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Some of my constituents will be affected by the measure—[Interruption.] I realise that other hon. Members want to speak, but if Labour Members want to make every general economic point and make endless reference to tax cuts for millionaires and that sort of thing—[Interruption.] Well, I made the point earlier that the Labour Government had several years after the financial crash and after financial reality had dawned to do something about the upper rate of tax, but they did nothing. The higher rate was in effect for, I believe, 37 days before the election. A lot of nonsense is spoken about that.

As I have said, we could look at aspects of the measure. The Minister’s speech was helpful because he clarified concerns and misunderstandings. The measure draws attention to the fact that subsidised social housing is a scant and important public resource. The fact that subsidy is built in to the rent for social housing means that social housing is often not appreciated as a valuable resource, and we should aim to provide access to it for as many taxpayers as possible.

I would like to make a point on behalf of the many people who come to see me who are over-occupying. No one claims that this policy will free up all of the 1 million rooms, but it might well encourage people to look at being in appropriate-sized accommodation. Many housing directors tell me that if they could match people to the correct-sized accommodation, they could resolve much of their waiting lists—that is what I have been told by people with many years’ experience in this field. This is not a panacea, but there are people in wrong-sized accommodation. If this measure starts to get people thinking and encourages them to move into right-sized accommodation where it is available, that is a good thing.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): My hon. Friend’s point is very interesting. Many councils, such as the fantastic South Derbyshire district council, encourage, enable and give people money to move. This will all be part of the package. It is not draconian; it brings it to the fore.

Jane Ellison: It is right to put on record that many councils are responding sensibly and imaginatively to the many challenges that have been handed to them by the inevitable decisions that the Government have had to take.

Another group of people who often come to see me in my surgeries, and for whom there is no solution in social housing, are young single people, in particular young single men. I always feel my heart sink when they come to talk to me about the possibility of getting any sort of subsidised housing, because, as we all know, they attract absolutely no points. If some people affected by the removal of the subsidy choose to rent out a room, I would welcome that because the group likely to benefit would be those young single people in areas such as mine. They do starter jobs that are much-needed in a 24 hour city such as London. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) from a sedentary position is questioning whether anyone would do that—people used to do it all the time. To return to the point about exaggeration, earlier in the debate someone implied that the inevitable consequence of deciding to take in a lodger would be some sort of

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abuse or crime. People used to do this all the time. Raising people’s fears and exaggerating them is not helpful at all.

Ian Lavery rose

Jane Ellison: Let me finish this point. I have checked with my council and it is the case that council tenants, as long as they do not either overcrowd or sub-let the lease, are able to take in a lodger if they so choose. For some people that might be a sensible solution. That might help the young single people who come and see me, and to whom I can give no suggestions about where they might find socially subsidised housing. If they are the winners of this process, that is a good thing, because they are currently the losers.

I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will just draw attention to some of the practical measures being done by councils. There is an extra £30 million of discretionary housing allowance, and my council has certainly seen a significant rise in its discretionary amount. It has already put together a co-ordinated action plan between the finance and housing departments. It has contacted all potentially affected recipients and customers, and is beginning to confirm their benefit details. It has set up a helpline to discuss options to downsize. It is in direct contact with some of those households. It is also in direct contact with some of the social landlords to look at where there might be work that they could do. We heard an interesting example earlier about how social landlords in Liverpool had come together to try and pool their resources. There are quite a lot of sensible things that local councils that are planning ahead can do, and, of course, some people will choose to take other options.

I make this plea to Opposition Members. I would like to think that when they are approached by people with specific difficulties, especially associated with disability and so on, their first thought is not, “This would be an ideal case to read out in Prime Minister’s Question Time”—we have heard this in respect of many other welfare changes, particularly from the Labour party—but to say, “You might well be covered by the discretionary payment, and I’m going to make inquiries about that and exercise my influence to say that you should be.”

Heather Wheeler rose

Jane Ellison: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Just before I allow the intervention, I must remind the hon. Lady that she said that a lot of people want to speak, and they do. After the next speaker, I will be introducing a time limit that will be less than the time she has taken so far, so I ask her to show some self-restraint so that we can make progress. Heather Wheeler, you were about to intervene.

Heather Wheeler: Very kind, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I find this really interesting. I do wonder about some of our Labour colleagues. We have mentioned the possibility of someone taking in a lodger and bringing in £4,200 a year tax free. Does the Labour party not want this cash flowing in our communities? Is there a problem with people taking control of their lives? Does it have an

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issue with that? Are we only allowed top-down rules? What is wrong with taking in a lodger? It might be like going back to the ’50s, but actually we had real communities then, and I think it is an excellent idea.

Jane Ellison: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I hope that she makes her own contribution and develops that theme later.

I will wind up now. My principal point is that these debates are not well served by exaggeration and shroud-waving, but I am afraid that that is what we have seen. Undoubtedly, there are difficult cases. We all have them—I have some in my inbox, as have other colleagues on both sides of the House—and we must work with Ministers to look at them. We have had a commitment from the Minister to a rolling review of the policy, but let us also look at some of the potential winners and ensure that we bring to the attention of those in overcrowded accommodation and those who have no chance of qualifying for subsidised public housing the opportunity that might be offered to them by some of these changes.

I shall sit down now, Mr Deputy Speaker, so that others can contribute.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I am extremely grateful for your assistance. I call Caroline Lucas.

3.56 pm

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I pay tribute to the powerful opening speech by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford).

On the Opposition Benches, it is not a question of shroud-waving, as the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) suggested, but a recognition of the people we see in our surgeries week in, week out. The fear of this measure is such that people believe it to be a bedroom tax, a cruel and counter-productive measure from a Government intent on punishing the poor. It is cruel because it is likely to lead to more evictions, homelessness, disruption and despair and because it takes no account of people’s real circumstances—as we have heard many times, more than two thirds of those affected are likely to be people with disabilities—and it is counter-productive because it is highly unlikely to lead to the outcomes that the Government claim to want. Not only are there insufficient smaller properties for families to move to, but the measure is more likely to cost money than save it. Evictions are not only hugely painful, but hugely costly, estimated at about £10,000 a time.

As has been revealed in this debate, the truly cynical nature of the proposal was revealed by the Government’s own impact assessment, which made it clear that the projected savings will be made only if tenants remain in their existing homes and make up the shortfall in benefits themselves. In other words, the money that this measure is supposed to raise will be raised only if the stated policy aim of getting people to move house does not actually work. That is immensely cynical. The truth is that many people are struggling in such desperate circumstances that they simply cannot find the extra money to pay.

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The bottom line is that we have a major housing crisis, with nowhere near enough affordable homes. In my own constituency, for example, more than 15,000 households are on Brighton and Hove’s waiting list, but just 750 properties become available every year. It is successive Governments who have caused this housing crisis, not the poor who struggle to cope with it. It is not the fault of people who cannot get a job, of disabled people, of people who share the care of their children or of foster parents. The crucial problem—this is where the fault lies—is the epic failure of both the Tories and new Labour on council housing. The Tories pushed the decimation of the stock with the right to buy, ignoring the right to rent, and new Labour tweaked the enormous discounts but did not grasp the nettle and build council housing. For example, in 2007-08, only 350 new council homes were built. It is deeply unjust to penalise people who are struggling at the bottom of a housing market over which they have little or no control.

Ministers give blasé answers to serious parliamentary questions about this nasty measure. They say, “Get a job, get a lodger or move somewhere else.” They ignore the fact that, for many people, those options are simply not possible. On average, five people are chasing every vacancy—in some places, the figure is much higher—so how are those jobs suddenly going to appear? As other hon. Members have pointed out, the rooms in question are often too small to rent out, or not “spare” at all. Ministers have suggested that social landlords might want to redefine a property as having fewer rooms when the spare room is extremely small, but we know that most social landlords cannot reduce their rents because they need the money for repairs and for servicing the debts they have for building more stock.

What will happen to the person with severe mental health problems who has been settled for years and who is deeply distressed by change but who has a tiny box room? They cannot take a lodger because of their unpredictable episodes, they cannot afford the rent because of the box room and there is no smaller property available locally. What is supposed to happen to them?

I have not yet heard Ministers deny the existence of the acute housing crisis, yet they conveniently attack the people who are facing the worst end of it. They also overlook the cumulative impact of so many cuts. In Brighton and Hove, practically every household affected by the bedroom tax will also be affected by the Government-imposed cut to the council tax benefit budget, and a good proportion of them will also be hit by the changes to disability living allowance. Changes to the scope of what is covered under legal aid from April will mean that benefit issues will not be covered, so there will be less opportunity for people to receive in-depth advice or to challenge decisions in court.

This pernicious policy will not scratch the surface of our overcrowding crisis, as it will simply create new housing emergencies for people who were previously just managing to get by. The local authority in Brighton estimates that the total cost of an eviction process, including temporary accommodation, is around £10,000 per eviction. The Government say that it will not come to that, but they are simply not in touch with reality. Of the 1,000 or so households affected in Brighton and Hove, the majority are already struggling with rent arrears of around £2 a week. Where on earth are they supposed to magic a further £16 a week in bedroom tax from?

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A constituent who is desperately worried about the bedroom tax came to my surgery last week. She shares custody of her daughter, so the room that she has for her daughter is seen as spare. She simply does not have the money to pay the tax being levied on her. In order to open Ministers’ eyes to the daily reality that some of my constituents face, I would like to read out a short amount of a testimony written by her. She says:

“I have no more basics to cut back on. I go without meals. I cannot afford the bus, toiletries, a newspaper. I wear trousers most days as I cannot afford to replace my pair of tights should they get laddered. If I had not been able to overcome my pride and seek help I do not know how my family would survive. It was difficult to overcome the sense of shame I felt for needing to turn to charity for support in meeting the family’s most basic needs. I do voluntary work in the community myself. This did not match my own sense of who I am but it is my reality and has to be faced. I now see those others who also depend on the food banks and support from charities like the City Mission in a new light. I see their resilience and humanity. We are the same.”

I was in tears by the end of my meeting with her.

We are talking about real people in real homes who are feeling real desperation, and the criticism that we are somehow exaggerating the situation is an insult to those constituents who come to see us. Ministers are recklessly and deliberately ignoring the harsh reality for the majority of those surviving on benefits. They are deliberately pandering to media stereotypes. How convenient it is to say that it is all the fault of the workshy, swanning about with all that spare space—or so the mean and mistaken narrative goes.

Going back to reality, the homes of a lot of the people affected by this policy are not too big for their needs. Their homes meet their needs, from the padded box room that a single mother uses to keep her autistic son safe when he is having an episode, to the extra room used by a disabled person to store their equipment, and to the room used for half the week by the child whose parents are separated.

There are many reasons why what appears to the Government to be spare space is in fact not spare at all, but essential. It will always be possible to find a small number of examples of people who genuinely have more space than they need, but that does not justify the Government’s crass blanket policy. The experts are saying that if we want to help people into smaller properties, we should give them support, sensitively, to find the right property. We should not force them out with the threat of eviction. We also know that the right kind of properties often do not exist. I asked a parliamentary question to find out whether the Government had carried out an assessment of how many appropriate smaller properties existed. They have not done any such assessment, because they do not care. Then, when we put that argument to them, they will come back and tell us that the discretionary housing payments are supposedly a magic wand that will solve all problems. The pot of discretionary housing payment is tiny compared to the cuts being made. It is obvious that demand will massively outstrip supply.

In Brighton and Hove, for example, the projected housing benefit shortfall has been modelled by the local authority as over £12 million, including shortfall from cuts to local housing allowance, bedroom tax and the benefit cap. The Government have given a DHP pot of just over £1 million to the city. That covers only about 8% of the housing benefit cuts that people will face. The DHP is tiny and nowhere near adequate.

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The Government try to justify these cuts on the grounds that they are “making work pay”, but when Ministers use that phrase, it is really a code for punishing people for being poor. Of course work should pay; we need decent living wages pay, not poverty pay. The hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) talks about the need to cut the housing benefit budget, but one way to do that would be to pay a decent living wage in the first place. It is not the fault of people who cannot get a job or who are unable to work that employers do not pay people properly.

There will be a potential push to move people from social housing to different sized private sector accommodation, which does not have the same security of tenure and could cost more. What the Government should be doing is massively increasing the supply of affordable, sustainable, decent homes and legislating to allow for far greater security of tenure, which would go some way to holding rents down. The bottom line is that the Government must stop relying on the profit motive to supply housing for people who are poor; it will take time, but we absolutely need to fund a real programme of sustainable mass council housing.

This Government, however, are going in the opposite direction. This is a policy that will lead to bad debts and eviction, and will dramatically undermine the financial stability of the social housing model. If we combine that with the Government’s refusal to allow people the choice to pay their housing benefit directly to the landlord under universal credit, we genuinely have a recipe for the end of social housing. As landlords are faced with the lose-lose situation of either accumulating bad debt as people simply cannot pay the tax, or facing the even higher cost of debt collection and eviction, the long-term future of social housing looks bleak. How unjust this will look in the history books when the banks get bailed out and the poor get thrown out.

Before Government Members challenge me by asking how we would pay for this investment, let me say that I am not afraid of saying that it is perfectly legitimate to borrow to invest. The idea that that is somehow irresponsible, coming from this Government who have now led us into the triple-dip recession, is an absolute irony. I do not know what the Labour Front-Bench team will say on this issue, but I have no compunction about saying that it is absolutely right to borrow to invest in affordable housing and in the kind of infrastructure that we need in the 21st century. The idea that, as a Government, as a nation, as a European Union of nations, the best way of addressing the deficit is by everybody cutting spending and draining demand out of the economy has been proved to be wrong over and over again. More and more economists are saying that, too. I hope that, for the sake of us all, this Government wake up and see that very soon.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Members should resume their seats. Caroline Lucas spoke for just about 10 minutes—predicting the 10-minute limit. Well done.


4.7 pm

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): This issue is creating a lot of passion, which I can understand. People’s homes are very important to them, and none of

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us wants to feel that the possession of our home is threatened or is subject to high-handed control from above. The morality of the argument, however, is not all on one side as the Opposition seem to suggest it is. Indeed, I would find their moral outrage more convincing if their Front-Bench team firmly pledged to repeal this measure if they were ever returned to office. I would also find it more convincing if when they were in office they had not taken the steps they did on private sector rented accommodation, probably as a prelude to going further.

On the basis of what the more moderate Opposition Members have said, they accept that there is a problem of under-occupation where free or subsidised accommodation is made available through the public sector. The morality on the Government side of the case is to say that we have obligations to all those people who want that subsidised or free accommodation but who cannot get it on the size and scale they need. There are two different groups here, and we need to look after the interests of both groups as best we can.

Of course there are visionaries on the Opposition side who say that the answer is easy: we just need to build hundreds of thousands of more homes at public expense so that everybody can have the accommodation they want. The issue then becomes why that did not happen when we had a Labour Government who knew how to do those things. The truth is that for anyone who sits on the Government Benches, such housing will always be a scarcer resource than people would like. If we offer something free or subsidised, there will be more demand than provision, even when we are trying to be very generous, so we must have rationing and allocation. All Governments, in good times and bad times, have had to allocate and ration public housing.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that there was a period—certainly in Wigan—when we could not let council houses and they were knocked down, because people were buying houses? Our biggest problem now is that people who want to buy houses cannot get mortgages. They do not go into social housing because it is subsidised; they go there because they have nowhere else to live.

Mr Redwood: It is a bit of both. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady if she is urging the Government to do even more than they are currently doing to make more mortgages available so that more people can afford to buy homes. Members on both sides of the House would welcome that. I happen to know that Ministers are desperate to ensure that more mortgages are available than were available during the last few Labour years, and are working away with the banks to try to make it happen. That is very much part of the solution to the housing problem. [Laughter.] It is all very well for Labour Members to go into fits of hysterics, but they really should try to take a serious interest in the problem. Believe it or not, quite a lot of us Conservatives want better housing solutions for many of our constituents, and for people in other parts of the country.

Katy Clark: Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that there was a very different view of social housing in the past? Council housing used not to be

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seen as a precious resource. For example, at the time of the 1951 general election the Conservatives pledged to build 300,000 new homes. There was a view across the political divide that we should build council housing to improve social conditions. Is that not the vision that we should have now?

Mr Redwood: I seem to remember that the Conservative Government did indeed honour their pledge—and that was many more homes than the Labour Government were building each year—but, even in those days, why did they need to do it? They needed to do it because we were short of homes. It was the post-war period, the Germans had remodelled many of our housing estates, and trying to create the homes that people needed was a big problem.

I think that under-occupation is a problem, and I think that the Government have come up with one part of the answer, but I urge Ministers to listen carefully to all those who are saying that the positive way of proceeding is through incentive, encouragement, persuasion, and giving people a better answer than the one they currently have, which may be a larger property that may not be suitable.

The Government have excluded everyone of pension age from the proposals, and I welcome that. I think that it is smart politics, and very sensitive to the elderly population. However, in my constituency, where most people own their homes—elderly people tend to own them without mortgages, and younger people tend to own them with rather big and difficult mortgages—a good many elderly residents decide to sell the family home because it has become too big and unmanageable, and to buy a smaller property such as a flat or bungalow. Many then sell again when they are becoming more frail, and move to semi-sheltered or supported accommodation.

That is a natural process of trading down in the private sector, but there is sometimes too much of an obstacle for elderly people in social housing to be able to do the same. Perhaps not enough of the right properties are available; perhaps they are not offered in the right way; perhaps there should be some incentive. I think it perfectly acceptable to try to create an atmosphere in which there can be the same sensible mobility in public sector housing as occurs naturally in areas with rather more private sector housing, so that elderly people can have housing more suited to their needs.

I hope that Ministers will consider the question of elderly under-occupation, which I think is very much part of the story, but will do so in a positive way that encourages, promotes and helps, rather than removing benefit or imposing a tax. I wish that the Opposition understood the meaning of the word “tax”. Imposing a tax means taking money from people who are earning it for themselves; it does not mean paying them less benefit. I hope that Ministers will work out an answer to that soundbite. I have heard soundbite arguments before, but I congratulate the Labour party on thinking up a brilliant and misleading one. I am afraid that it is better than the soundbites we have heard so far from this side of the House, and I urge my hon. Friends to come up with a soundbite that represents the truth. This is not a bedroom tax, but a reduction in the amount of benefit paid, which is very different.

Several hon. Members rose—

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Mr Redwood: I am afraid that I cannot give way again. I am running out of time, and if I give way I will not be given any injury time.

We need to look at the issue of under-occupation among the elderly, and we need then to look at the issue of the disabled. That was why I approached this debate with considerable nervousness. As I think my hon. Friends know, I wish us to be more generous to the disabled, not less generous, and I think we all feel a little nervous about how far we should go. I was somewhat reassured to see that there are different definitions of disability and a rather wider definition is being used than would, perhaps, be normal. I am interested in the people who are seriously disabled, as recognised through the receipt of disability benefit.

I urge my ministerial friends to be as generous as possible. We must not presume that there is an easy solution, however. Again, if there are issues that need to be sorted out, the best way to do that is through support and persuasion and offering people something better. That must be the aim. Why would somebody move if their new home is going to be worse than their current one? If it can be shown that there would be better, more appropriate and better supported accommodation, however, I might be more willing to accept that we should follow the proposed course of action. I urge my ministerial friends to be extremely careful about the definition of the disability category, however.

One Opposition Member argued that this is a cynical policy and there might not be many savings if it works. That is a misunderstanding of the true nature of the policy. It is not primarily a public spending-cut policy; it is a policy designed to try to get more people into public sector housing that is suitable for them. That is the bigger picture.

We have an inadequate amount of housing stock, and some people have more of it than they strictly need, whereas others do not have as much of it as they strictly, technically need on the needs definition. We are arguing here about the balance between those two groups, and whether it would be feasible to solve the overall shortage by producing more housing. Even the Labour party must understand that if we were to go for the big build answer, that would take several years to come through. Ministers are feeling very frustrated at present that they have identified places for building and the means of financing that building, but it is taking a very long time to get the building to come through so we can start to tackle this problem.

My next topic is how to tackle the problems of insufficient housing and excess welfare spending. The issue of eligibility is key. My constituents tell me that they feel much more inclined to pay taxes to make sure that people who have been settled in this country for many years, or who have been born and brought up here, can get access to proper housing than to provide housing for people who have only just arrived and seem to know how to work the system to get access to housing. The Government could productively focus on that. I am sure there will be European Union rules, but we need to negotiate on this with our European partners, and make a stand if necessary, because there is a strong feeling in our country that public housing will be limited—more limited than some would like—and if we are to make choices, the priority must be those who have been here for some time and who have made a contribution

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and are part of our settled community. That does not always seem to be the case. I hope Ministers will see the issue of eligibility as a proper avenue for addressing both excess benefit expenditure and the shortage of available property.

These are difficult waters. Anyone who looks at the situation rationally will agree that there is under-occupation and we need to tackle it sensitively. They will also agree that we need more housing provision overall, and we need to do what we can to tackle that. I hope we can all agree that the best answer is to find a way to enable more people to enjoy what every MP takes for granted. We take it for granted that we have a well-paid job and that we can afford to buy a house. I think that every MP owns a property. Indeed, some of them own rather more than one property, I believe, and that has sometimes become a matter of comment. It is normal for an MP to own a property—to be an owner-occupier—and to enjoy a good income, and I am sure most MPs own a spare room or two.

I do not think there is anything wrong with people striving, getting a better job, earning more money and having spare rooms. I am personally very much in favour of spare rooms when people can afford to have them. We also need to make sure we have a fair tax system so that we are all making a decent contribution to those who cannot afford spare rooms.

Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): May I ask the right hon. Gentleman how many spare rooms he has in his house—or has he not got round to counting them yet?

Mr Redwood: My spare rooms are a matter for me because I paid for them myself, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman has spare rooms and I dare say he paid for them himself. That is exactly the kind of society we all want to live in, I would have thought. I do not know of any Labour MPs who could stand up and say that they are at the minimum accommodation level—I invite them to do so, but I do not see anyone rushing to stand up.

Mr Russell Brown rose

Mr Redwood: The hon. Gentleman stands up but he has no voice. I think that means he does not want to say that he has the minimum accommodation available or thought specific to certain people.

I want to live in an aspiration society. We want to promote better jobs, better paid jobs and more people owning their own home. Where that is not possible, we need a fair distribution; we need to provide more and to distribute it more fairly. I just hope that Opposition parties, if they have serious aims to be in power one day, will think more carefully before pledging to repeal things, or will come up with better ideas on how we can promote that better use of the housing stock that must make sense.

4.20 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): I have been struck by a number of things said by Government Members today. First, I noted the mechanical usage of the almost robotic mantras of, “1 million spare rooms”, “under-occupancy” and “utilisation” and an almost

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frighteningly casual disregard of the fact that they were talking about people’s family homes. These are places where people have brought up children and may have lived for decades, and, as a result, have created the stable, safe and supportive communities we all want to see. Those are now to be torn asunder for the sake of a money-saving measure—that is what it is—which will not work. The extraordinary thing is that the bedroom tax works only if the policy fails. If everybody could move to what the Government consider to be a “properly sized property”, the housing benefit costs would probably be identical to what they are today—not one penny would be saved. The tax will work only if people cannot move and they give the Government this extra money, over and above what they already pay to stay in their family home.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That is not necessarily the case. If people who need more rooms and are currently living in the private sector move into the social housing sector, while the people in the social housing sector who need fewer rooms move into the private sector, there will be a substantial saving.

Stewart Hosie: Unless, of course, we factor in the fact that rents in the private sector are dearer, and we have heard evidence that would rather contradict the assertion made elegantly by the hon. Gentleman.

Another thing that struck me was the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who is not in his place, saying that he wanted more facts and less scaremongering. That is very sensible; I am all in favour of evidence-based policy making. What he and others have then done is to say that a discretionary payments system is available to help. That confirms that those who live in specially adapted accessible housing are not exempt and that foster carer families are not automatically exempt. By asking for more facts and less scaremongering, and then talking about discretionary payments, which, by their nature, may not be available, particularly if the pot runs out, these people are confirming the lack of exemptions that make this bedroom tax as nasty as Opposition Members think it is.

Tom Greatrex: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the discretionary nature of this policy, particularly in relation to foster parents. I have been contacted by a foster parent who was contacted by their housing association to say that rooms where people are cared for are counted as spare rooms, but they did not know anything about the existence of the discretionary payment. Such people are reliant on at least two or three levels of communication to get the discretionary payment, so surely it would be much better if foster parents were completely exempt.

Stewart Hosie: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. In the meanwhile—until that happens—communication should of course be better and foster carer families should be encouraged to apply now, in advance, if that is possible. He rightly says that this policy should simply be scrapped because it will not work and, as far as I can see, it is only punitive. That is certainly also the view of the Scottish Government, who feel that it will have an appalling impact on families throughout Scotland and, indeed, the rest of the UK.

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That assessment also shows that eight out of 10—the exact figure is 79%—of the households in Scotland set to be hit by this change, as we have heard before, contain an adult with a recognised disability. That is extraordinary. This is about as punitive as it could be—[Interruption.] The Minister of State is muttering, “Do they need a spare bedroom?” He is using the robotic mantra again, suggesting that somehow it is evil to have a spare bedroom. There are very good reasons for having spare bedrooms and I shall come to some of them later.

I know that the Minister for Housing and Welfare in the Scottish Government has warned the UK Government of the impact of this change. The Scottish Government have highlighted to the Government the disproportionate effect on disabled people and have asked them to rethink their policy. We understood before the start of the debate that the Secretary of State had instructed a rethink on part of the policy, and that is to be welcomed. However, we have found out that we will have a rolling review after the policy starts, which might not report until two years after commencement.

The numbers I have show that people with two spare rooms will pay an extra £20 a week, or more than £1,000 a year. They could be £2,000 down before the Government’s review reports back and says that those rooms are not really spare at all, because one of the sons is serving in Afghanistan. Alternatively, he will not be able to come back to the family home because they will have been forced to move. That is the kind of issue the Government are failing to take into consideration—[Interruption.] The Minister is still muttering, but he will not get to his feet to say anything. I am sure that when he was at university, he was more than happy to go home to his family house. Why should working-class children whose houses are part-funded by housing benefit not be able to go back to their family home because of the nature of their tenure? That is ridiculous.

Other groups are affected, of course, such as tenants who are willing to move to smaller properties and are waiting for one to become available, but who will lose out in the meantime; the parents of foster children; and parents who live separately and look after their children. The final category concerns me greatly. I have already been contacted by a constituent—one of many. He is separated from his wife, which is sadly not uncommon, and has two daughters in their late teens. This gentleman is so careful that he does not switch the heating on in his very modest apartment unless there are guests. He counts every penny.

His wife has primary caring responsibility for the two children, but one or both of his daughters stays with him up to four nights a week. That will become impossible without the second bedroom, and even if he could find a smaller property it is highly unlikely—almost impossible, in fact—that he would be able to do so within the community in which he and the rest of his family live. That means that the relationship between him and his children will wither, because contact will become far less possible.

The Government do not understand the appalling impact this tax will have. The fact that eight out of 10 of the households that will be hit include an adult with a disability is compelling evidence that the UK Government must reconsider, and quickly.

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As I said earlier, not only disabled people but many others will be forced to pay. I want to raise two specific cases with the Minister. The first is that of a woman—a pensioner who will not herself be affected—who cares for her severely disabled adult son. He lives in his own apartment, which has two bedrooms. That is not his fault; it is the one he was allocated. He has a severe psychological condition and needs to be cared for every day, and his mother carries out those caring responsibilities. If he is forced to move, the trauma will be extraordinary. If he manages to get through that, the fact that his mother has medical conditions of her own means she will be unable to carry out her caring responsibilities if her son is forced to move even a few streets away. The real-life impact on that family in that part of that community will be horrendous. I am deeply disturbed that the Government have not thought this through properly.

Steve Webb: May I ask the hon. Gentleman to confirm that he is aware of the provision for a bedroom for a non-resident overnight carer?

Stewart Hosie: I am extremely well aware of that. The thing is, the mother who cares is there during the day and perhaps occasionally in the evening, but she is not a permanently present overnight carer. That goes back to this being a matter of discretion, rather than people with a disability being properly exempted.

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman have any idea whether his constituent meets the criteria for a discretionary payment?

Stewart Hosie rose—

Steve Webb: It is not discretionary; it is a right.

Stewart Hosie: The Minister says it is a right. I believe it may be a matter of discretion. It is not at all clear whether my constituent could meet the criteria for a discretionary payment, and even if he did, getting it would depend on whether any money was left in the pot.

I did not intend to speak in such general terms. In the final three minutes, I will concentrate on what is happening in Dundee. We have figures from the council telling us that 3,387 households will be affected by this tax—and it is a tax. Of those, 583 will lose 25% of their housing benefit. That is a loss that will have the impact of a tax.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stewart Hosie: No, as I have only two and a half minutes left.

The other 2,804 households will lose 14% of their housing benefit. Tenants in two-bedroom council properties could lose benefit entitlement of approximately £9.93 a week, which is £516 a year. Those with two so-called spare rooms will lose an entitlement of £20.07 a week, which is more than £1,000 a year. Does the Minister understand what the loss of £1,000 a year means to families who are already struggling to make ends meet? Does he understand the consequence of that level of indebtedness? Legitimate lending companies will not lend to people in those circumstances, and credit unions can only do so much. This policy will drive people into the hands of loan sharks and illegal moneylenders, and

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the consequences of that will be picked up by social work departments, health services and the police, at a cost to the public purse for a policy that is unlikely to save this Government any money in the first place.

Jim McGovern: A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting with officers of Dundee city council who said that discretionary payments would be extremely limited because they have never had the funds for that. I asked whether they had smaller houses for people who were willing to move. They replied, “No.”

Stewart Hosie: The hon. Gentleman sums up the situation nicely. The discretionary pot is too small. I do not dislike discretion generally—I think it is quite helpful—but there are too many categories of people who should be fully exempt but who will be subjected to the tender mercies of discretionary decision making, which may go against them when it ought not to.

In short, this remains a very bad policy with too many of the wrong people suffering a very bad impact, and it must be reversed. It risks destabilising communities; it disproportionately hits disabled people; it puts the burden of paying the cost of this Government’s economic failure on the backs of some of the poorest in society. That, I think, tells us everything we need to know about the Tory-Liberal Government, many of whom—most of whom, I suspect, or perhaps even all—have not been poor and, more important, do not understand what it means to be poor in society today.

4.34 pm

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) and to have listened to this debate. When the nationalists have an Opposition day, it is always a reassurance to those of us who are Unionists, because by their presence in the Chamber they show how much better off we are together than separate. I should like to thank them for their contribution to our parliamentary democracy and hope that they will stay with us for ever.

I am pleased to be able to speak in support of the Government’s position, which is fair, measured and just. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) put it rightly when he said that we have to think about our constituents who want social housing because they have a family and need an extra bedroom, but whom we cannot help because there is a house being lived in by one person, who has too many rooms, and there is no pressure on that person to move. We hear a lot from Opposition Members about fairness for one side of the equation, but nothing about fairness for the other side, which is avoided and cast aside. When housing is controlled by the state, we must be fair to everybody, whichever side of the equation they are on. There are those who have large families, live in small accommodation, or are living in the private rented sector, and cannot get into social housing or council housing because of the problem of under-occupancy, which, we have discovered from the Government, amounts to 1 million bedrooms. Just think how many of our constituents could have better housing if only those bedrooms were freed up.

The Government’s position is also measured, because they have put in discretionary powers to look after people who will be in particularly difficult circumstances.

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Discretion is very important; the Government have got that spot on. If we were to say that every house that had been adapted in any way for a disabled person were to be exempt, we would find that a property with a little ramp, or one handrail, was suddenly exempt, and the whole policy would be removed. By applying discretion, however, we get the overwhelming majority of the benefit of the policy, without putting a heavy burden on that small number of people who genuinely ought to be exempt and protected. The same applies to the £5 million that has been made available to families who foster. If fostering had a general exemption, everybody in receipt of social housing benefit would suddenly go off to the council and say that they wanted to be on the fostering lists, so that they would not have to give up their extra bedroom, but would then refuse any child who was sent to them. If broad exemptions are used, people will try to fit the categories of exemption provided, whereas using discretion ensures that people must bring forward a reasonable case to encourage those who have the discretion to accept that they ought to be allowed to receive the extra funding to maintain their current position.

The Government’s position is also just, because we must ask ourselves what benefits are for. Are they there to allow people perpetually to remain in dependence on the state—

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman displays a total ignorance of this policy area, and I am sorry about that. First, the bedroom tax applies to people who are in work as well as to those who are out of work. Secondly, it applies to people on benefits who cannot work.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but even if people cannot work, they can take in a lodger, and can get £20 coming in without any effect on their benefit, so they can be better off, because the average that would be lost for one room is £14. The Government have a policy that makes people who are not in work potentially better off, and those who are in work can also be better off, because they will similarly be able to take in lodgers, but they might be able to move to cheaper housing, which they can afford to pay for themselves, rather than being dependent on the state.

Michael Ellis: As usual my hon. Friend makes an excellent series of points. As well as the option for those who cannot work of taking a lodger, does he agree that for those people who can work, and are in some work, in many cases the sums involved would require only two hours of the minimum wage per week to make up the difference?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am sympathetic to what my hon. Friend says, but I think that people need to be able to take responsibility for themselves and to make choices for themselves. The choice they have is either to maintain the benefit they need for the housing they need, or to stay in housing where they have an extra room and adjust their behaviour accordingly. It is not for the state, putting its expenditure on the backs of hard-pressed taxpayers, to fund indefinitely people’s lifestyle choices, and it is a choice if people decide to have an extra room

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that they are not actually using; they can choose whether to move to a smaller property or, under this new policy, to find a way of getting the extra income they need.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): If someone living in social housing wishes to downsize and move to a smaller house, I take it—I ask my hon. Friend or the Minister to confirm this—that they would not have to find the costs in their own budget and that they would be helped to move.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Owing to pressure on the availability of larger properties, many social landlords provide significant incentives for people to move.

It is important to remember that the housing market is dynamic. It is not a static market, with people staying in the same house their whole lives, and they should not expect that to be the case. I understand that people move house, on average, every seven years. It is perfectly reasonable that that happens, and that it should continue to happen, because it frees up the properties people need. I intervened on the hon. Member for Dundee East to make that important point.

When a three or four-bedroom property in the social rented sector is freed up, it might well be filled by someone who had been living in the private rented sector, which is more expensive, so they will be moving into the cheaper social rented sector. The person who had been living in the three or four-bedroom property might move back into the private rented sector, which has a higher cost, but there would be a bigger saving because the other person had moved into the social rented sector. That is important, because some of the debate has focused on the inflexibility of the housing market. It has been said, for example, that there are not enough one-bedroom properties in the social rented sector for people to move down to, but there are plenty of properties across the country as a whole. People will move more freely between the private and public rented sectors and will continue to have their rents paid for them unless they choose, as they will be free to do, to earn more money by working a few more hours a week or by taking in a lodger and so on in order to get the extra income.

Jim McGovern: May I ask the hon. Gentleman—he is making the speech, but this applies to everyone on the Government Benches—whether he can imagine asking his mother, sister, brother, daughter or son to take in a stranger as a lodger?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I would be very happy to take in a lodger myself. Indeed, in my earlier life I had lodgers in my house, which helped to pay the bills.

Helen Goodman: Would the hon. Gentleman care to share with the House, and with the nation, how large his house is and how many spare bedrooms he has? We are talking about asking women in their 50s, who are suffering from chronic conditions and living in two-bedroom flats, to take in strange men. Is that realistic?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. It had not been my intention to tell anecdotes about my personal circumstances, but my house in London has four bedrooms with seven people living in

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it, three adults and four children, so I think that I meet the requirements for maximum occupancy and would not be expected to give up a single room. I am grateful to her for allowing me to illustrate my relatively straitened circumstances, which I had not expected to be able to do.

It is perfectly reasonable for people to live in a house or flat that is suitable for the number of occupants and to ask for that when paying out benefits. Indeed, it is morally right to do so, because every benefit that is paid is money that has come from a taxpayer this year or, through borrowing, will come from a taxpayer in future years.

People pay taxes on very, very low earnings. Even benefit recipients have to pay value added tax, but people click into national insurance at £107 a week of earnings. Are we really saying to those on low earnings, “You must subsidise for ever people who live in houses that are too big for them as their children grow and go and they find eventually that they are the only person there”? Will that same house be funded for ever on the backs of hard-pressed taxpayers, when in fact there is a perfectly reasonable and sensitive way of dealing with the situation that does not throw them out but gives them choice in the form of the ability to decide for themselves what steps they will take to see whether it is possible for them to live there or whether they are willing to move? Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people in this country move house every year, and they do so because their life circumstances have changed. They do not expect the state to say, “We won’t let you move” or “We will prevent you from moving.”

That flexibility is useful. It allows people to move to where there is employment. It allows our hon. Friends the nationalists to move to London so that they can represent their constituents in this great, illustrious Parliament. It is the essential part of ensuring that our economy has a free flow of labour around the country so that people can, in the words of Norman Tebbit, move to where the jobs are. If we have an entirely static housing market we will find that we reduce employment opportunities, undermine growth in the economy, and, worst of all, create deep unfairness for people in large families who can find no social housing and put a burden on the backs of the poorest taxpayers. We should be proud of this Government—proud of a Lib Dem Minister, of all things—for doing what is right, what is noble and what is just.

4.46 pm

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to what has been a very interesting debate so far. We have heard a number of very powerful speeches from Members concerned about the bedroom tax and they have outlined very fully the implications that it will have for many of the groups who will be adversely affected.

I represent a constituency that will be strongly affected by this policy, and many of my constituents already know that. They are waiting to see how the local council and the Scottish Government react to what the coalition Government have done. We have about 2,700 tenants who are likely to be affected by the new under-occupancy rules on 1 April—over 51% of them are in receipt of

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housing benefit. That is because of the type of accommodation that we have in North Ayrshire. As in many parts of the country, there are very few one-bedroom properties. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations recently commissioned a report that says:

“Across all tenants, 62% need one bedroom but only 34% have this.”

This point has been made across the political divide. There is a mismatch between the types of accommodation that are available and the people who are looking for those properties. We are therefore facing a crisis on 1 April. Irrespective of the strength of some of the points that might be made about people possibly living in properties that are too big for them, this mismatch means that on 1 April people will be looking for one-bedroom and two-bedroom properties that simply are not there, and they will pay the price of this Government’s moral and economic policies.

It was only in the past few days that this country lost its triple A rating from Moody’s credit rating agency. The response that we should have seen from the Government is an understanding that we need to invest to get growth. One of the most important things we should do, given this country’s housing crisis, is to put money into housing, particularly social housing and council houses. The nationalists and the Greens were right to choose this as the topic of today’s debate, because it affects so many of our constituents, but it is tragic that we are not having a debate about how to get growth in this country and about how to make sure that we invest so that our people have decent living standards.

Council housing was created in the first place to provide decent housing for those who did not have it. The whole ethos of council housing was to build properties that were of a higher standard than those that were available previously to ordinary working people. It was not about whether someone had a spare bedroom, because the idea of a bigger living room or more space was part of what the whole project was about. As I said in my intervention on the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), that policy was supported across the political divide before the second world war and immediately after it. It is tragic that we have got ourselves into a position where the social housing needed by ordinary people has not been built in recent decades.

Many people will simply not be in a position to move on 1 April. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) has said, the discretionary funds available to councils are nowhere near big enough to implement the kind of discretion that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would like to see. The money simply is not there.

People in adapted properties in all of our constituencies will have money deducted from their housing benefit on 1 April. Foster parents have fluctuating needs, because they take children at short notice. They do not necessarily take one child—they might take a family—so they do not know how many bedrooms they will need. The whole idea is that their household is able to take those children.

We know from all the work that has been done that disabled people will be at the forefront of this policy. The hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) has already highlighted that 79% of those affected in Scotland will be in a household that contains a disabled person.

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The figure for the rest of the UK is 63% and even though the figure is more extreme in Scotland and other parts of the country, this will become a significant problem in Members’ surgeries in all parts of the country. Even wealthier parts include people who face the predicaments that many of us see on a more regular basis.

The Government’s policy will have a massive impact up and down the country and on local government in particular. If the policy works as the coalition Government expect it to work, it is estimated that it will take £50 million out of the Scottish economy. That will have implications, because it will be taking money out of the pockets of individuals and communities. We all know that there are communities in which significant numbers of people are reliant on the benefits system, whether they work or not. They work and live in areas with low-wage economies, such as North Ayrshire and Arran, which has a glorious industrial past. In the 1970s, 14,000 people were employed at ICI in Ardeer in my constituency. In the 1980s, 10,000 people were employed at the Killoch pit in south Ayrshire.

It is obvious that our communities have a proud industrial past, but those jobs have gone and well-paid jobs have not come in their place, and some communities are disproportionately reliant on the state. We need to do something about that; we do not want to be in that position. That is the challenge that we all face collectively. I say to the Government that taking money out of those communities and out of the pockets of individuals who live in them will simply grind down those communities even further.

We should be talking about economic and welfare policies that put money back into communities, about investing for growth and about putting job creation at the centre of all our policies. Instead, we are faced with a policy that will end in chaos and cause misery for hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country. I believe that it is a policy that the Ministers sitting on the Front Bench will wish they had never been involved in.

4.55 pm

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) said that the Opposition have many soundbites and that the Government should develop some of their own. Perhaps the Government are not able to develop soundbites because they have nothing good to say about this measure.

I have listened to the many Members who have contributed to this debate. On the face of it, the Government’s proposals sound logical. There are apparently 1 million bedrooms going spare in this country. The argument is that people should not be able to carry on living in homes that have too many bedrooms, but should be moved to smaller homes. That sounds sensible and practical, but it does not reflect the reality on the ground. Few homes fall into the category of a two or three-bedroom house that is lived in by a healthy, fit person but is under-occupied. Most of the so-called spare bedrooms are needed by the people who live in those homes.

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I say that not because I am in any party political grouping, but because of what my constituents have said to me in my surgery and in letters. I can honestly say that none of the people who have contacted me fall into the criteria that the Government are presenting. I will share with the Ministers and other Members of the House the experience of the constituents who have spoken to me.

A number of the constituents who have spoken to me are single parents whose children do not live with them for seven days a week, but stay with them for two or three days, depending on the arrangements made by the court. People in that situation who live in a two-bedroom place will be severely affected by these provisions. What will parents who do not have the money to go into private rented accommodation or buy a home with the right number of bedrooms say to their children? They will have to say, “Sorry, you can’t come to stay because I have to go to a one-bedroom flat. I will not be able to spend quality time with you. I will not be able to develop a proper relationship with you as other mothers and fathers can with their children.” That is the kind of situation we are talking about.

The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said that anybody who has a bar outside their home can be described as disabled. The people who have come to me have been elderly or very unwell and have homes that have been adapted substantially at a cost of thousands of pounds. They are often quite small properties, but may have one tiny room that is counted as a spare bedroom and has just enough space to store their wheelchair, commode, Zimmer frame or other equipment that disabled and unwell people often have.

Such people tend to be in social housing. Everybody who knows about social housing knows that they are small homes. That is certainly the case in my constituency. Even if they are two-bedroom flats, they tend to be very small, but people need a bit of space to be able to manoeuvre. What should I say to the constituents who write to me because they are being told that they will have to find somewhere else to live, but do not have £700 or £800 a year to pay for it? What about parents with two children of the same gender? They may have three bedrooms but they will be tiny rooms and the two children—two girls or two boys—will be in one little room where they cannot do anything except perhaps sleep on camp beds or bunk beds and they cannot have a proper room. Do we tell such people, “No, you’ve got to go; you cannot stay in this house and if you do you must pay £800”? That is the reality on the ground.

Foster parents have been mentioned but what was said about it being easy for someone to register as a foster carer and get an extra room is just not the case. People must go through high-level checks, training and vetting that can take months or even years before they are assessed as suitable to be a foster carer. To suggest that someone would become a foster carer to avoid moving out of their home or to claim an extra bedroom does not fit reality.

Many Members have touched on particular groups of people, and again I ask the Minister to reconsider this measure. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) mentioned a number of concerns that need to be addressed but I do not want to repeat points about discretionary issues and other ways that

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the bedroom tax will impact on people. At the moment, this is a compulsory scheme and a matter of law so if people have a spare bedroom, they will end up paying money unless they can argue for discretionary help. As has been said, on 1 April people will be faced with a choice of what happens and will end up with bills. They will then have to go to their local housing association or council and see whether they fit the criteria required to get some help. If they do not get that help, what will happen?

What happens when the £30 million set aside for this scheme is gone? Will more money be put into the fund so that people continue to benefit from it? Instead of a statutory scheme, would it not be better to work with councils and housing associations to try first and foremost to work out whether housing need can be reorganised and people placed in the homes that are appropriate for them? At the end of that process there may be some people who wilfully do not want to move, some who live in a massive home or there may be a single person of good mental and physical health living in a two or three-bedroom house and they might not be worried. However, they make up a tiny minority of those who have the so-called 1 million spare bedrooms. The majority of people—98%— fall into different categories.

Of course there is a need to address people who are waiting to be housed appropriately in proper homes or in accommodation that fits and meets their need. I have constituents in a similar situation. People suggest this is an unusual idea, but the way to tackle the problem is to consider a home-building programme. It is all very well hon. Members saying that one Government did not do that, another Government sold council houses and another should have done more, but we are where we are now. Instead of looking back at what could have happened five, 10 or 20 years ago, why not deal with our current problem of acute housing shortage? Doing that will not involve subsidised housing because, as everybody knows, the cost of building a house on a piece of land is not as much as the value of the property once it is put up for sale. Bricks and mortar do not cost as much as a house, the value of which can be over-inflated. When groups of people or associations and voluntary bodies get together and start building homes, they can pay for those houses so that the Government or state do not have to subsidise them. We must encourage local authorities and such groups to invest and allow house-building programmes to provide housing and help to regenerate the economy.

The measure is compulsory, but I urge Ministers to think about encouraging local authorities and housing associations to get together to deal with the people who will be affected. Constituents who are disabled and unwell write to me. One gentleman told me that he has one tiny bedroom, which will be considered spare, but he needs a commode, a Zimmer frame and a wheelchair. He cannot house that equipment in his tiny little—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Time up.

5.5 pm

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I am grateful to be called to speak in this Plaid Cymru, Scottish National party and Green party debate on the UK Government’s proposals to introduce an

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under-occupation penalty for recipients of housing benefit in the social rented sector. The policy has already gained infamy—it is dubbed “the bedroom tax”. The Labour party has decided to make it a political dividing line with the UK coalition. Leaving aside the fact that Labour Members abstained on Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and have failed to raise the issue in the House in a motion leading to a vote, I was delighted that the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), confirmed on Twitter this afternoon that Labour Members will join us in the Lobby later.

Before the 2010 general election, I made a keynote speech at the Plaid Cymru spring conference at the home of Welsh cricket, Sophia Gardens in Cardiff—[Interruption.] It was brilliant. In that speech, I said that talking up the severity of the public debt was a deliberate tactic by the Tories that served two political objectives: first, it highlighted the economic mismanagement of the previous Administration; and secondly, it created the backdrop to justify the declaration of war on the public sector, which we have witnessed since the election. The so-called bedroom tax is a prime example of what I foresaw. It is a headline-grabbing, ill-thought-out policy that panders to the prejudices of those opposed to any social protection.

We have heard compelling arguments in the debate on why the motion should be carried, most notably from my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), who opened the debate—I will not restate her points. Above all, the bedroom tax is part of the UK Government’s strategy to reduce the housing benefit bill, as the Minister admitted in his opening remarks. The capping of benefits is the major element of the strategy, which is complemented by the under-occupancy policy and the recent Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, which pegs annual increases at 1%.

Mr MacNeil: We sometimes hear Ministers speak of deficit reduction, but is it not likely that the net effects of the policy will be the opposite, because it will reduce demand in the economy by taking money away from the pockets of people who are most likely to spend it, and who certainly need it? The result will be yet more economic mismanagement, which will probably contribute to a further downgrading of the UK.

Jonathan Edwards: My hon. Friend makes a valid point—I will give him some meat to justify it in my next remarks.

The Office for Budget Responsibility radically revised its projections for housing benefit expenditure in the autumn statement. At the time of last year’s Budget in March, the OBR projected that the housing benefit bill would fall by £300 million in 2012-13; and then by £400 million for each financial year between 2013-14 and 2016-17. The OBR now projects an increase of £700 million in 2013-14, and increases of £600 million, £500 million and £400 million in subsequent years.

There is a multitude of reasons for that, but by far, one key factor is the spiralling cost of rent. Housing benefit is an in-work benefit. As rent costs spiral, more and more working people faced with real-terms falls in wages meet the eligibility criteria for housing support. The Financial Times has reported that, in 2012, rent costs increased by an average of 37% compared with

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2007, despite the economy being in the midst of the great recession since 2008—gross domestic product is still nearly 4% below the previous peak.

The Financial Times further reported that rent costs are expected to increase by an incredible 35% in the next six years. More and more employed people will become eligible for housing benefit. Indeed, last summer, the housing benefit claimant count surpassed the five million mark for the first time, which means that around 20% of households are claiming the benefit to help them meet their housing costs. Between January 2010 and December 2011, the total number of housing benefit claimants increased by 301,000. In the same period, the number of non-passported claims—those in employment—increased by 279,000. Therefore, households in employment account for 92.8% of the overall increase in housing benefit claimants. Unless we are able to ensure that the pace of rent increases broadly reflects incomes, then Governments of whatever colour will have no chance of controlling their housing benefit costs.

Measures such as the under-occupancy penalty are tinkering around the edges. There are solutions for dealing with the housing benefit bill without resorting to the sort of initiatives preferred by the current UK Government that are having such a detrimental social impact. In 2004, the Government of the Republic of Ireland introduced the Residential Tenancies Act. A private residential tenancy board was set up to deliver reforms. Its aim was to regulate the private rented sector by extending the length of tenancy towards a more European model, clearly defining rights and obligations for both landlords and tenants, providing access to inexpensive dispute resolution, safeguarding bond payments and, crucially, capping rents.

By placing a cap on rents and driving down artificially high rental costs, the Government would have direct control over their housing benefit bill. The UK Government could then reduce their liabilities without penalising some of the most vulnerable people in society. It would also mean that working people would have a better chance of affording rent costs in affluent areas. Rent caps have been a fixture in New York since the 1940s, and New York is the home of global capitalism. Rather than targeting social housing tenants, the UK Government, and devolved Governments if they have the competence, should intervene in the social and private rented sector and cap rents.

As we have heard from other hon. Members, another solution is to address supply and demand issues by building more affordable housing. The recovery in the UK after the great depression was in part the result of a massive house building initiative. This is an ideal time for private investment, because of the guaranteed revenue streams from rental payments. It would create construction jobs and drive demand in the economy. As far as this debate is concerned, it would reduce rent costs in the private rented sector and thus the housing benefit bill.

With specific reference to the under-occupancy penalty, social tenants worried about the technicalities of the new rules have already approached my constituency offices. One of my constituents lives in a two-bedroom bungalow and receives full housing benefit. He has turned one of the bedrooms into a sterile room for his dialysis treatment. He spends three hours a day, seven

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days a week in this room. He has spent a lot of money turning the bedroom into a sterile room and adapting his home for his dialysis treatment. This saves the health board money, as well as releasing the hospital bed for others. Why should he now be penalised for technically under occupying his home?

Another constituent contacted me to say they had been moved from a two-bedroom property to a three-bedroom property that had been adapted for their needs. They now face the charge, despite the housing officer saying that the third bedroom is too small to be used as a bedroom. They will not, as was advocated by several Government Members, be able to rent that bedroom to a lodger. The answers to the housing benefit bill do not lie in a cap in benefits, a real-terms reduction in annual uprating or the bedroom tax. I urge Ministers to think again and to look at some of the solutions I have offered today.

5.13 pm

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): I welcome this debate. Unjust, unfair and unnecessary are the words to describe this tax. Households in my constituency will suffer dramatically as a direct result of the introduction of this tax. Indeed, families throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom will suffer the consequences of this tax. In Scotland, we are told that a total of 94,000 tenants living in the social rented sector are considered to be under-occupying their homes. We are told that a total of 75,000-plus tenants are under-occupying by only one bedroom.

With still unacceptable levels of unemployment and soaring energy and fuel prices, this measure brings nothing but further bad news for the struggling households across Scotland and the UK. Specialist bodies, including Citizens Advice and Shelter, have already warned that 40,000 households in Scotland alone are likely to run up arrears, with research suggesting that up to 10,000 households could face homelessness. That is on top of tackling the homeless problem we already have in Scotland. The prospect of homelessness is a reflection of the direction in which the Government are taking the country.

The bedroom tax is neither a cost-cutting exercise by the Government nor about introducing fair reform to the welfare state; it is nothing more than a tax on the poor and the most vulnerable in communities across the country. Of the 94,000-plus Scots who will be affected by the tax, it is estimated that about 23,000 have a disabled household member, with up to 16,000 households already having some form of aid or necessary adaption in place.

Constituents have approached me as they have become aware of how this unfair tax will affect their quality of life. I will give one example, although I could give many others. One lady came to me who previously had shared a home with her daughter. Her daughter has moved on, however, having found employment in another part of the country. The lady has a two-bedroom apartment, but now has one spare room. She has lived in the apartment for more than 20 years. She feels safe there and has good neighbours, but is now scared she will have to move and feels unsettled and frightened at the prospect of being moved across the constituency.

My constituent asked me, “Where can I go?” Down-sizing is not an option for her, because in my constituency there is not much one-bedroom accommodation. It is

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so limited, in fact, that she would be in her 80s before she would be offered one-bedroom accommodation, if she was lucky. Indeed, there is a lack of family accommodation in my constituency, too, so we really need to address the lack of housing and the building of new housing in and around Inverclyde. She wonders, if she were to move to the private sector, whether she would end up in a house of multiple occupancy, where we see that the private sector’s reference to efficiency involves merely pushing people into rooms with shared facilities.

By introducing this tax, the Government will do nothing more than cement their unfair and unjust attack on those who need our help the most. I support today’s motion, which calls on them to abandon this unfair, unjust and unnecessary tax, and I add my voice to the list of many here and beyond this place calling on the Government urgently to change course before these reforms hit our constituents hard. I also call on the Scottish Government to act to alleviate the burden of the tax on the people of Scotland. Across Scotland, local authorities already suffering as a direct result of severe cuts to their budgets will find it impossible to minimise the impact of the bedroom tax on many of our constituents and communities.

Mr MacNeil: Is not one of the most important things that local councils could do perhaps to reclassify bedrooms that could be used for other purposes and are no longer bedrooms?

Mr McKenzie: That is an option, but as I have said, the difficulty in my constituency is that we have limited accommodation, and the reclassification of bedrooms is not an option there.

I have been working with many agencies in my constituency that have been offering advice to those who think they will be affected by the tax. We have been holding events and information evenings, and people are frightened that they will fall foul of this tax and lose their homes. The Scottish Government could provide more guidance and help to local authorities about how to cope with the impact we know is coming. The bedroom tax is not a Westminster attack on Scotland alone. As we have heard, it is an attack on many constituencies across the UK, and I join others in calling on the Government to abandon this unjust, unfair and very unnecessary tax.

5.19 pm

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): I had to leave the Chamber earlier to help to launch a document on the links between speech, language and communication needs and social disadvantage. I mention that because one of the document’s key findings is relevant to the debate. When children in the top 25% of cognitive ability from working class backgrounds are tested at the age of 22 months and compared with children in the bottom 25% of cognitive ability from upper middle class backgrounds, we see that the upper middle class children will have overtaken the working class children by the age of 10. That is a result of speech, language and communication issues. I suggest that the dislocation of working class families and communities that these housing benefit changes will cause, through the eviction of parents because their children have grown up, is

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another example of the targeting of working class people who could do so much better in life and add so much more in terms of tax revenues and so on. They are the ones who will be hit the hardest.

Helen Goodman: Does my hon. Friend agree that, based on the speeches we have heard from the Government Benches today, we do not have a selection of people from the middle classes who have overtaken the working classes?

Geraint Davies: That is certainly the case. It is disappointing and illuminating that the Government Benches are almost empty this afternoon. Government Members simply do not care about a group of people who they believe will not vote. They see them as people who have failed in life and who will not vote—only 65% to 70% of people vote—so they think that they can treat them like cattle, and that is what they are doing.

Mr MacNeil: Is it not also indicative of the tone of the debate that the people who are encouraged to take in lodgers are usually those on lower incomes? There is no great push by the Government to ask the middle classes, the upper middle classes or indeed the upper classes to take lodgers into their mansions, palaces or castles. This move is aimed at the bottom end of society, and it is shameful.

Geraint Davies: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

The Government falsely claim that the problem is under-occupancy in the social sector. They say that that is awful, and a terrible waste. I have asked the House of Commons Library for the figures on under-occupancy rates. According to the bedroom standard, the level of under-occupancy in the social rented sector is 10.2%. In the private rented sector, it is 15.7%, and in the owner-occupied sector, it is 49%. So it is all very well for those who own their houses, who have five times the amount of under-occupancy, but people who are poor and who are in the social rented sector because the market has let them down are not allowed to have an empty room. Why should not those people be allowed an empty room? We have heard about people with disabilities and people with chronic problems, but what about normal people who just want their friends or their children to come and visit them? And who would want a one-bedroom house?

Let us look at the evolution of social housing. I was the chair of housing for the biggest local authority in London—Croydon—and chair of housing for the association representing all the boroughs across London. How does social housing work? We build two-bedroom and three-bedroom houses for families in need, who live in them with their children. Their children grow up and perhaps go to university or get married, and we end up with the couple in an under-occupied house. What happens then? They die, and we recycle those houses. It is no surprise that under-occupancy in the social sector is so low, because the sector naturally refreshes itself. Those people do not live for ever.

In Croydon, we also set up incentives involving thousands of pounds. We said to people, “Look, you’re an old lady living in a three-bedroom house. We’ll give you a few thousand pounds if you’ll go and live in a two-bedroom

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house. You’ll still have room for the grandchildren to come and stay, but times are tough.” And they did—

[

Interruption.

]

It is all very well the Minister saying from a sedentary position that it did not work. He has not tried that scheme. Why, instead of piloting his stupid ideas, does he not put the two models side by side and see which one works?

Instead of looking only at the savings and benefits involved, why does the Minister not also look at the costs? He should look at the costs in terms of community breakdown and family breakdown. What will his proposals do for people’s ability to get a job, for example? The Government want people to get some training, get a job and get some stability. Well, that is absolutely ridiculous. The social, economic and practical impacts of the measures are completely unthought out. The reason is that the Government do not care, and they do not care because they think that those people do not vote. Why is it that people over 60 are excluded from the list? It is because they vote. What does that say? It says, “Don’t have any children until you’re 40, because if you have them and they grow up and have to leave home, you will hit 60 at that time and you’ll be all right.” That is great, isn’t it? It is completely cynical and it stinks.

What does this mean for the practical implications of managing the housing revenue account? It is claimed that all this money will be saved, but some of it allegedly saved for the Government is lost by local authorities. As I said earlier, I have run a housing revenue account, so I know what will happen. A number of people will stop paying all their rent by the margin that is being cut. If I am in the local authority with a portfolio of two or three-bedroom houses, but with hardly any one-bedroom ones, I will say to the people that are not paying all their rent, “We will evict you, but we do not have any one-bedroom houses”. They will go to the private rented sector where the rents are higher and are escalated by the pressure on the market, and that will cost me more as a manager. What is more, as more people join the private rented sector, others in that sector will pay higher rents, so it will be difficult for people to build up a deposit and buy a house. That is great as well, isn’t it? It is absolutely hopeless.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman is kind in giving way. A friend of mine in Fort William tweeted a few minutes ago to say that his parents took five years to downsize their house in Fort William. That is an example of how difficult this is practically. At that time, there was no imperative to do so—it was a matter of choice—but we are in the same boat, and we are talking about five years.

Geraint Davies: Yes, and why should someone who has lived in the same street, whose children have grown up with their neighbours and who knows everybody—having been to the local schools, visited the local pubs and worked in the locality—be dislocated and thrown into another community, another town or even another nation? The answer is that these people do not count because they are poor and they live in social housing—and the Tories and the Liberals are going to sort these people out. It is disgusting.

What else is going to happen? If managers or directors of housing have less rent money available, there will be

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a cut in repairs, leading to more damp and more health problems associated with bad housing. What else can local authorities do? People in Swansea are thinking about knocking down walls. If they have a two-bedroom flat, they can knock a wall down and create a larger living room in order to get round the problem. What does that remind us of? Yes, of course, it reminds us of the window tax. Do we remember when some stupid Tory introduced a tax on windows—and then people blocked off their windows: what a surprise! We are going to see that sort of thing again. It is absolutely ridiculous and farcical. If it were not so sad, we would all be laughing.

Private rents will go up for the mates of the Tories in buy-to-let who will see their incomes grow. It will stop other people buying houses, and we will see empty public sector houses side by side with overcrowded private sector houses. Where there are empty houses, it is costing us much more in lost rent than the shortfall that is being cut in this tax.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Geraint Davies: No, because I will run out of time—perhaps at the end if I have time.

We will see major problems. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Wales mentioned the impact of this change on Wales. He said that 46% of households would be affected in Wales as against 31% in England—half as much again. Once again, this is part of the strategy of taking money out of the poorest communities, yet poor people spend more of their money. If we want a growth strategy to get people back into work, we should give money to poor people instead of giving it to the rich who hide it away in savings accounts or offshore accounts. When people have only a little money, they have no choice but to spend it. We are denuding local authorities with poor populations of money power.

What of incentives? A son or daughter of parents might say, “I want to go off and get married and live with this person. I want to go off and live in a different town and get a different job. I haven’t got a job here; I’m unemployed.” The parent would say, “Son, that will cost me”. What if the children want to go off to university? That is going to cost the parents, too. Once again, this is just encouraging people to stay where they are until somebody hits 60. It is preposterous. The savings will not be made.

Steve Webb: There are only so many times that the hon. Gentleman can get it wrong. If someone goes away to college and is based at home, the bedroom is kept.

Geraint Davies: My point is that if someone goes away to work, that person will lose the bedroom. Moreover, if someone’s children go off to university, they will not be hanging around in the local chip shop—which is good, but obviously their parents will say, “We do not want an educated son and daughter going off and leaving us to pay for the empty bedroom. You can stay here and run the chip shop. That was good enough for us.” That is the sort of new economy that the Minister—who is now dozing off—wants, and it just does not make any sense.

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As for the overall savings, the Government are making political choices. They will not save £490 million, because much of that will consist of costs for local authorities. What they are saying is “We will give the money to the voting people. We will increase their tax thresholds. Let’s face it, they are not going to work any harder. We will not harm the older people, because they vote; we will harm the poor people who do not vote. Let us hope that they do not. If they do not register to vote, we have our other plan to carve up the constituencies, so that their size relates not to the population but the number of people who are registered.”

This is a cynical attempt at political manipulation that has no regard for the economic and social impact. It is absolutely disgraceful, and it should be thrown out.

5.30 pm

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): I know that many other Members wish to speak, so I shall try to keep well within the 10-minute limit.

I am particularly concerned about the way in which this measure will affect foster carers. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) made a powerful case for why it makes much more sense for them to be exempted from it. When I have raised the issue with the Minister at Question Time, he has said that they will be all right because there is a discretionary fund, but I think it much more sensible for them to be exempted.

It is clear to me from conversations with more than one set of foster parents in my constituency that there is a lack of communication about discretionary payments, and that people find out about them only by dint of good luck and interventions of other kinds. I am well aware that the constituents who come to me may be just scratching the surface, and that there are likely to be many others in a similar position who do not visit their Members of Parliament. The hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) seemed to suggest that we should not raise the cases that are brought to us, but I think that they are the tip of the iceberg rather than the exceptions that she sought to suggest.

One of my constituents has been a foster carer for more than 30 years. During that time she has fostered more than 50 children, sometimes on long-term placements—a couple who are with her at present have been there for a number of years—but sometimes on shorter placements. Sometimes there is a gap. She was recently told by her housing association—her social landlord—that she had three spare rooms. She does not. She has three bedrooms in her property, which are used to provide care for children who would probably cost the taxpayer even more otherwise, and would probably be receiving a less constant form of social care. She is providing that care because it is something that society wants and values. Only this week my local authority, South Lanarkshire council, sought to encourage more people to foster, but at the same time constituents of mine are telling me how concerned they are about the impact of this measure.

As for discretionary payments, the clue is in the name: they are discretionary. That means that they may or may not be applied. That means that there is a limit to the money, and once it has gone, it has gone. That means that it is added to a bigger fund to deal with a whole range of different circumstances, and there is no

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guarantee that it will be sufficient. My constituent lives almost on the border of two local authority areas; she fosters for one local authority and lives in another. She is fortunate in that she contacted me and I was able to join things up, but we do not know that that will happen in many cases. All those points make the case for foster parents and foster carers to be exempt, rather than being caught in the “discretionary” category.

The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who is no longer in the Chamber, makes some cogent points from time to time, but it was ridiculous of him to suggest this afternoon that people would seek to apply to become foster carers just to avoid this. That is a ridiculous assertion, and it is insulting to those who put time and effort into being foster carers, for the wider good of society. On this specific point, the Government need to think again. The hon. Member for Leeds North West put that to the Minister, and they are both from the same party. I say that, too, as a Member of a different party. If the Government are to pursue this policy, this specific point must be addressed, because it is not fair and it is not equitable, and it has all sorts of potential unintended consequences.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) hinted at some of the potential shortcomings and explained the problems. It is not sensible to continue with badly thought-through policies that have adverse consequences. The Government have an opportunity to think again on this, and to try to get it right. I understand the points being made about occupancy and pressure on housing, but that is not an excuse to bring in a measure that is severely punitive.

A pair of foster parents in my constituency have said that if they were starting out again they would think again about whether to foster. They have been fostering for more than 20 years, providing dozens of children with a higher standard of care and a more stable position in society. If such people are to be put off because of this imposition, and because they will be caught up in a payment that is discretionary, that will send a poor signal to society in general. I implore the Minister to think again on this specific point, as well as on the tax as a whole.

5.36 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I was so shocked when I read what my constituents wrote to me about the implications for them of the bedroom tax, and about how little they would have left to live on, that I decided during the week of the recent recess to see if I could survive on £18 a week, which is what they will be left with to buy their food after 1 April. That figure of £18 is entirely based on the experiences of my constituents, in particular women on employment and support allowance who are about the same age as me, but who had to stop working owing to chronic health conditions, perhaps after 20 years of working life. Out of their £71.70, they have to find £10 for electricity, £20 for heating—gas or coal—£6 for water rates, £4 for bus fares in the case of those who live in villages and have to get to the main town, and £10 for the bedroom tax, which left them with £23 for weekly living expenses.

That £23 has to cover more than food, of course. We did a calculation, and set aside £5 for all the non-food things everyone has to buy—soap, washing powder, washing-up liquid, toothpaste, loo paper—plus

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a small amount in order to save £50 a year for clothes or a pair of trainers, or in case the iron breaks. That leaves £18.

I therefore took up the challenge of trying to live on £18, and I want to tell Members what it is like. It is extremely unpleasant. I had porridge for breakfast every morning, as I usually do, but I make my porridge with milk; now I was making it with water. I had to eat the same food over and over and over again. Single people are hit particularly hard, because cheap food comes in big packs. I made a stew at the beginning of the week, and I ate the same food four nights a week. I had pasta twice a week. I had baked potatoes. I had eggs on six occasions. It was completely impossible to have meat or fish; that was out of the question. It was also impossible to have five portions of fruit and vegetables a week.

I therefore also have a message for the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is responsible for public health. She was criticising people on low incomes for obesity. Of course people on low incomes are more likely to have that problem; they have to fill up on toast and biscuits.

I found myself waking up in the middle of the night absolutely ravenous, having to make cups of tea and eat biscuits. I had a headache for five days in that week, and I was completely lethargic and exhausted by 4 pm. Some people are on jobseeker’s allowance and are looking for a job. Looking for a job is a job in itself; it takes time and energy. The people whom DWP Ministers want to do workfare are being expected to work 30 hours a week, yet they are not going to have enough to eat properly.

Most shocking of all was the fact that come Sunday I ran out of food—there was literally nothing left to eat that night. If Ministers are happy with the notion that 660,000 of our fellow citizens are literally not going to have enough to eat by the end of the week, all I can say is that I pity them because they have no pity and no conception of what they are going to do to the people in our constituencies who will be faced with this bedroom tax.

The Minister has been very free and easy in talking about all these wonderful alternatives, such as the fact that people can move. In my constituency more than 1,000 people will be affected by the bedroom tax, but there are fewer than 100 smaller properties to which they could move. In my constituency, it is not possible for all these people to increase the number of hours they work, as seven people are chasing every job; people are in part-time work because they cannot get full-time work. Government Members have shown their complete ignorance of the benefits system by saying, “You just have to work a couple of hours a week on the minimum wage.” Of course that is not true, because these people would get then into the tapers and the disregards, and their benefits would be cut or they might find themselves paying tax. The numbers simply do not add up.

Of course some individuals or couples have properties that are larger than they need, but the so-called under-occupancy is in one part of the country and the overcrowding is in another. It simply is not credible to suggest that all the large, over-occupying families in London will move up to Durham, particularly given

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that the unemployment rate there is more than 9%. What would they be moving to? What would they be moving for?

I made a video diary of my week, so I got a lot of feedback from people affected by this policy. Interestingly, they said, “Yes, this is the reality of our lives. We are not able to survive properly now and things are going to get worse to the tune of £10 a week from 1 April.” In 2006, I did the same experiment under the previous Labour Government, living on benefits to see what life was like for young people on the lowest rate of income support. I found that difficult, but there was enough money to get through the whole week. I wish to point out to the Minister that we have reached a new low, because the £21 that people had in 2006 is equivalent to £28 now, and that should be compared with the £18 with which people are going to be expected to feed themselves.

The Minister has made much, too, of the discretionary housing benefits, which many hon. Members have questioned. In County Durham, £5 million of income will be taken out of people’s pockets and out of the local economy. The size of the discretionary fund is half a million pounds, so once again there is a huge gap between actual need and the resources being given to people to deal with it.

Many hon. Members have pointed out the unfairness of the policy for people who are disabled and need to sleep separately, be they adults or children; people who have children in the Army; foster carers; and separated parents. This policy is a fundamental attack on the poorest people in this country. People are going to lose between £500 and £1,000 over the course of next year, through no fault of their own. But the really disgusting thing is that on the same day that the bedroom tax is being introduced millionaires are being given a tax cut that will be worth £1,000—not over the year as a whole, but every single week.

5.44 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I want to address first the comparisons between the private and the social rented sector. As was said earlier, we are comparing apples and pears. The private rented sector is not where the majority of people intend to spend their lives. Research has shown over and over again that people see it as a transitional part of their life—they use it when they are younger and they hope to move on. It is true that in the past few years it has become more difficult for people to move on—it is difficult to get a mortgage and move into the owner-occupied sector, and there is a shortage of social rented housing. Nevertheless, people do not see the private rented sector as a long-term home.

The social rented sector provides long-term, low-rent homes. The people who live in them might have been out of work at some point in their lives, but they are often in low-paid work and want to be able to afford to do that work. The people who will be affected will often have lived in those houses for many years. Some have compared this situation with the introduction of the local housing allowance, but that was not introduced retrospectively, which is what is happening here—that was made clear in an intervention earlier.

When people live in a council house or housing association house for many years, they put in a lot, using their DIY skills, or decorating the home and

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making it how they want it. They have invested in that home, so to tell them that they must pay up or leave entirely ignores the investment that they have made.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I had a visit from a constituent whose daughter is disabled, has just obtained local employment and really needs routine. As my hon. Friend has said, they have made great investments in their home. They have a tiny box room that nobody could fit in, but they have been told to have a lodger—having a lodger in a home with a disabled daughter would, of course, have great risks. Does my hon. Friend agree that displacing such families is totally unfair and affects the development of those children?

Sheila Gilmore: That is a good example. We are talking about real people, not just apparently unused and unloved bedrooms—despite the fact that the latter appears to be the view of many people on the Government Benches. Real people will experience real harm, but I suspect that that is part of a wider view of social housing and is not entirely accidental.

Mark Lazarowicz: On the question of people having spare bedrooms and houses that are too big for them, will my hon. Friend also bear in mind the fact that on occasion local authorities trying to let houses in hard-to-let areas have encouraged people to take houses that are slightly bigger than their immediate need would suggest in order to ensure that they are not left empty? Is that not the kind of approach that would be undermined if the policy was to go ahead?

Sheila Gilmore: I know that that has been the case in many areas. My hon. Friend comes from Edinburgh, as I do, and he will know that the problem is not always about hard-to-let areas. As far back as the 1980s, single people in Edinburgh have been housed in two-bedroom houses in some circumstances. That is partly to do with the nature of the stock, as there are not enough one-bedroom houses to match the number of people, and it also acknowledges the fact that people’s lives are not static.

We have heard a lot from the Government about dynamic benefits, but people’s lives are pretty dynamic and they change. The single person housed in a two-bedroom house might well have a child. If we insist that they can never be in a two-bedroom house, they might have to move later. The same happens in reverse, as people’s families do not stay static. Even grown-up children, as many of us know, do not necessarily simply go and stay gone. They take a job and move away, but the job or relationship might not work out and they come back. Families also want to visit. Part of this change is about saying to the not very well-off, “You cannot have the normal elements of family life; we are not going to let you.”

I was about to make a point on the general view of social housing. I think perhaps this policy is part of a pattern, because we have heard from UK Housing Ministers—those dealing with England—that they do not want social housing to be permanent housing; they want to introduce short-term tenancies of various types so that people can be moved on. This policy may not be as much of an aberration as some of my colleagues think.

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Mrs McGuire: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that there may be an ideological trend in the Government’s philosophy whereby social housing is seen as welfare housing only, and not as homes for many people in our communities?

Sheila Gilmore: I think we can see a large element of that in this policy.

As many hon. Members have said, if people move to the private rented sector, the housing benefit bill may actually increase. In Edinburgh, the local housing allowance, which is not especially generous, is £114 for a one-bedroom house. Some of my constituents have asked me about moving into the private rented sector. If they move from their two-bedroom council house, for which the rent is £91 a week, into a private rented property, it will cost more. Rather than a saving, there will be an increase in spending.

The vision set out by the Government is of a lot of single people rattling around in big houses with three or four bedrooms. We are asked, “Doesn’t that seem unfair? Why shouldn’t they move on?” In fact, the vast majority of my constituents affected by this tax are not living in especially big houses. It is suggested that people take in a lodger. I visited a constituent—a woman in her 50s who is on ESA, although she has always worked previously. Her home has two bedrooms, although the second is pretty small, and the kitchen is off the living room. Having a lodger is not just about having someone in the spare bedroom; it involves sharing all those quite small facilities with somebody else. While my constituent is sitting in the living room, perhaps enjoying watching television or whatever she enjoys doing in the evening, the lodger will come through the room, go into the kitchen, make a cup a tea and come out again. Hon. Members have to understand the kind of houses people actually live in.

Local councils in particular are making real efforts to mitigate the impact, but there is a downside to that, because this is another example of where savings in general public spending will not be achieved. How is money saved if, as my council will do, local authorities find additional funding to put into their DHP fund because they believe that that is the humane and common-sense thing to do, given all the disruption that various categories of people might otherwise suffer? That is additional public spending, so we will be saving with one hand and spending with the other. Crucially, the saving that central Government want to make will result in councils having to pick up the pieces.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Many Members here who do not represent Scottish constituencies will not realise that the rate capping process carried out by the Scottish National party in government has left local government strapped, with 85% of the cuts last year being to local government budgets, so there will be less money available for the very funding my hon. Friend is talking about.

Sheila Gilmore: That is an important point. The council tax freeze which has been going on for nearly six years now—people in England will share the joys as well—has resulted in local councils being unable to go to their populations and say that they would like to put

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up council tax, so that they can perhaps borrow money to build more council houses. Of course, the people who do not benefit in any way from the council tax freeze are those on the lowest incomes, who do not pay council tax directly because they receive council tax benefit, but they are the very people who will be affected by the bedroom tax. For the lowest earners, the council tax freeze is not a blessing; it has reduced the services they received and hamstrung a lot of councils. I hope the Scottish Government will look again at the policy, which might appear populist but does not benefit the lowest paid.

Dr Whiteford: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Sheila Gilmore: I am not going to give way, because I have done so several times already.

If councils are going to put their money into this policy, by increasing discretionary housing payments, or trying to acquire or build more houses, they must be given support. In Scotland, as in England, sadly, we are seeing a substantial reduction in the building of affordable homes. In Scotland, the number of such homes was boosted briefly, but it has gone down from 7,900 two years ago to only 3,400 this year. Some of those homes are for mid market rent, which has its role but is expensive, so it could lead to higher housing benefit payments. The outcome of more mid market rent housing is similar to what is happening in England. We have heard people on the Government Benches saying that the Government will ensure that more affordable houses are built, but I thought they had made it clear that those so-called affordable houses were going to be at up to 80% of market rent, which is expensive. In Edinburgh, a council one-bedroom property is £275 per month, but a mid market one-bedroom property is currently being advertised at £439 per month. Mid market is no substitute for low-cost affordable housing.

The high housing benefit bill will be reduced not by measures such as the bedroom tax, but by measures that address the supply of housing and the huge cost of the private rented sector. A couple came to see me who, after six years, had got the two-bedroom wheelchair-accessible house that they need. It is no use saying to them, “You can apply for a discretionary housing payment.” In a Westminster Hall debate recently, the Minister said that discretionary housing payments might have to become permanent in such cases, but that couple will still have to apply every year, and will have uncertainty, and that is not fair to them. If such payments have to be permanent, where is the saving? Why not have an exemption?

5.57 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): I was pleased to spend last week’s recess talking about this issue with my constituents, because what we decide in the House has its most crucial impact in the communities we represent. The bedroom tax has achieved in a shorter period the ignominy once reserved in Scottish society only for the hated poll tax. In my constituency, hundreds of people, from Dennistoun to Springburn, continue to sign petitions to stop the measure, which will cost people up to 14% of their weekly housing allowance.

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Last week, at an event hosted by NG Homes, I met voluntary groups and housing associations from across Glasgow who warned of the effects of the plans on homelessness, rising levels of evictions and rising debt in north and east Glasgow. The Prime Minister’s ambition is being realised at last—the big society is coming together, not in his support but in complete opposition to the absurdity and unfairness of the housing benefit plans and the chaos and social harm they will cause. In my constituency, nearly 86% of the 16,580 housing benefit recipients are in properties rented from registered social landlords, and 65% are within the age range that is subject to the bedroom tax. The vast majority receive between £25 and £100 a week in local housing allowance to help with rental costs. That is in a constituency where the median wage is under £17,600 a year, and child poverty is the third highest in the UK and the worst in Scotland, at some 43%.

The three areas that will be hurt hardest in Glasgow North East, according to the Glasgow Housing Association, are Milton—with a higher than average number of lone parents, rent payments there will go up by a collective £8,000 a week—Keppochill and Possilpark, but last week I discovered people right across my constituency who will be hit by this cruel tax. Around half the recipients in my constituency are on out-of-work benefits, but three in 10 of those who are in employment earn less than the living wage. It is clear that the decline in real wages—it has accelerated under this Government—which have fallen every month the Government have been in office, has driven the greater reliance on housing benefit to maintain even these basic living standards.

Geraint Davies: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Bain: Briefly.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I should have reduced the time limit but did not, on the off-chance that there would not be too many interventions. I warn Members that I will now have to reduce it, and if they are upset it is due to the number of interventions.

Geraint Davies: In a nutshell, the cost of reducing the tax threshold by £1,000, which gives taxpayers £6 a week, is £5 billion, 10 times what is being saved here. If someone who is very poor looses £7.50 a week through the empty bedroom tax, someone else is being given £6. Does that not illuminate the Government’s priorities: hitting the poor and letting the middle class off?

Mr Bain: My hon. Friend is certainly right to draw attention to the absurdity of the Chancellor’s claim that there is a zero tax band for people on low incomes, who of course pay national insurance, higher VAT under this Government and all the things described in this debate. I should also point out that rents are rising in much of Scotland—by 6.3% in Aberdeen and 5.1% in Edinburgh, for example—which is adding to the pressure this policy will cause.

The bedroom tax will hurt the country in many ways that the Government do not presently acknowledge, for example through its impact on families, the economy, employment and housing. First, these plans utterly fail the test of promoting economic growth. Indeed, by diminishing demand among people who will spend the money, the least well-off, they will have a deeply contractionary effect. Keynes’s paradox of thrift will

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sadly become a death knell for local shops across the country as people are forced to cut back on spending. The University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute estimates the cost to the Scottish economy to be more than 300 jobs, £30 million a year in lost demand and a reduction in wages in Scotland of nearly £8 million a year.

The Minister claims that people should work longer hours, but do I really have to point out to him that under-employment has soared to 3.2 million under this Government and that there is a slump in productivity because demand has been so weakened by their catastrophic fiscal policies? I also remind him that, with the deficit tracking 7% higher this year than last and our credit rating having been downgraded, these are Tory cuts that he is defending because of the Chancellor’s utter and abject failure on growth.

The Office for Budget Responsibility predicted in November 2011 that the economy would grow last year by 2.5%. It has been confirmed today that instead, it grew at less than a tenth of that rate. The impact assessment on these changes also reveals the truth: if people are able to change their behaviour, as the Minister vainly hopes they will, these plans will save little or no money for the Exchequer. His other policies to cut the benefits bill are failing, because unemployment is 340,000 higher than the OBR predicted in 2010 and living standards are falling in a low-growth economy. He can generate the savings he is seeking with this policy only if people cannot move or work longer hours and so are forced to pay the tax. He is making the poorest suffer for the Chancellor’s manifest incompetence in securing less than a tenth of the economic growth we were predicted to have over the past two and a half years.

Secondly, these proposals are a byword for absurdity. The Minister believes that people can simply uproot themselves from homes they have lived in for three decades or more, and from friends, family and jobs, to go and live in parts of the country where there are smaller houses and perhaps fewer opportunities to work. He says that alternatively, people should take in a lodger—a step that is actively discouraged in the registered social housing sector in Scotland, where stock is allocated on the basis of need. The sheer absurdity is further heightened by his refusal to admit until this afternoon that his plans will potentially remove money from up to 96,000 members of the armed forces, nearly 8,000 Army trainees, carers and foster parents in Glasgow, while nearly 1,000 prisoners on remand in Barlinnie jail in my constituency will be exempt.

Steve Webb: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Bain: No, because I am compliant with Mr Speaker’s strictures on those who wish to take part in the debate. The Minister will have an opportunity to deal with this later.

All age groups in society will be affected. People over the age of 61 could be drawn into this tax too if they have a spouse or a partner living with them who is under that age and they apply for universal credit after October.

Thirdly, these plans hit the most vulnerable the hardest. Two thirds of the 660,000 people affected across the UK have a disability. Last week I met disabled people who told me that they will be caught by the tax and asked to pay an extra £14 a week for having a room in

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which no one sleeps but that is used to provide physiotherapy and medical treatment within their home. I spoke to the friends of a young person with a learning disability who is co-operating with the local housing association and who would move into a small house if he could, but there are simply none available. Through no fault of his own, he will be forced to pay the bedroom tax on income support of £47 a week.

Fourthly, there is a lack of available properties for people to move into. Some 540,000, or 81%, of those losing out will be people who cannot move because there are no one-bedroom properties in their areas. According to Glasgow Housing Association, there is a waiting list of 13,000 in Glasgow for one-bedroom properties because housing associations, and the council before them, responded to local housing demand by building homes with two or more bedrooms. With a social housing shortfall of 156,000 properties for Scotland’s housing needs, there is no way the required properties could be built so that people can avoid destitution through having to pay this tax from April.

Fifthly, these plans will cause enormous uncertainty for our housing associations. They now have no clarity about their future revenue levels or the investment decisions they can make on social housing. They are unsure whether they should be building one-bedroom houses. They are fearful of managing a surge in rent arrears, with the cost being paid by all tenants in the form of lower priorities for refurbishment of existing properties or reduced budgets for repairs.

The wider issue is this Government’s lack of empathy with those who live in social housing. This is a further attack on that very concept from a Government who have cut the social housing budget in half. This is not an issue that divides people in Scotland from those in England and in Wales: it is about a feeling that Ministers are losing their sense of what is morally right or wrong for people across the United Kingdom. What best sums up what ordinary people feel about the injustice of this absurd tax is a conversation that I had with a 69-year-old constituent on the way to my constituency office last week, who stopped me to see whether she would be affected by the bedroom tax. When I explained that she would not, she told me how troubled she was that other people in her community would have to pay it. She said that this has been the worst Government in her lifetime and that the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) is the most arrogant and out-of-touch Chancellor in history, but that of all the cruel things they have done, this is by far the most vicious. She was right.

The voice of ordinary people has been heard in this debate, but it must also be reflected in the votes in the Division Lobby tonight. I particularly urge the party of Lloyd George and Gladstone not to vote for a policy that even the party of Thatcher would have shrunk from in the 1980s. It is the duty of all Members to avoid causing unnecessary suffering to nearly 700,000 people by opposing this cruel tax in a strong, clear vote tonight.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. In order to accommodate the five remaining hon. Members who are seeking to catch my eye before the start of the Front-Bench winding-up speeches at 6.40 pm, I am obliged now to reduce the time limit on Back-Bench speeches, with immediate effect, I am afraid, to seven minutes.

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6.9 pm

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I apologise to the House for leaving the Chamber earlier. I had a meeting with a local firefighter who had travelled 300 miles to see me.

According to the four main registered social landlords in my constituency, the bedroom tax will affect 1,770 tenants in my area. That is not an insignificant number and the landlords are working hard with each and every one of them. There is no doubt that some tenants will decide to try to squeeze money out of their budget in order to avoid moving, if moving is an option for them in the first place.

We have already heard—I do not want to go over a lot of the same ground—that this is about some of our most vulnerable people, including the disabled, students and the military. The last thing that those who serve our country in theatre want to see when they return to their barracks and spend time at what they call home is their family, particularly their parents, being punished in any way.

We have also heard about foster carers. Things are not easy for emergency foster carers, who sometimes have to take in more than one child. If there has been a family breakdown, two or three children might have to be taken into emergency foster care. Kinship carers are also common in my part of the country. Mothers and fathers or aunts and uncles sometimes take in children in an emergency, because of the parents’ chaotic lifestyle.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) asked whether assistance will be provided if someone manages to downsize. Will the Minister explain clearly what that assistance will be? Will it merely be discretionary support? It is important that we understand what it will be.

As has been said, people will lose, on average, £14 a week. What will it mean to take in a lodger in such circumstances? Yes, people will be able to make up that shortfall, but if the lodger pays £50 or £60 a week for board and lodgings, that could throw the benefits system into turmoil for many claimants, because there might be a reassessment of benefits. Will the Minister provide clarification on that?

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) for encouraging me to hold a welfare reform meeting in my constituency last week. I held it in the town of Dumfries and will hold a similar event in Stranraer, at the other end of my constituency, next week. We brought together charities, churches, registered social landlords, the council, benefits advice organisations and a gentleman from the Department for Work and Pensions, whom I thank. I told the audience, “Do not shoot the messenger. Department for Work and Pensions staff are there to deliver on a policy devised by politicians.” Some horrendous stories were told. The aim of the event was to encourage those working in the community to look for the tell-tale signs of families starting to feel the pressure as a result of the bedroom tax or universal credit.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) was right to highlight the amount of money that this will take out of the local economy. When we debated the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, I pointed out that the 1% freeze would take money out of the local economy and away from some of our poorest

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people. That will also happen as a result of this provision. Taking money out of the local economy does not stimulate it, and does serious damage.

My local authority, Dumfries and Galloway council, has a Conservative and SNP administration. Some months ago, it set up a welfare reform working group. My Labour colleagues, who make up the largest political grouping on the council but are in opposition, did not take part in that group. Instead, they established their own welfare reform working group. The report by the Labour group came before the council’s policy and resources committee yesterday. Lo and behold, the Conservative leader of the council accepted all 21 recommendations the Labour councillors put forward. I will not go through them all, but they include an urgent report on the legal and financial implications of using discretionary housing benefit to cover any shortfall in the first year for those affected by the tax, and a report on the proposal to expand access to credit unions and to explore other banking options for bad debtors.

The Conservative leader of the council accepted the recommendations wholeheartedly, but he took the matter a step further. He decided that it was right for Dumfries and Galloway council to write to Lord Freud to make him aware that the steps he was taking, especially the bedroom tax, were wrong. The leader of the council said on the radio this morning:

“In Dumfries and Galloway we’ve taken the decision in the past that we don’t see one bedroom being the ideal situation. Two bedrooms is what we’ve been basing our housing strategy on in the past and we feel that the minimum should be two bedrooms rather than one bedroom when they are looking at under-occupancy legislation. This is something that we feel that we need to push harder on for our tenants across the region.”

That comes from a Conservative leader of a local authority in Scotland.

6.16 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): When I listen to the Government, I wonder what world they live in. It certainly is not the world of the 2,400 tenants of Bolton at Home or the 4,500 tenants of Wigan and Leigh Housing who are facing unaffordable bills because the Government have decided that the poor should pay the price for the wrongs of the rich.

The Government have a fundamental ignorance about social housing and a thoroughly disgraceful attitude towards people who, through choice or circumstance, are living in council or housing association properties. They seem to think that it is a negative choice and that everyone, whatever their circumstances, should aspire to own a home. It is as if they have learned nothing from the sub-prime catastrophe.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Julie Hilling: I will not because other Members want to speak.

Social houses are homes: homes that are usually occupied by people who cannot afford to buy a house because they do not earn enough or because they cannot work; homes that people live in for many years; homes that tenants lavish care and attention on; homes that they hope to live in until they choose to downsize to a flat or until they die; homes that their children may

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move back into when they finish university or when relationships break down; homes that families come to visit and where grandchildren come to stay; homes that are part of a community that benefits from stability and from established residents who make a contribution.

The Government do not seem to think about homes and communities, but merely about spare bedrooms. When they talk about overcrowding, they do not look at where the so-called spare bedrooms are and where the overcrowding is. Unfortunately, the two do not match. They also do not consider who will lose out. What they are doing is like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. They are simply moving the problem, not solving it.

Bolton and Wigan do not have spare one and two-bedroom properties, so tenants will have to starve or freeze to pay the additional rent, move to the private rented sector or be evicted for arrears. The Minister suggests that people should work more hours. If only it were that simple in Tory-Lib Dem Britain to get a job. Even if people can get a job, the Minister ignores the fact that every time people earn more money, they lose benefits. How will that help to cover the gap?

The Minister also says that the measures will drive down housing benefit costs. Wigan and Leigh Housing has done its own modelling. If about a quarter of its tenants moved into the private rented sector, there would be an additional cost to the Department for Work and Pensions of more than half a million pounds. It also estimates that the cost to Wigan and Leigh Housing would be more than £10 million, which would come from a different public purse. That includes £1.4 million for the adaptation of new homes for the disabled and £300,000 for rent collection. This measure will, of course, affect other tenants as well as the ability of housing associations to repair and maintain housing stock, and it will prevent them building new homes. One housing provider has said that it will lose one new build a week because of the cumulative affect of welfare reform.

Government Members like to throw out the accusation that the previous Labour Government introduced the same policy for the private rented sector with the local housing allowance, but they should stop listening to their own spin. The LHA was tested for four years before it was introduced and did not apply to existing tenants but just to new claimants or people moving house. It did not specify how many bedrooms people should have, but allocated a sum of money based on the median rent for properties of the relevant size. Therefore, if a family found a house with more space for a lower rent, they could move in. The size of the housing benefit bill is due to the cost of private rents, not social housing. However, the Government will not do anything about fair rent and instead just reduce the chances of ordinary people to find houses. I also wonder when Government Members last visited a council house and looked at the size of the so-called third bedroom. Often, it is a room that barely fits a bed and would be unbearable for two teenagers with no space to do homework or hang up clothes. It is certainly not the sort of space that a lodger would want to rent.