of his involvement, his own mother was diagnosed with PSP, so he ended up with his own bitter experience of how PSP can affect families. He has kindly sent a short quotation for today’s debate, which I would like to share with hon. Members. He says:

“I am always pleased when an opportunity to raise awareness of PSP and the challenges faced by those affected arises. My mother lived with PSP for a number of years so I know only too well how important it is to receive the appropriate and timely support from health and social care, and the difference it can make to the individual affected and their family.”

Although many sad stories were told at the Dorchester that evening, the event was a huge success. Lord Coe had invited many sporting legends such as Daley Thompson and Steve Cram, as well as some of the current Olympians. It was quite an amazing evening and they raised more than £200,000 for the worthwhile cause.

The work of Brigadier Michael Koe and his family and their determination to honour the memory of his wife is truly touching. I pay tribute to the fantastic work that he has done in promoting the importance of the awareness of PSP.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 142WH

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this very important matter to Westminster Hall. Does she agree—I suspect that she does—that physio and aids should be made available at an early stage of diagnosis, so that those in the last few years of this debilitating disease have a quality of life and a relationship with their families at a time when they need it most?

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. He raises issues that I want to come on to in terms of calls to action for the Minister. Sadly, the speed of degeneration of PSP sufferers often means that the need for extra resources quite rapidly increases, so it is important that the right care pathway is put in place.

The association is developing a UK-wide research network to allow researchers to share their knowledge, experience and data from their studies into the condition and to increase the number of people with PSP that individual researchers can have contact with.

In 2011, the association commissioned a UK-wide needs mapping exercise for people with PSP and their carers. The results highlighted that the nature and rapidity of PSP means that the needs of those living with the condition are very specific. For example, the palliative care that would be deemed to be required in the late stages of many conditions or at the end of life may very well be required for someone with PSP for almost half of the time that they live with the condition. The rapid progression of the disease and often early onset of communication and cognitive problems have a huge impact. Advance decision making on end-of-life issues needs to take place much earlier with PSP than with many other conditions.

The ongoing needs of a sufferer are ever-changing, and so is their need to see a range of health and social care professionals who can provide the right care, support and equipment at the right time. It is not easy for the carers of people with PSP who face equally difficult challenges trying to navigate their way through the labyrinth of health and social care services and to keep up with the pace of the disease and the ever-changing needs of those for whom they are caring.

As a charity, the PSP Association is indebted to other organisations such as the Neurological Alliance and Carers UK for championing the needs of carers at every level. Although the work of such organisations is critical, it should not replace the needs of carers also being addressed by the statutory services.

In April this year, we will see the introduction of clinical commissioning groups, which will hold the purse strings for our local health services and will be responsible for commissioning the health and social care services for their local population. We are awaiting the imminent appointment of the national clinical director responsible for championing patient involvement and improvement to neurological services in England. Those reforms of our health and social care services are very much welcomed by the PSP Association, but with a caveat, which is that it is essential that people with PSP, their carers and other people living with similar neurological conditions have a voice locally.

The PSP Association has developed a care pathway guide for PSP that outlines the standards of care and support that sufferers will need from diagnosis onwards.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 143WH

It is intended to inform and educate health commissioners and social care professionals to ensure that people with PSP are made as comfortable as possible. Care must also be co-ordinated, as it is essential that it involves a multidisciplinary approach and a regular assessment of the patient’s ongoing needs. That is not only about commissioning services locally, but about saving the NHS funds used in unnecessary emergency admissions to hospitals.

A recent report by the National Audit Office found that the number of emergency neurological admissions to hospital had doubled since 2005. Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the number of neurological emergency admissions increased by 32% compared with a 17% increase in general emergency admissions over the same period. As well as putting a significant strain on the NHS, that has a severe impact on the well-being of patients and their families. The PSP Association is proactive in helping to predict the care needs of patients in the future. That is vital in reducing emergency hospital admissions with increased awareness of PSP.

As MPs representing our constituents, we need to support neurological charities such as the PSP Association and ensure that people suffering from neurological conditions are fully understood and considered in the proposals for health and social care reform and in the commissioning of services locally and nationally. Access to timely, co-ordinated care and improved integration across health and social care services should be seen as a priority, to enable quality of life for people with PSP and those who care for them.

I should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister if he responded on four key points. First, how are people with PSP and other rare neurological conditions being considered in the proposals for health and social care reforms? Secondly, what support is available not only to the individual, but to the carer, especially as the needs of PSP sufferers are quite specific in terms of palliative care? Thirdly, what education and training is given to health and social care professionals, so that they are aware of the specific condition and can respond to the needs of sufferers and their carers? Finally, what can be done to ensure that more research into PSP is carried out, so that the diagnosis is quicker and more accurate?

I am grateful to the Minister for being here today. I look forward to his response and, I hope, the answers to some of those questions.

4.43 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate.

A great value of these Westminster Hall debates is that, on something such as this, Ministers are forced to think about a specific issue that might not otherwise come across the radar and to devote some time and attention to it. They also get officials thinking about things as well, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for speaking so clearly and passionately about it. I know that she is a patron of the PSP Association, and I welcome anyone here who is from the association or associated with it in any way. It is so good to have you present this afternoon.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 144WH

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of the association. She described the support that it can give families who have a loved one with this condition. For those individuals, it is a lifeline of critical importance. The great value that disease-specific organisations can provide is in this real attention to detail and an understanding of the condition that the statutory services often cannot offer. Their role in supplementing the formal NHS is therefore of critical value. I pay warm tribute to the work that they undertake.

My hon. Friend mentioned Lord Coe. It is great to have someone such as him as an advocate for the condition and for the PSP Association. It was an extraordinary and unhappy chance that his own mother ended up with the condition and died from it. I should also, of course, pay tribute to the work of Brigadier Koe, who clearly has made a big impact in advancing the cause of better care and treatment of people with this condition.

Voluntary sector organisations will have a crucial role to play, offering their expertise, as in the care pathway guide that I know the PSP Association has pioneered. The expertise of such organisations will be invaluable locally to clinical commissioning groups, to which my hon. Friend referred, and the new health and wellbeing boards, which will be a crucial local forum for discussion of a range of conditions, including rare conditions. Such organisations will also offer their expertise at national level to the NHS Commissioning Board, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and others.

The Neurological Alliance is the collective voice of more than 80 brain and spine charities and, through its national leadership group and network of regional alliances, is an influential player in this field. I understand that the PSP Association is a member of the alliance and I would encourage it to feed into the alliance’s work as a means of getting its voice heard. That is clearly a very important route.

I turn to the question of research. With no cure as of now, research offers a source of hope for those living with PSP. The Department of Health funds NHS research and development through the National Institute for Health Research. In addition, the Medical Research Council funds a broad portfolio of medical research. Neither the NIHR nor the MRC usually ring-fences funds for expenditure on particular topics. Research proposals in all areas compete for funding, based on their strength as a proposal. Both organisations welcome applications for research into any aspect of human health. Those are subject to peer review and judged in an open competition, with awards being made on the basis of the scientific quality of the proposals made. The principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers through peer review is a cornerstone of science funding in the UK and is strongly supported by the coalition Government. Such decisions are rightly left to those best placed to evaluate the scientific quality, excellence and likely impact of the proposals under consideration.

My hon. Friend asked how people with PSP would benefit in April this year, when our new health and care reforms take effect. Through our reforms, we are aiming to ensure that, as far as possible, people with conditions such as PSP can maintain or enhance their quality of life. This Government are committed to providing the

23 Jan 2013 : Column 145WH

best possible quality of care for people with rare conditions. When we took office in 2010, we endorsed the right in the NHS constitution that says that no one should be left behind just because of the rarity of their condition. I recognise that there is often a problem within health services of a lack of knowledge among the clinicians themselves. I think that point was made in an intervention. It is always a challenge to ensure that we spread understanding and awareness.

From April 2013, the NHS Commissioning Board will directly commission services for people with rare conditions on a national basis. Those new arrangements for commissioning will bring real benefits to people with rare conditions such as PSP. By commissioning these services just once rather than reinventing the wheel all over the country, we will be able to avoid duplication in planning and ensure that the highest level of care is commissioned for patients, regardless of their geographical location. With rare conditions, that is the best way to ensure that there is a real concentration of expertise, so as to ensure that commissioning is carried out in the best possible way.

The NHS Commissioning Board will host four new strategic clinical networks for up to five years, including a clinical network covering mental health, dementia and neurological conditions. These clinical networks are potentially of enormous value. We have seen the value of them in treating cancer and other conditions. Now there is the potential for benefits to be gained in the treatment of neurological conditions. Through this particular network for mental health, dementia and neurological conditions, the board itself and clinical commissioning groups will have access to a broad range of expert clinical advice to inform decisions about the way that care for local populations is planned and delivered.

Through quality standards developed by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, commissioners, clinicians and providers of services will have evidence-based descriptions of what good care and support should look like. We have asked NICE to develop a quality standard on relatively uncommon neurological conditions, as part of a library of approximately 180 NHS quality standards. In addition, people with PSP will also benefit from the cross-cutting quality standards, which have already been published and which cover end-of-life care and patient experience in adult NHS services, the point being that a number of these standards are applicable across a range of different conditions. So people with PSP will also benefit from the quality standard on long-term conditions and people with co-morbidities and complex needs, which we have also referred to NICE for development.

My hon. Friend also discussed the importance of the patient voice within the local health system. That is of critical importance. As we move away from a paternalistic health system to a personal health system, listening to what the patient actually wants and what their priorities are will be vital. The theme of patient empowerment and voice is central to our health and care reforms, and local HealthWatch organisations—together with their national body, HealthWatch England—will champion patient voice in the health and care system.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 146WH

I should also mention that in the mandate, which is the Government’s statement of our priorities for the NHS and which the NHS Commissioning Board is legally obliged to seek to implement, there is a specific requirement for people with long-term conditions to have a personal care plan, and they themselves will be involved in the preparation of that plan. That happens in places already, but it does not happen uniformly, and we must make it the norm rather than the exception. We have to absolutely recognise that everything must be focused on the patient’s interests in shaping the system to deliver that care.

Consequently I encourage those with PSP to feed their views into local HealthWatch organisations—the local patient voice—which formally take up their responsibilities on 1 April. Local HealthWatch organisations will have a seat on the new health and wellbeing boards, and through that they will be able to ensure that patient and public views are represented and can help to shape local health and care services.

I turn now to end-of-life care. My hon. Friend also spoke about the importance of palliative care. As she described, rapidly advancing diseases such as PSP may require palliative care throughout the progression of the disease, in order to support patients, as they face a declining physical and mental state, and their families. We know that the current system of care does not work well enough. Some patients receive excellent care and their families receive excellent support, while others miss out. This is partly a reflection of the origins of specialist palliative care as a discipline in the care of people with cancer, and that remains the main focus of palliative care services, but those services must be appropriate for all conditions, obviously including PSP.

We have highlighted the need to extend services to those with other conditions or diseases. The end-of-life care strategy aims to improve care for people approaching the end of life whatever their diagnosis and wherever they are, including enabling more people to be cared for and to die at home, if they wish. About 50% of people still die in hospital, although most people want to be able to die at home if that is possible, and we must ensure that their interests and priorities are respected in that regard. The National End of Life Care Programme has developed an end-of-life care pathway for neurological conditions, working with the Neurological Alliance and the National Council for Palliative Care. The pathway, which was published in 2010, sets out a framework to support the provision of improved care for that group, including those with PSP.

We are committed to increasing awareness of rare conditions—a point made by my hon. Friend in her speech—including PSP. That commitment has been demonstrated through the development of the UK plan for rare diseases. The plan will bring together a number of recommendations designed to improve the co-ordination of care and to lead to better outcomes for everyone with a rare disease, including people with PSP. We have consulted on the rare disease plan, and we published a summary of the consultation responses in November last year. Work is on track to produce the plan by the end of this year, which will help people with PSP and many others with rare conditions.

23 Jan 2013 : Column 147WH

My hon. Friend also focused on education and training. Our doctors and other staff across the NHS receive some of the best training in the world, and as my hon. Friend recognises, it is important for that to include the right information and techniques to alert them to the possible presence of a rare disease when a patient presents to them. We must recognise that PSP is a rare condition, one among the hundreds that a health professional may see during their career, and it may not be feasible or practical to draw particular attention to it above all those other conditions. That said, we recognise the difficulties and, as part of our consultation on the UK rare diseases plan, we invited ideas on what more can be done to train doctors in the identification of rare diseases and on whether there are innovative ways of familiarising health professionals with rare diseases in their professional training. Furthermore, the consultation identified that training for all NHS staff to raise wider awareness and understanding of rare diseases was also important in promoting equality and in combating the stigma and discrimination sometimes associated with such diseases.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend when she drew attention to the vital role that carers play in supporting people with conditions such as PSP. Between 2011 and 2015, the Department is providing the NHS with an additional £400 million to support individuals in their role as carers. The “Recognised, valued and supported:

23 Jan 2013 : Column 148WH

next steps for the Carers Strategy” document sets out Government priorities in the area, reinforced in the 2012-13 NHS operating framework, which sets out the priorities for that year.

My hon. Friend described the labyrinth that people with conditions and their carers often find themselves trying to negotiate. One aspect of the reform legislation, which I very much welcome, is the focus on integrated care. Too often, carers are in silos, and people are pushed from pillar to post. They can so easily fall into the gap. If we can develop a much more integrated approach to support people with a rare condition such as PSP, with clinicians at primary and secondary level working together much more closely, everyone would benefit.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. As I said, the value of this debate is to draw the matter to Ministers’ attention and to obtain a wider airing for and focus on such conditions which would not otherwise be the case. I am happy to continue to engage with my hon. Friend to ensure that people with PSP receive the treatment and care that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.