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Mr Byrne: We have indeed had discussions with our colleagues in the Welsh Government, who accept the importance of introducing different arrangements for London and other parts of the country and of a solution that recognises the need to localise the benefits system.
Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I am still confused about exactly what the right hon. Gentleman’s policy is. He may not know that the average salary in his constituency is less than £18,000 a year. Does he propose to reduce the cap to £18,000 in his constituency, or will his constituents be gutted to learn that he is defending the fact that they can obtain more on benefits than they can on the average salary in his constituency?
Mr Byrne: The hon. Gentleman would be wise to look to his own policy. I suspect that some people in his constituency would be better off on benefits than in work on the cap that is being suggested. Is that not true? Yes or no?
Nick de Bois: The right hon. Gentleman might like to know that according to the Office for National Statistics, the average annual salary in Enfield North is £25,500, which is close. I can assure him that many of my constituents do not think it fair that while they are earning a gross salary of £25,000, it is possible to receive the equivalent of £35,000 on benefits, which means that work does not pay.
Mr Byrne: The hon. Gentleman will accept that there will be people, under the £26,000 cap, who could be better off on benefits than in work in some parts of the country, so surely he too will admit the wisdom of having a different cap in different parts of the country. That is why we suggest that principle, and why we suggest that an independent commission looks at the levels. We have seen the muddle that the Government have got into—a muddle that has cost the Exchequer £80 million this year, and will cost it £50 million in the year after that; that is the cost of sorting out the homelessness that it has, over the past year, been telling the House would not arise. If the Government tried to take politics out of the issue just for a moment, and focused on the good old-fashioned business of getting the policy right, they might be in a better position to put in place a cap that does not backfire.
Mr Redwood: I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s idea; I presume that the regulator would be called Ofcap, or conceivably Doffcap. Would his party tell Doffcap that it would have exactly the same amount of money as the Government are proposing, or does he think that there ought to be more money because the amount is not really generous?
Mr Byrne: As we have seen, the budgets are moving around all over the place; we have just had £80 million put in this year, and £50 million will be put in next year, so it is not quite clear what the baseline is.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way; he has been extremely courteous to the whole House in giving way so many times. May I ask him to comment on the idea, mentioned many times by Government Members, that the scheme will get people into work, including those in long-term unemployment?
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What does he think that they would say to my constituent, a very senior teacher, who says:
“I am a teacher and because of the cutbacks to local councils am unemployable owing to my experience and qualifications as I cost the same as 2 newly qualified teachers…I have survived these past months by selling my possessions and borrowing money”
“these avenues are virtually spent and I am in the situation of having to decide between food and heat, let alone how I will pay for my accommodation”?
This man has always worked in my area, has lived there most of his life, and has served my constituents and their children, yet he is being consigned to moving to another part of the country under this legislation.
Mr Byrne: That brings me to the final point that I want to make, which is about how the policy will be implemented. We are pleased that the Government will take on half of our amendment and introduce a grace period. The Secretary of State has made it clear, from a sedentary position, that the cap is not intended to apply to those who are in work, but we are still not completely clear about how many hours a week someone will have to work to secure that exemption. I understood, in Committee, that someone needed to be working at least 24 hours a week on the minimum wage for that to happen, but the whole thrust of universal credit is to ensure, and to encourage people to take, mini-jobs. If someone is working five, six or seven hours a week, would they, too, be exempt from the benefit cap?
Finally, what would happen if a partner left their spouse, and that spouse, who had four children and lived in a constituency or neighbourhood across the river, automatically found themselves in receipt of benefits that were above the cap? In that tragic situation of family break-up, what happens to the parent looking after the children? Those are important transitional issues that I hope the Minister can clarify.
Frank Dobson: Will my right hon. Friend take at least a minute or two to try to get across to Government Members that housing benefit is not kept in people’s handbags or wallets? It is paid out to grasping private landlords, and until we do something about those landlords, the housing benefit bill will continue to soar.
Mr Byrne: The Minister with responsibility for pensions asks what we did about it; again, in the Conservative party’s briefing for today’s debate, there are some interesting figures about the rise in housing benefit over the past few years, but of course closer inspection of the DWP forecast for the next few years shows that housing benefit is set to rise, year on year, at the same rate as in the past 13 years. That is why Labour has been right to expose the dangers of cutting investment in new housing and the lack of any policy making from the Government on what should happen to the private rental market.
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This afternoon, Labour has set out its proposal for a benefit cap that will work in practice. We hope to press it to a vote and that the Government will think again about giving the other place a chance to vote on it—just to reinforce that point.
Mr Redwood: This is rightly difficult territory. I am relieved to hear that Ministers have reconsidered the transitional arrangements, and I am pleased that the Opposition welcome that. In the noise and heat of the debate, important truths are getting lost or ignored. We are not generous enough towards the disabled, and I was pleased to hear that they are completely exempted from the proposals, which should be widely welcomed across the House. The exemption of war widows, who often have very little to live on and whose former husbands sacrificed so much to help our country, is extremely welcome, as both parties in government have asked their loved ones to go into battle on our behalf.
I am also pleased to hear that anybody in work is exempted. The Government’s case revolves around something with which I believe the Labour party normally agrees: working should always be worth while. In today’s debate, there has been more heat than light. If the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrat party all believe that it should be more worth while to work, we need such a provision to achieve the desired effect. It comes down to the last-minute proposal that there should be some regional differentiation of the cap. We are no longer arguing for or against caps—we all now believe in that type of headgear—but Labour believes that there should be different fashions of cap across the country whereas, on the Government Benches, the passion is apparently for uniform caps.
Mr Redwood: My hon. Friend is ahead of me in my argument. So far, I think I have carried an expectant and worried Labour party with me. Labour agrees with all the exemptions, agrees with the delayed transition and agrees that we need to make working worth while.
Mr Redwood: No, I like representing my constituents and I suspect that the two jobs would not be compatible. I am very grateful for the kind offer, however, and I notice that the right hon. Gentleman prefers the name Ofcap to Doffcap. As Labour has not yet put forward proposals to deal with the people it describes as fat cat landlords, I think it might well be a case of Doffcap to the landlords, as we seem to be discussing how much money we will route to the landlords through the housing benefit mechanism.
I suspect that if I strayed into the subject of proposals for the housing market and landlords, you would rule me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, but perhaps that is a debate for another day. There might be common ground on how we can get better value for the public money being spent while ensuring that we do not cut off the supply of housing, which would be a very stupid
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thing to do by clumsy intervention. We need more housing at an affordable level for people on modest incomes.
We are talking about a group of people on very modest incomes, and it ill behoves people on decent incomes, such as Members of the House, to be too mean about it. We have the conundrum, however, that we always want to make it worth while for those people to work. We all accept that there will be a cap, but, if it is to be a regional cap, before deviating from the Government’s proposal to the Labour proposal we would need to know what Labour has in mind for the total costings and how the proposal would work fairly within an area as well as between areas.
Sheila Gilmore: One thing that the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned is that when we compare the working family with the non-working family, all too often in this debate we are not comparing apples with apples. The working family would have child benefit for their children on top of the wage that is constantly mentioned and, depending on the number of children they have, they might well qualify for child tax credit. We are not comparing properly, so simply saying that the situation is unfair to those working families gives the wrong impression. Does he not agree?
Mr Redwood: I thought it was now common ground that for a large number of people on certain kinds of benefit, work is not worth while. We are trying to solve that problem, so despite all those things that the hon. Lady truthfully reports to the House, we still have that problem, with which both parties are wrestling. That is why the Labour party is not here today saying, “There is no problem: we are going to vote against the whole thing,” but is here with an alternative proposal at the 11th hour—the last possible chance to consider this.
Let us go back to Labour’s argument on the regional cap. If it had come with a properly costed and working proposal, I might have been sympathetic to it, but we do not yet know from Labour what is the total package of money available. We have not even been told whether it wants to live within the budget that the Government have come up with for the proposal or whether it thinks the overall proposal is too mean. If it wants to spend much more, it will not solve the “Why work?” problem because provision will become too generous again and it will have a public spending problem.
Mr Byrne: Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the budget actually is because although we have heard some figures from the Minister today, he has not set out, for example, whether the grace period will cost any money?
Mr Redwood: Ministers are very capable of setting out their own figures. I do not have, at the top of my mind, all the detailed figures the right hon. Gentleman wants, which are properly things for Ministers to report to the House, but they have detailed the total savings overall and they are trying to live within that budget. As has rightfully been reported to the House today, they have given up some of the savings to accommodate the transitional period. It is entirely fair to ask the right hon. Gentleman, who is a specialist, as is the Minister he shadows, to tell us how much difference there would be in his proposals. Clearly, Labour has not yet thought through what the total should be.
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There is another, very difficult, issue to consider with regionalism: there are big divergences in house and flat prices within, as well as between, regions. We should recognise this point, which in some ways makes this policy a bit easier to stomach than some on the Labour Benches suggest. I heard a former Westminster councillor saying that she had done some work on the situation of families who would be caught by the cap in Westminster. Naturally I was worried and wanted to hear what her answer was. She said she had found a considerable number of properties that she thought would be suitable for those families, quite close to where they were currently living, which happened to be rather better value than those in which they were currently living, supported by benefits. That seemed rather good news to me. Members from London constituencies will know that within London there is a huge variety of cost in property—often street by street, not merely borough by borough—so I do not think the proposal is quite as penal as some on the Labour Benches suggest. That makes it quite difficult to set a regional cap because such a cap might be no more appropriate as an average than the national cap.
Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making this point, which a number of Opposition Members from Northern Ireland have concerns about. I represent a Belfast constituency and there are massive disparities between rents in the Greater Belfast area and those in more rural constituencies. If this sort of regionalisation was driven down to a very local level, it could distort people’s ability to seek work in the city or outside it.
I am conscious that others want to speak so I shall not extend my argument further. I just want to make the point that in order to consider fairly what is an interesting proposal from Labour, the minimum we would need to know is the overall cost in comparison to the Government scheme and how these difficult problems of judgment within areas or regions would be settled. That is an important consideration.
Mr Byrne: Presumably, the fact that homelessness will not be created, which is what the Secretary of State has argued over the past year, is the reason why he has had to find another £80 million—to solve a problem that does not exist. In direct answer to the challenge put by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), our amendment suggests that the right place to start this debate is by having a level for London and a level for outside London. That would begin to address the problem he is highlighting.
Mr Redwood: That is something we need to think rather more about, but unfortunately we have little time to do so. That suggestion might have been helpful, but there is also the problem of the big variety of levels within London. We need to know the extent to which the Labour party wants to validate the current high rents and whether there might be some other solution to the problem of very high rents that lies behind some of this difficulty.
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The conclusion I must come to is that the best offer on this issue at this late stage is the Government’s. Something must be done to move things in the right direction and make it more worth while to work. All of us, on both sides of the House, are extremely concerned that in recent years, under both parties, although quite a lot of jobs have been generated a very large proportion of them have gone to people who have recently arrived, because they think the jobs are good enough and that the pay is high enough. There have been reasons—perhaps very good reasons—why people who are settled here and out of work have not wanted those jobs or been able to take them, but part of the answer must be that we have the wrong balance between benefit and work income, and we need to do something about that.
Mr Frank Field: If I may, I shall make one comment on the previous contribution. I thought that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) was going to go a stage further: might there not be a connection between the number of newcomers coming here to work and the extraordinary rise in rents in some parts of the country? That also needs to be introduced to our debate today: we cannot run a welfare policy if we have an open-door policy as well.
Those on the Treasury Bench are having, they think, a good day, but if they look behind them they will see that all their supporters are newcomers to the House returned at the last election, except for two Members. There is no reason why those supporters, who have been enjoying themselves so much today, should know where we will be this time next year, or a little later. Some time next year, the Bill and, we are told, universal credit will come into operation. It might be that when those two things hit the tarmac Government Members will hope that Opposition Members show a little more foresight and consideration for those on the Treasury Bench than Government Members have shown this afternoon. My guess is that there will be two God-almighty catastrophes hitting this country. The constituents of Government Members will be at their surgeries and Government Members will be baying for blood. The tables turn in this game.
I want to make three quick points, if I may. I say to those on the Treasury Bench that I do not have their confidence that these measures will be implemented smoothly, neither universal credit nor the proposals before us. A lot of people will be in transition. Whatever the arrangements, there will be hurt, and they will make that hurt felt in the constituencies of Government Members, as well as in our constituencies.
On the insurance principle, those on the Treasury Bench prayed in aid the public being behind them on the measure. Indeed, the public are behind them on that, but the public are against them on the first group of amendments, which we pushed through. Obviously, the Treasury gave a total that the Department for Work and Pensions had to save from the benefits bill. The truth is that we will never get past the stage of picking
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on weaker people until we are prepared also to look at stronger people. Why is it that, somehow, the benefits of people in my position—those who are part of the baby boom who have done really well out of this country over the years—are never looked at? Why are we frightened to look at the concessions that, for example, people over retirement age receive as universal benefits?
If we are not to go down this track again—the biggest growth in the budget over the past 20 years is in the transfer payments that we are, in effect, discussing today—we must be a little braver and much more open about those areas that we think should be questioned, rather than having a diet of the sort that has been served up to us today.
On the £26,000 a year cap, are there not lessons for Members on both sides of the House to learn? One is that the Government’s proposals are unbelievably crude. I hope that they will adopt our proposals before they go much further in this reform programme. To my own side, I say that I do not want people to think that it is only out in the sticks that people think £26,000 is a high cap. People in London who work think £26 k is high.
We should not make policy because odd people have talked to us in the street, but yesterday, a couple of blocks from here in Strutton Ground, a window cleaner said to me, “Frank, I start at 4 o’clock in the morning. I wish I could get a guaranteed £26,000 for my efforts.” There are lessons for both those on the Treasury Bench and the Opposition.
My final point has already been made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), who probably knew that I was going to make it and so has disappeared. We have had a nationwide housing benefit for more years than I can remember, and one lesson I have drawn is that landlords are very clever at turning whatever we think of as a cap into a floor. Obviously we want to meet people’s rents where possible, although they do not have a right in the long run to live somewhere irrespective of what the rent is, but can we run a housing benefit system while having a free market in rents? My suggestion, drawn from the decades I have been in this House, is that the two are incompatible if we are trying to protect taxpayers.
I hope that those three points have been useful. Given that in a year’s time those on the Treasury Bench will want some sympathy from us when they are operating these measures, it might be rather gracious if they looked more favourably on the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), which would make their reforms better rather than worse.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con):
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who always provides the House with a thoughtful contribution. It is important to state that the number of newly elected Government Members shows that we were elected on a promise to get to grips with the welfare state. I represent a constituency where the average wage is very low, yet the jobs created there over the past few years have been taken predominantly by hard-working people from eastern Europe. I think that there is something completely wrong with the system if I can meet people on the streets in Llandudno and Llanddulas who tell me that they are better off not taking employment. There is
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a passion for these changes on the Government Benches, a passion for change that will allow people to do the right thing with their lives and take a job.
I am intrigued and disappointed to see that not a single Labour Member from Wales is in the Chamber to discuss this issue, and I think that I know why. It is because time and again Government Members have asked the shadow Secretary of State to tell us whether his proposed regional cap is for an increase in London, with no change in the rest of the country, or for a reduction in other parts of the country. I do not know a single Labour Assembly Member, councillor or MP who has advocated a lower cap in Wales than in the rest of the country, so it is pretty clear to me that the concept of a regional variation is based on increases in expensive parts of the country but no reductions elsewhere. The Labour party has provided no financial information on its proposal.
I am all in favour of debate on this issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) made the point extremely well that there is an argument to be had about the regional variation in pay and benefits, but it is completely unacceptable for the Opposition to turn up with a proposal that is uncosted, untested and, in my view, intended to get the Labour party off the hook rather than contribute to any change. I do not consider myself to be a cynic on this matter, but I wonder why, when the Chancellor highlighted in the autumn statement the possibility of looking at regional pay, the Labour party attacked the proposal, yet it is now looking at proposals for a regional cap, as logically a regional benefit system must follow. I can only conclude that the difference is that benefit recipients are not union members, but public sector workers are.
Mr Byrne: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman felt the need to add that rejoinder. There is already a very localised dimension to the benefits system: housing benefit. We have had a localised housing benefits system for about 70 years, and that is why the amendment states that, if we are to have a different solution for London, compared with the rest of the country, it is housing benefit differences that should be taken into account if an independent commission is appointed to set the cap levels. We already have that in place in this country.
Guto Bebb: That is an interesting comment. The right hon. Gentleman almost implies that there are no differences between housing costs in other parts of the country. In Wales there are certainly huge differences, for example between Cardiff and north Wales. In my constituency, there has been growth in the population of young people in villages such as Penmaenmawr and Penmachno, and it has been driven by young people who are working but cannot afford to live in the most prosperous areas. They have moved into areas where it is cheaper to buy because that is what they can afford. Why are people who do work and do take responsibility expected to commute to own a house, while that is not the case for somebody who is in receipt of housing benefit? That is another challenge to which we need to respond.
Mr McCann: May I ask the hon. Gentleman a simple question? Does he not get the fact that people who work are also in receipt of housing benefit? Instead, he is trying to put everybody into the same hole of being workshy and wanting to claim benefits?
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Guto Bebb: I reiterate the point that my Front Benchers have made: there are not many people in my constituency earning £35,000 a year before tax who are in receipt of housing benefit. That is the crucial difference. The average wage in my constituency is £23,000.
People say, “Are we in touch with the general public?” When I was appointed to the Bill Committee on this proposal, I held three public meetings in my constituency, and one message came through loud and clear: “Why on earth are you going to put in a cap of £26,000?” I think that the cap can be justified, because the Government are taking into account the needs of people throughout the country, not just those in my constituency and those in a low-wage economy such as Wales—a low-wage economy, dare I say it, that has suffered badly from continued Labour party rule for the past 80 years.
The big issue is that we are bringing forward a proposal. If the Opposition were serious, they would also bring forward costed proposals, but we do not have that. We have platitudes and excuses to try for tactical purposes to defend the party position. Ultimately, in this measure, we are proposing a benefits cap, trying to ensure that people see that work does pay and protecting the disabled and people who are in work, and this proposal, in the absence of anything else from the Opposition, is a proposal that we should support.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): May I just make it clear that I oppose a benefit cap in principle? This policy has been borne out of prejudice and political expediency, rather than reason. In every recession there are scapegoats, and it is usually the poor, who become a political football for political game-playing and advantage. I am not morally willing to involve myself in that debasing political game.
We all have to bring our own experiences of our constituents to this debate, which has exposed differences in their lifestyles, and at times it has been apparent that we do live in different worlds. I do not begrudge Members and their constituents who are in good, well-paid employment, a secure home that they can afford and a decent environment, but that is not the experience of many of my constituents, or of many constituents throughout the country.
I have lived in my constituency for about 35 years, and I live in statistically the most deprived ward in the borough. The vast majority of people whom I see around me desperately want to do what is needed to ensure that their families have a good quality of life. They pay back into the community in many ways, they work long hours often in insecure employment and their pay, in many instances, is low and often below the London living wage.
The risk is unemployment, which over recent years in my constituency has increased by 52%, and over the past year by 7%, so there will be times when many of my constituents will not be able to find work. They struggle, above all else, just to provide a decent roof over their family’s heads, and that is because we face the worst housing crisis since the second world war. Housing supply has not kept up with housing demand, council houses that were sold off in the 1980s and ’90s have not been replaced by successive Governments, and there has been an expansion in buy-to-let, higher-rent-charging landlords, who provide many of my constituents
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with squalid housing conditions and overcrowding—Rachmanite landlords, who are building up lucrative property empires.
John McDonnell: Some Members will have seen recent television programmes that relate to my constituents and to Rachmanite landlords. It has not happened overnight; I blame what has happened over the past 30 years. So what is the logic of the cap for my constituents. Is it an incentive to secure work? The vast majority need no incentive; they are desperate for work. Yes, there is a small minority who will always refuse to seek work, but there are already sanctions for that, introduced by this and the last Government. I already have constituents turning up at my surgery who have been automatically suspended from benefits for three months for the slightest infringement, and they include many who suffer mental health problems or who simply cannot work through the system themselves.
Is the idea to force people to move to cheaper accommodation? Most in my area pay the rents that they pay because they have no other option; there is nothing to downsize to. In any case, the new housing benefit regulations to force down rents have already been introduced. Benefits in my area already do not meet the full cost of rents. People are faced with options. How do they make up the gap between the benefit and the rent? In some instances this winter, there has been a choice between heating and eating.
I repeat that in my constituency—and this is happening across the country—we now distribute food parcels to keep people in some form of civilised existence. If people are to move, where do they move to? My local council is advising people to move to Leicester, Southampton, Manchester and elsewhere in the north. The problem is that the lower-rent areas are where there are no jobs. We are in a vicious cycle of forcing people into areas where they cannot survive.
For me, the cap simply means that more of my constituents will be forced into poverty. All the statistics demonstrate that children will be hardest hit. There is already the problem of children in families being churned from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation. That destabilises the family and has an impact on their education. The cap is supposed to control costs, but, as has been said time and again, we simply need to control rents. Let us halt the profiteering by landlords that has gone on in recent decades.
My view is simply that the cap is unnecessary and based on prejudice and political posturing. In past debates in the House, there have also been discussions about cutting the cost of welfare. There was one quote about benefits being an incitement to idleness. Such expressions were used in the debates about the poor law and eventually led to policies of less eligibility and the workhouse. We do not seem to have learned anything in two centuries about poverty and how to tackle it.
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Liberal Democrat Members support the principle of a cap and the important message that it sends out that it has to be better for people to be in work than on benefits.
It is also important to exempt those in the support group of employment and support allowance and those who receive disability living allowance. We do not expect those people to work and it would be inappropriate to apply a cap to them, so I welcome the move announced earlier today. I also welcome the package of transitional measures that the Government have announced—in particular, the grace period to protect those who fall out of work. The Government’s grace period of nine months, announced today, is more generous than the six-month period that Labour proposed and was discussed in the other place. I believe that nine months is the right period of time to allow people a chance to get back into work. The vast majority of people who fall out of work will get back into work within that period, so the provision is fair both to families and to taxpayers.
During the debate on the cap in recent months, there has been a lot of rhetoric about huge families sponging off the state. I have sympathy with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Some of that rhetoric has been extremely unhelpful. Suggestions that all those on out-of-work benefits are getting more than people in work are simply not true. The rhetoric has been ramped up a little and that has been unhelpful for getting to the truth.
Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the Government’s announcement on transitional arrangements, which is particularly valid for those of us with London constituencies. She mentioned unhelpful rhetoric. Does she agree that it is important that, across the House, we convey what those transitional arrangements are, rather than spending a lot of time making political points and scaremongering, which affects all our constituents?
Jenny Willott: Many living in London have been told that they are going to be made homeless and that everybody on benefits gets more than people who work. Those messages are unhelpful. They scare people and we need to make sure that, from now on, there is a more sensible, measured tone to the debate.
Mr McCann: What does the hon. Lady make of what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said about the number of people who will be made homeless because of the introduction of this policy?
Jenny Willott: I understand that those are old figures that have been withdrawn and that new impact assessments have been published since. The hon. Gentleman can look at those and see what the new figures are.
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around the UK. We are not talking about feckless, workshy families with hundreds of children who are sponging off the state. That is why what the Government have put forward today is much more sensible than the proposal sent down from the other place. Exempting child benefit would help those on the margins, but do nothing for those affected by the highest housing costs, who will potentially be most affected by the cap. The Government’s package of targeted support and discretionary housing payments is a much more effective way to deal with the issues that will be created.
I note that Labour Members have not tried to argue otherwise today. They have said little about the amendments that have come from the Lords. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that I heard him say that the Opposition plan to vote against the Government on the motion to disagree, as well as to vote in favour of their own amendment.
I disagree strongly with the localisation of the benefit cap because that would create a hideously complicated system that it would cost a fortune to implement. It has been suggested in desperation by the Labour party at the very last minute. The proposal is incredibly vague and was summarily demolished by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood).
As other hon. Members have said, alongside the targeted support and the grace period, we need to look at the issue of rents and the ridiculously high housing costs in parts of the country. That affects working families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, as well as those who are on out-of-work benefits. The Government have been forced into a number of the measures that they are taking because high housing costs have forced up housing benefit and local housing allowance budgets over the past few years. That money is going mainly into the pockets of private landlords. Alongside the transitional support, which will help with high housing costs and help families in the greatest need, I hope that Ministers will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government and local authorities to bring down rents in high-cost areas. That would be a much more effective way to tackle this problem in the long term in particular areas and would save the Government money in the long run.
Finally, I am grateful that Ministers have now made it clear that the Government will review the implementation of the cap after a year. I welcome that. I hope that it will identify any issues or areas where there are problems so that action can be taken.
My hon. Friend has done a huge amount of work. Before she sits down, may I say that the things that should give London Members the greatest confidence are the letter from the Secretary of State, which confirms that an independent consortium is carrying out a review of the recent local housing allowance
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changes, and that Ministers have today made it clear that this policy will be reviewed in a way that is public and accountable, and that if it then needs to be re-evaluated, that can be done by Parliament and Government?
Chris Grayling: I referred to this earlier, but I would like to put it on the record that we certainly intend to carry out a review, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said. We would automatically do so with a major policy innovation of this kind. We will carry that out in a transparent way. I also confirm that we are carrying out the other work that he talked about. I want that to be on the record for him.
Finally, the Harrington process that has been put in place to review the work capability assessment has been an extremely effective way of getting outsiders to take an independent look at how Government policy is working. It has made significant improvements. I hope that we can learn from that process for the review of this policy to ensure that we are doing what is in the best interests of those who are affected by the cap and of taxpayers.
Mr Slaughter: This is how the benefit system works in high-rent areas. If someone with four children goes to Hammersmith council and asks to be placed, they will not be given a permanent home and will be told that they have no prospect of ever getting one, because Hammersmith council is demolishing, not building, social housing. They will not even get temporary accommodation. They will be put in a direct let property under the relationship that the council has with some of the seediest landlords going. They will be charged market rents, but will be living in appalling conditions.
Let us take a real example of a family with four children who live in an ex-council property—these slum landlords go around buying up such properties—on a council estate in the poorest ward in my constituency. They currently get £450 a week in housing benefit for a four-bedroom flat. That will of course be reduced to £400, so they will slowly but surely get to the point of being evicted.
On the day when they are evicted, those people will go back to the town hall with their children. They may then be accepted as non-intentionally homeless, and they might be put into accommodation in Croydon. However, Croydon council says that when the overall cap comes into effect, it will move its families to Hull. That family will therefore face the prospect of a double move.
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in work when they are in Hull. I mean no disrespect to Hull or its Members, but that family will have been taken away from the schools and community network in Shepherd’s Bush, where they have lived for generations and where there are employment opportunities.
This is about not just intolerance or inhumanity but incompetence. The Government are sundering communities and sending people away from their families and communities, and giving them no prospect of either a decent life or employment.
I first wish to talk about the people who have had the least said about them today. Indeed, I do not think any Opposition Member has referred to them. They are the people who pay the £175 billion benefits bill that the Government run up each year on behalf of the people of Britain. I wish to speak for some of the taxpayers in Gloucester.
I have done some research on average earnings in my constituency. The figures are not complete, but I think it will be of interest to Members, and relevant to their own constituencies, that of some 20,000 public sector workers in Gloucester, I estimate that 90% have pre-tax salaries of less than the £35,000 that is equivalent to the £26,000 benefit cap that the Government propose. That figure of 90% means that 18,000 people working in my constituency of 100,000 people are in that position
It is harder to get the same figures for people working in the private sector, but based on a straw poll of three companies employing more than 400 workers, I estimate that some 87% are on pre-tax salaries of less than £35,000 a year. I believe that the vast majority of workers in my constituency would be astonished that Labour proposes that there should be no cap on the benefits that people get.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I endorse his figures. Given the scaremongering that we have heard from Opposition Members, does he know how many of those people who earn £35,000 a year are homeless?
Dame Joan Ruddock: We all appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who are in work are hard-working and may be getting less than the national average wage, but will he acknowledge that they may well be entitled to a raft of in-work benefits such as working tax credit, child tax credit, child benefit and housing benefit? It is not a case of saying that people in work have only a certain amount of money and others should not have so much. There is a real difference between people’s overall entitlement and the simple figures about their wages.
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family equivalent to, let alone more than, £26,000 a year. I stand to be corrected, even immediately by e-mail to my office, but I am pretty confident.
Sheila Gilmore: I tend to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not know Gloucester very well, but it would be unlikely for people in Edinburgh to reach that cap, which is exactly the difficulty. Not everywhere is the same. Hon. Members have said that some rents are far too high, but we cannot compare the situation of people in Gloucester with that of people in London.
Richard Graham: The hon. Lady is welcome to visit Gloucester. We have lots of things to show her that she will enjoy. If her point was that there are specific problems in London, I agree with her, but I shall come to that later if I may.
The second group of people in my constituency whom I want to address is those on the lowest wages of all. The Government have been clear that one of their major goals—many of us campaigned for this long before the general election—is to reduce, and if possible to eliminate, income tax for the lowest earners in our constituencies. They have done a great deal towards that goal—I believe that 1.1 million have been taken out of income tax altogether. What message do we send to those who are not earning very much and whom we would like to take out of income tax altogether if we do not cap the benefits that those not in work can clock up?
We should send the lowest earners the message that this Government are on their side. We want to take them out of income tax when we can, and at the same time, we want to put a cap on those families who, for whatever reasons, are unemployed. That is a very important message to send, for example, to the young worker at Asda in Barton and Tredworth, who finds that the presents she buys her children at Christmas are not nearly as good as those bought for the children of the family next door, who are living more comfortably on benefits. This is a worker-friendly policy and Bill.
The third group in my constituency whom I should like to address is those who are the most worried and the most vulnerable, including the disabled—I have had several mails from disabled people—war widows and those on PIP or attendance allowances. As the Minister has made absolutely clear, the Bill provides protection for the most vulnerable in our constituencies.
I absolutely recognise that people could well be affected by some elements of the Bill, and the vast majority of them probably live in London. It is not for me to speak on their behalf or on that issue, but the Minister has addressed the problem with three measures: first, the 10-month grace period; secondly, a special nine-month grace period for those who lose their job; and thirdly, a package of discretionary funding. That seems to me to be a significant proposal for hon. Members whose constituencies are likely to be affected.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made a good point when he warned of the consequences of the Bill in a year or two. Many Government Members, including me, are new to the House and indeed to the world of politics, whereas he has years of experience. I do not have his experience of debating measures that sound great on the day but do not deliver quite what they intended, but in 2010 the Select Committee on
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Work and Pensions, of which I was a member, looked very carefully at changes to housing benefit. There were warnings from well-known charities such as Shelter and speeches from Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people would be thrown out of their accommodation and have to sleep rough on the streets. A year later, none of that has come to pass, although I may have missed something.
Mr Duncan Smith: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest problems in these debates about welfare is that contributions from the other side, with the exception of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), are characterised by massive scaremongering about every single change? That has been reprehensible.
Richard Graham: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have heard from many charities, whose work I deeply respect in many ways and who are active in my constituency, and the strength of their words on some of these issues does amount to scaremongering. I hope that, as on housing benefit, they are proved entirely wrong.
I hugely congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) on the ingenuity of his argument. I have no doubt that were he to go more deeply into the private sector, as I believe he is starting to do, he would be a fantastic salesman of unsellable products. Today, we have heard from him an extraordinary, last-minute and uncosted proposal that leaves us none the wiser about what the Opposition really believe. I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman. He said that if we left matters to politicians, they would make a pig’s ear of it. He is right: he did. From the man who was in charge of the spending of taxpayers’ money and realised that he had spent it all, that was a hugely motivational factor for many Government Members, who realised that politicians had made a pig’s ear of it and perhaps it was time for people from outside politics to come in and try to do something to help.
Mr Byrne: The hon. Gentleman is very generous and I am grateful for his compliments. But he must accept that Ministers have so badly thought this policy through that they have had to face the indignity of coming to this House and promising to spend £130 million solving a problem that they have told us for the last year would never present itself.
Richard Graham: As the right hon. Gentleman will have just heard, I came into this House from outside politics, with a background in the public sector, the charity sector and business, where making concessions and being flexible in achieving goals was generally considered to be a merit. Perhaps if he had shown more flexibility in his approach to the handling of taxpayers’ funds, we would not be in quite the situation that we are today. I am sorry, because I enjoy his company, but I came to the conclusion that his approach today does not remotely add up to a policy. It is simply the continuation of a welfare culture by his party that amounts to gross irresponsibility, married to a something for nothing culture.
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families who are unintentional victims of the Bill in places with high housing costs such as London. It does ensure that workers who are paying the tax that goes to support an enormous benefits bill can see that the Government are taking steps to cap the amounts that are paid out. It is the right thing for Gloucester and for this country, and the amendment is a clumsy, last-minute fudge rather than any solution. I have no hesitation in rejecting it and supporting the Government’s proposal.
As has been pointed out many times, families earning £35,000 or £40,000 and families on benefits both receive child benefit—it is a universal benefit. First, then, how can it be right to have the same cap for a single, childless adult as for a family with children? Secondly, why are this Government, of all Governments, importing a new couples penalty into the benefits system? It might make more sense for a couple, each of whom might separately be below the cap, to separate than to stay together and incur it. I have never understood why this Secretary of State, of all Secretaries of State, wants to introduce such a policy.
Thirdly, how will the cap be uprated—if, indeed, it is to be uprated? What will happen if a family is forced to move to cheaper accommodation because its costs exceed the cap, and then rents rise in the new area and it is forced to move again and again and again? Until we know how the cap is to be uprated, children’s well-being and family stability will be put at risk, but I have yet to hear Ministers address that issue.
Chris Grayling: In the past hour and 45 minutes, we have listened to a debate that sums up the difference between the Labour party and the parties in government. With the leave of the House, I will respond briefly to the remarks that we have heard.
It is my view—and, I believe, the view of the public listening to this debate—that we have to change the nature of our welfare state. We have to move away from the world that existed under the previous Government, where children grew up, generation after generation, in houses where no one worked, and where entire communities had people with no experience of work in their family and who knew nothing about how to improve their lot in life. In the Bill, we have introduced a package of measures that will do nothing short of transforming our welfare state.
The great tragedy of this afternoon’s debate is that Labour just does not get it. We have seen an extraordinary attempt by Labour to get itself off a highly visible public hook over a policy that commands overwhelming public support in every constituency in the country. If we walked out on to the streets this afternoon and asked the public what they thought about a benefit cap, we would discover that virtually everyone was 100% behind this policy. Yet what we have heard from the Opposition over the weeks has been an exercise in dancing around the issue. There have been moments when they have said that they favour the benefits cap, but there have been moments when they have said that they oppose it.
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Sheila Gilmore: I stood up to say that we cannot simply go to the population in the way suggested. When I was out on Sunday, one of my constituents said to me, “Yes, £26,000 seems a lot of money”, but when I asked her what she thought about so much money going in rents to landlords, she immediately changed her mind. We cannot create policy by giving people insufficient information.
As we stand here, we still do not know exactly where Labour stands. I cannot, hand on heart, say, when the House divides in a minute’s time, whether Labour Members will vote for the benefit cap or against it. We asked the question again and again but they would not answer. They dance around the issue and come up with lame last-ditch excuses and new ideas that they did not discuss in Committee. At the end of the day, they do not want to give an answer to the public. In a moment, they will have to give that answer, because out there are millions of people watching us this afternoon, asking, “Will the House of Commons back something we passionately believe in?” We on this side of the House will be walking through the Division Lobby tonight in support of a benefit cap. We will be backing the views of our constituents; the question is: will the Opposition? Will the shadow Secretary of State, will the shadow Minister, will all the people who we have listened to in debates in Committee and in this Chamber—
The House divided:
Ayes 334, Noes 251.
Alexander, rh Danny
Amess, Mr David
Arbuthnot, rh Mr James
Bacon, Mr Richard
Baron, Mr John
Beith, rh Sir Alan
Beresford, Sir Paul
Binley, Mr Brian
Blunt, Mr Crispin
Bone, Mr Peter
Bottomley, Sir Peter
Brady, Mr Graham
Brake, rh Tom
Brazier, Mr Julian
Browne, Mr Jeremy
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Buckland, Mr Robert
Burley, Mr Aidan
Burns, rh Mr Simon
Burrowes, Mr David
Cable, rh Vince
Cameron, rh Mr David
Campbell, Mr Gregory
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair
Carswell, Mr Douglas
Cash, Mr William
Chope, Mr Christopher
Clark, rh Greg
Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth
Clegg, rh Mr Nick
Coffey, Dr Thérèse
Cox, Mr Geoffrey
Davey, Mr Edward
Davies, David T. C.
Davis, rh Mr David
de Bois, Nick
Djanogly, Mr Jonathan
Dodds, rh Mr Nigel
Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.
Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen
Duncan, rh Mr Alan
Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain
Dunne, Mr Philip
Ellwood, Mr Tobias
Evennett, Mr David
Foster, rh Mr Don
Fox, rh Dr Liam
Francois, rh Mr Mark
Gale, Sir Roger
Garnier, Mr Edward
Gauke, Mr David
Gibb, Mr Nick
Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl
Goodwill, Mr Robert
Gove, rh Michael
Grant, Mrs Helen
Grayling, rh Chris
Grieve, rh Mr Dominic
Gyimah, Mr Sam
Hammond, rh Mr Philip
Hancock, Mr Mike
Harper, Mr Mark
Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan
Hayes, Mr John
Heath, Mr David
Hoban, Mr Mark
Hollobone, Mr Philip
Holloway, Mr Adam
Hughes, rh Simon
Huhne, rh Chris
Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy
Huppert, Dr Julian
Hurd, Mr Nick
Jackson, Mr Stewart
Jenkin, Mr Bernard
Jones, Mr David
Jones, Mr Marcus
Knight, rh Mr Greg
Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Lansley, rh Mr Andrew
Laws, rh Mr David
Lee, Dr Phillip
Leech, Mr John
Leigh, Mr Edward
Letwin, rh Mr Oliver
Lewis, Dr Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian
Lilley, rh Mr Peter
Main, Mrs Anne
May, rh Mrs Theresa
McCrea, Dr William
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick
Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew
Morris, Anne Marie
Mundell, rh David
Murrison, Dr Andrew
Nuttall, Mr David
O'Brien, Mr Stephen
Offord, Mr Matthew
Osborne, rh Mr George
Paice, rh Mr James
Paterson, rh Mr Owen
Pickles, rh Mr Eric
Poulter, Dr Daniel
Prisk, Mr Mark
Raab, Mr Dominic
Randall, rh Mr John
Redwood, rh Mr John
Reid, Mr Alan
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Robathan, rh Mr Andrew
Ruffley, Mr David
Russell, Sir Bob
Scott, Mr Lee
Shapps, rh Grant
Shepherd, Mr Richard
Simpson, Mr Keith
Smith, Miss Chloe
Smith, Sir Robert
Soames, rh Nicholas
Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline
Spencer, Mr Mark
Streeter, Mr Gary
Swayne, rh Mr Desmond
Swire, rh Mr Hugo
Syms, Mr Robert
Tapsell, rh Sir Peter
Timpson, Mr Edward
Turner, Mr Andrew
Vaizey, Mr Edward
Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa
Walker, Mr Charles
Walker, Mr Robin
Wallace, Mr Ben
Walter, Mr Robert
Ward, Mr David
Willetts, rh Mr David
Williams, Mr Mark
Wilson, Mr Rob
Wollaston, Dr Sarah
Yeo, Mr Tim
Young, rh Sir George
Tellers for the Ayes:
Mark Hunter and
Mr Shailesh Vara
Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob
Alexander, rh Mr Douglas
Allen, Mr Graham
Bailey, Mr Adrian
Bain, Mr William
Balls, rh Ed
Barron, rh Mr Kevin
Beckett, rh Margaret
Begg, Dame Anne
Bell, Sir Stuart
Benn, rh Hilary
Betts, Mr Clive
Blears, rh Hazel
Blunkett, rh Mr David
Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben
Brown, rh Mr Gordon
Brown, rh Mr Nicholas
Brown, Mr Russell
Buck, Ms Karen
Burnham, rh Andy
Byrne, rh Mr Liam
Campbell, Mr Alan
Campbell, Mr Ronnie
Chapman, Mrs Jenny
Clarke, rh Mr Tom
Clwyd, rh Ann
Cooper, rh Yvette
Crausby, Mr David
Cunningham, Mr Jim
Darling, rh Mr Alistair
David, Mr Wayne
Davidson, Mr Ian
Denham, rh Mr John
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr Brian H.
Doran, Mr Frank
Eagle, Ms Angela
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Flint, rh Caroline
Francis, Dr Hywel
Glindon, Mrs Mary
Goggins, rh Paul
Hain, rh Mr Peter
Hamilton, Mr David
Hanson, rh Mr David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Mr Tom
Havard, Mr Dai
Healey, rh John
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs Sharon
Hood, Mr Jim
Howarth, rh Mr George
James, Mrs Siân C.
Johnson, rh Alan
Jones, Mr Kevan
Jones, Susan Elan
Jowell, rh Tessa
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Khan, rh Sadiq
Lammy, rh Mr David
Lewis, Mr Ivan
Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn
MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan
Mahmood, Mr Khalid
Marsden, Mr Gordon
McCann, Mr Michael
McDonnell, Dr Alasdair
McGuire, rh Mrs Anne
McKenzie, Mr Iain
Meacher, rh Mr Michael
Meale, Sir Alan
Michael, rh Alun
Miliband, rh David
Miliband, rh Edward
Morris, Grahame M.
Mudie, Mr George
Murphy, rh Mr Jim
Murphy, rh Paul
Raynsford, rh Mr Nick
Reed, Mr Jamie
Riordan, Mrs Linda
Ritchie, Ms Margaret
Robinson, Mr Geoffrey
Roy, Mr Frank
Ruddock, rh Dame Joan
Sanders, Mr Adrian
Sharma, Mr Virendra
Sheerman, Mr Barry
Skinner, Mr Dennis
Slaughter, Mr Andy
Smith, rh Mr Andrew
Spellar, rh Mr John
Straw, rh Mr Jack
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry
Thomas, Mr Gareth
Timms, rh Stephen
Vaz, rh Keith
Watson, Mr Tom
Watts, Mr Dave
Whiteford, Dr Eilidh
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Winnick, Mr David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Wright, Mr Iain
Tellers for the Noes:
Phil Wilson and
Question accordingly agreed to.
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On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This has been an important debate, yet the Government have ensured that no time was available to discuss Labour’s amendment and to put it to the vote before the knife fell at 5 o’clock. They declared financial privilege
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on the amendment in order to stop it being debated in the House of Lords. What advice would you give me, Mr Deputy Speaker, on how to ensure that this place is able to vote on Labour’s benefit cap?
Mr Duncan Smith: Far be it from me to suggest an answer, but the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) might like to reflect on the fact that his party did not vote on the programme motion.
Maria Miller: As Mr Speaker has indicated, Lords amendments 1, 2, 3, 4, 26 and 73 impinge on the financial privileges of the House of Commons. In disagreeing to the amendments, I will ask the Reasons Committee to ascribe financial privilege as the reason to the House of Lords. Notwithstanding that, however, the House of Commons has an opportunity to debate the substance of the amendments, and to provide the Government’s full rationale for rejecting them,
Lords amendment 1 concerns elements for disabled children. Let us be clear about the impact of the amendment. It would force the Government to reduce support for severely disabled children and, moreover, would go against our commitment to increase support for such children to £77. I believe that our original policy, as agreed in this House, is the right one, because it targets support for disabled people not on age but on need, and removes the cliff edge of financial support that is currently faced by young adults and their families.
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In these difficult times, we must make tough choices about where to target our limited resources. The choice that the Government have made is to protect the money that is available to support disabled people in universal credit, and to use it more effectively to ensure that the people who face the biggest challenge are given more support. I repeat that all the money is recycled to support disabled people. What we are doing is thinking about the whole life of an individual, and removing the current artificial division between childhood and adulthood. I hope that that reassures my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), who spoke earlier about the importance of supporting disabled people. We have ensured that we can protect the money that is so important to them.
As we have reiterated throughout our debates on the Bill, we are overhauling existing support. It does not really make sense to look at any one aspect of universal credit in isolation: it provides families with a new package of support to meet a range of needs, and for that reason we need to consider the overall impact of the offer rather than concentrating on any of its individual components.
A parent with a disabled child and who is working 20 hours a week on the minimum wage is likely to be £73 better off in work under universal credit, rather than only £13 better off under tax credits. About 30,000 more families with a disabled child are in work than are out of work, so it is right for us to target support in a way that helps working families. An out-of-work family with a disabled child can receive just over £8,000 a year in benefits for their child once universal credit has been introduced. That compares with just over £4,000 for an out-of-work family with a non-disabled child, and about £1,000 for a family who only receive child benefit. Our impact assessments and modelling demonstrate that, overall, families are more likely to be better off on universal credit, and that there will be no significant change for disabled children living in poverty.
As all Members know, increasing spending is not an option. We simply cannot maintain the existing rates for disabled children if we are to increase the rates for severely disabled adults. That would cost £200 million, which we simply cannot afford. This is a critical point. If the amendment were agreed to, it would not be possible to increase the addition for the most severely disabled people to £77. Let us be clear: the decision to be made is whether we should maintain rates for moderately disabled children at the expense of raising the limits for severely disabled people. We strongly believe that the fairest approach is to align support between children and adults. We take an holistic view of an individual’s life. In summary, what is fair and right is to simplify benefits within universal credit, and to focus limited resources on the basis of need, not age.
“we should use every lever at our disposal to make reaching a voluntary agreement more attractive than coming into the Child-Maintenance Enforcement Commission.”
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and we all know that all too often that conflict can be embedded and entrenched as a result of problems to do with the Child Support Agency.
The role of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission has changed fundamentally. It is no longer about recovering, pound for pound, the benefits payments made to lone parents. Instead we have a benefits system that gives more than £6.5 billion in welfare payments directly to lone parents, both those in work and those not in work. In the past, change has been piecemeal. That has created the current failing system, which costs taxpayers £500 million every year; has nil-assessed more than 250,000 people, some of whom really should be receiving support; and has 100,000 clerical cases. It would not be putting it too strongly to say that we have inherited a real mess from the Labour party. The reform that we are undertaking is long overdue.
My concern is that the amendment from the other place is not about improving the situation; if anything, it would make the situation worse. It is about attempting to divide parents into those who deserve to be charged, and those who do not. Our reforms are about creating a behavioural change for the benefit of children, and about helping parents to work together. The amendment from the other place would make that approach unworkable.
Malcolm Wicks (Croydon North) (Lab): I have been listening carefully to what the Minister has to say. This is complex territory that has bewildered previous Conservative Governments and, frankly, the Labour Government. Will she tell the House how many parents with care do not receive any child maintenance from the other party?
Maria Miller: I can tell the right hon. Gentleman how many children do not receive any maintenance from the other party. Given that we spend £500 million a year on a child maintenance system, I think that it will shock the House to learn that for half of children living in separated families, there is no support in place. It is clear for everybody to see that the present system simply does not work, and the reason why it does not work is that it does not support families in coming together.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): May I say how strongly I support the reforms, particularly the link-up with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which seems incredibly sensible to the parents in my constituency who come to see me? Will the Minister tell us what will happen on the ground locally to support families who are separating? I think that is where the rubber hits the road.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I will come on to this in a bit more detail in a moment, but I have been working with organisations such as Gingerbread, Families Need Fathers, Relate, and the Centre for Separated Families to make sure that we have the sort of support in place that has not been forthcoming for too many years, so that there is a structure for referring individuals to the right level of support via telephone lines, websites and the expert support that already exists. Importantly, we will also make available funding—some £20 million—to support
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programmes that help families to resolve their differences. That is doubling the amount of Government support for family relationships.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I support a lot of what the Minister is trying to do, and I know how dedicated she is to trying to help the Child Support Agency. However, I support the Lords amendment on charging. I agree with charging later on, when people are refusing to adhere to an order, but if the relationship between parents has already broken down, there is a risk that people will not go for the maintenance that they want because of the charging.
Maria Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to clarify an important aspect of the current situation. More than half of parents within the CMEC system would like to make their own arrangements—they positively want to do that—if they had the right support in place, but they do not have that support. They see the CMEC and the Child Support Agency as the only option open to them, and that cannot be right. It cannot be right that we are not doing more to support families so that they can take responsibility and do the right thing.
Mr Frank Field: Is not the really big change that we are discussing the fact that when the CSA was first established, the maintenance moneys went to the Treasury to offset what taxpayers were putting up because, generally speaking, fathers were not prepared to do so, whereas now that money remains with the family? Is it not reasonable, in such circumstances, if people are going to get a top-up to their benefit that they should contribute to the cost of gaining that extra money? On the timing, should we not charge people once they are getting the money, not before?
Maria Miller: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. He is absolutely right. Indeed, back in 1991 when the Child Support Agency was initially put in place, some £400 million of savings were attached to it because there was a pound-for-pound withdrawal of maintenance and the welfare benefits that an individual received.
Maria Miller: I just realised that I did not finish my response to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). He challenged me about the up-front cost, and why we were not just making an ongoing charge once money was flowing. It is very simple. We want not simply to use this to enhance a family’s income but to take the opportunity to help parents to consider whether they should go to the Child Support Agency as they could stay outside the system and make their own arrangements.
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that we are using the system to support families properly to take responsibility, but we also need to ensure that we make the prudent savings that taxpayers would expect us to make in these difficult economic times. The cost of charging up front will not disproportionately add cost to the whole system—far from it. We are incentivising people to come to their own arrangements. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), more than half the people currently inside the system would like to make their own arrangements. I know that by putting in place an up-front charge we will get some of those people to consider the actions they take.
Maria Miller: The hon. Lady will forgive me if I try to make some progress. I know that many hon. Members want to contribute to the debate and we have another significant issue to discuss after this one.
We want to support parents in taking responsibility for their child’s financial support post-separation, so that they do not see the costly and heavy-handed CSA as their only option. As I have said, half the parents using the Child Support Agency tell us they would like to make their own arrangements, with the right support, which clearly demonstrates that the CSA has come to be seen as the default option.
We are doubling Government spending on relationship support with an additional £20 million. I want to put on record my thanks to those groups that have worked hard with us to develop what that support should be—they are, as I have said, Gingerbread, Relate, Families Need Fathers, and the Centre for Separated Families. For families that need the more structured approach of the statutory scheme it will remain accessible and heavily subsidised, but there will be in-built incentives for parents always to see the advantages of working collaboratively and in-built incentives for parents to pay maintenance in full and on time.
Maintenance direct will be a no-cost way for parents to make ongoing payments to each other within the statutory scheme and the full statutory collection scheme, with its strong enforcement powers, will be a service that both parents pay for.
Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Does the Minister share my experience that it is not a question of the system but a matter of enforcement? Whether the process is voluntary or goes through the Child Support Agency, the problems of children not receiving any money come about because there is either no enforcement or the enforcement is not effective. How will the system provide the enforcement action that is needed?
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Maria Miller: I share the hon. Gentleman’s experiences of the current system and although I pay tribute to the staff who work in the Child Support Agency and the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission for their efforts to make the system work, we all know, as constituency MPs, that there is a big problem with parents’ attitudes towards payment. There is absolutely nothing in place at the moment to prevent parents from simply waiting until enforcement comes into play. Our measures will ensure that that changes, and will mean there is always an incentive for people to pay on time. Importantly, we will ensure that if we have to take heavy enforcement action, the individual who has caused the situation will pay for it, whether through a deduction of earnings order or through other measures we are putting in place.
It is not the Government’s intention to block parents from using the statutory scheme and we are listening hard to the concerns of parliamentarians in both Houses. To that end, the Government have proposed amendment 75 to ensure that there is a review of charging, and a report to Parliament will be completed within 30 months of the introduction of that mechanism. I can announce today that to underline that commitment the up-front charge for parents choosing to use the statutory scheme will be reduced to £20 for all applicants. In return, parents will receive a calculation of maintenance payable that will, for the first time, be based routinely on HMRC data. Additionally, domestic violence victims will be completely exempt from the application charge. I am sure the whole House will welcome this announcement, which demonstrates that no family will be deterred from accessing the statutory system purely on the basis of cost.
Mr Roy: The Minister has just praised Gingerbread. Does she agree with what Gingerbread has said—that 72% of single parents would not be able to come to an agreement and that 50% of those parents would not be able to afford the application fees?
Maria Miller: I think it is very important to work with individuals in all the organisations that support families going through separation. We will not always agree on everything but it is important to work together because we must get a solution that is right for mothers, fathers and children.
Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): Will the Minister clarify that the gateway for access by parents will be £20 each and not, as was previously set out, a more complex one? If that is the case, I congratulate her and the Government on listening to people, reducing those charges and making this more simple.
Maria Miller: It will be £20 for the applicant only, because we want to make sure that the system is easy and straightforward to administer. For that, applicants will get a calculation of the amount of money their ex-partner would pay them. I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that, on an ongoing basis, the levels of charges will always sit disproportionately on the non-resident parent, because it is important that there is always an incentive for people to come to an arrangement.
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Sheila Gilmore: Obviously, any change of heart is welcome—I do not think we would not welcome this—but there is something I do not understand. If, as the Minister has said, many people are reluctant to pay, how will charging the applicant—the parent with care—make the other parent more likely to pay?
Maria Miller: The hon. Lady and I know that it is very difficult for us to sit in judgment over parents. Family breakdown can be caused by many different things and we need to make sure that the support is there for parents to come together and work together. All our evidence suggests that 50% of people in the CSA system would rather not be there and would rather be working in the way I have described.
Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): The Minister is absolutely right about the need for collaboration-based arrangements. To respond to the previous intervention, is not the inflexibility of the system one reason why non-resident parents often do not like paying? The constant barrage of letters, telephone calls and everything else means that they feel more and more reluctant but more and more pressured to pay. My constituency cases suggest that collaborative arrangements are sustainable and have worked.
Maria Miller: My hon. Friend is right that the inflexibility in the system does not reflect true family life. Every single family is different. It is difficult to reflect that in a statutory system, which is why encouraging more people to work on those arrangements together, whether the issue is finance or access, is the way for children to get the best results after family breakdown.
Ian Paisley: It would be churlish to not recognise that the Government have listened, because a £100 access fee would have been prohibitive to families, especially the most vulnerable families, who matter most in all this. I put on record my thanks to the Government for listening on that point, because that will allow more engagement with the statutory agencies, which is how we can get to the bottom of these problems.
Maria Miller: May I address the amendment directly? The Government accept that Lord Mackay had the very best of intentions in tabling amendment 73 in the Lords. However, his approach means that the Government, before deciding who would pay a charge, would have to consider whether parents had tried to be collaborative. In considering that amendment, hon. Members should ask themselves whether it is the Government’s place to monitor and judge parents’ efforts to work collaboratively after their separation.
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Maria Miller: I will give way in a moment. The implication of the amendment is that we should say yes to that, but the Government know that the answer absolutely has to be no. Not even under the simplest model of implementation could we see a way to set a level playing field of the sort that parents really need at such a difficult time. It would cost, we estimate, more than £220 million across this spending review and the next—a cost that would not be right for us to accept, and certainly not driving the right outcomes for children.
Mrs Grant: I was a legal aid family lawyer for 23 years before being elected to this place, and I had the opportunity to represent many families seeking maintenance. It would be impossibly difficult, practically and fairly, to assess which families had taken reasonable steps to reach an agreement and which had not, unless we created an intrusive, Big Brother society, which I do not think anyone would want.
Maria Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because she brings with her a wealth of experience of the practical problems that families face in these very difficult times. An additional effect of the amendment would be to put almost 100% of the ongoing charges on the non-resident parent. We agree that non-resident parents should have a clear incentive to pay a greater contribution to the ongoing costs, but I fear that simply loading all those costs on the non-resident parent could drive some perverse incentives and not provide the ability for parents to work in the collaborative way that I have set out.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: We would acknowledge that reducing the amount of money that must be paid up front by the applicant is a step in the right direction, but I am still not clear about the rationale behind the non-resident carer being more likely to pay up because the applicant must pay a charge. I am concerned about conceding the principle of paying up front, because what will stop the Government coming back in a year’s time and hiking up the £20 fee to £100 or £150? Will the Minister explain how the uprating of that amount will be carried out?
Maria Miller: I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful support. It is really important that the up-front charge does not become a deterrent, which is why we will look at how charging is working 30 months after implementation. I remind her that the parent with care receives, in return for her up-front fee, a clear and detailed calculation of how much money would be payable to her through maintenance, and for the first time the calculation will use HMRC data, which will ensure that she has all the information needed to decide whether it is appropriate to go into either maintenance direct, where there will be no ongoing charges, or the statutory system.
Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): I, too, welcome the fact that the cost for the applicant has come down, but will the Minister explain what the charging will be and how much it will cost the Government to collect the £20, because it seems to me that it will cost far too much to collect a mere £20?
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Maria Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Of course, we are all very quizzical about the CSA when it comes to costs, because we know that it has been very difficult to administer over the years. She will be reassured to know that we have taken a very straightforward approach and want to keep it simple. By charging an up-front fee and getting people to reconsider staying outside the system, we will be making considerable savings, as I have outlined. When she considers that each case costs around £26,000, or up to £40,000 if it involves any sort of enforcement, she will quickly see that getting people to reconsider will lead to significant savings.
Claire Perry: My hon. Friend is being most gracious in giving way. I wish to help underpin her point. As MPs we all face multiple challenging CSA cases, the most distressing of which are those where claimants know that their spouse is earning lots of money but not declaring it. Getting a statement that for the first time is based on HMRC’s reported data and sets out clearly what recipients can expect is a huge advantage, and £20 for that is a cheap price.
Maria Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for her support. The key is that we must ensure that we encourage both parents to work together, which is why we have configured the charging system in the way we have. That will always be in the best interests of the child, and hon. Members who work in this area will know that separation can be so damaging for children unless it is dealt with collaboratively.
Mr Watts: I am still not absolutely sure what the enforcement action that will drive some parents to pay will be. On the point that the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) has just made on people who have doubts about their spouse’s income, many of those people are self-employed and do not declare their incomes, so we will not be able to chase them, and that is the problem, not that PAYE will not catch them.
Maria Miller: The hon. Gentleman and I know that self-employed people, although a small number of individuals, are disproportionately represented in the problem cases that hon. Members have. He will also know that self-employed people still have to do tax returns, so rather than ex-partners having to pursue individuals who might be self-employed and have no office at which we can get hold of them, we will be able to use the HMRC link, which I think is an important improvement.
With regard to the enforcement that we will be taking to ensure that things really stick, first and foremost it is about ensuring that there is an understanding in the House about the charges that we will put in place for that enforcement action. Implementing a deduction of earnings order does not currently cost the person defaulting on their maintenance a bean. We are talking about making sure that those charges are passed on, which I think taxpayers would expect us to do. We will also consider implementing some of the other enforcement measures that Labour Members put in place through the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008.
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charges, and that can even go up to £40,000 if enforcement action is taken, so what estimate has she made of the savings to the taxpayer that will result from the new proposals?
Maria Miller: My hon. Friend cites those figures accurately, and the savings throughout this spending review period and into the next will be considerable indeed—running, I believe, into about £200 million. That is money we can use to support families directly through organisations such as those I have mentioned, and that is why we have made up-front a very clear commitment to taking £20 million of the money that we will save and directly investing in it in beneficial support for families. That is the right thing to do with the money that we are saving, as is making our contribution to reducing the budget deficit, which we inherited from the Labour party.
We know that we have to get parents to work together, and the issue is not simply about maintenance, but about continuing to encourage co-parenting, post-separation. Again, where possible, that is the right thing for children, and that is why the coalition Government, with our commitment to shared parenting, are putting family relationships and responsibility first. I therefore urge right hon. and hon. Members to reject this amendment from the other place, which could seriously undermine the very principled reform that we are undertaking here today.
The amendments to clauses 68 and 11 would dilute our proposals to deal with the widespread problem of social tenants under-occupying their accommodation. The proposed changes would effectively allow that group to keep one spare bedroom and, critically, wipe out up to £300 million a year from the estimated £500 million in savings, which we would have to find elsewhere. That approach is quite simply unrealistic, and in the current economic climate it would be totally irresponsible of us not to press ahead with our changes.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the Minister not accept that in many areas there is no alternative social rented accommodation to move to, and that people will be expected to move from social rented housing to smaller, private rented accommodation, which will end up being more expensive and, therefore, increase the housing benefit bill, not decrease it?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a great deal of interest in that issue, as indeed do many other hon. Members, but I simply put it to him that many people in that situation will choose not to move.
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They will choose to make other arrangements and, perhaps, to get other people in their household to contribute to the bills. Indeed, I am sure he is right that some people will choose to move, and we are ensuring that there is sufficient time for them to consider their options and, importantly, making sure that support and a significant amount of discretionary housing payments are in place, so that local authorities are able to support people who have difficulty with the change.
Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the Minister’s understanding, and, as somebody who represents more people in social housing than probably any other English MP, I know that the Government have absolutely the right policy to ensure that people do not occupy properties that are bigger than they need when the state is paying the rent. But it is not practical to insist that they move when there is nowhere smaller to move to, so Lords amendment 4 is entirely reasonable, because it refers to the situation when
“any such landlord is not able to offer suitable alternative accommodation which would not cause a person to under occupy.”
Maria Miller: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention; I understand the feeling with which he delivered it. I say clearly to him that we are saying that there is a great deal of time and considerable support for individuals who find themselves in difficult situations. We need to make sure that as many people as possible are able to remain where they are and that they are given the support to do that.
We have made considerable moves to make sure that the right support is in place, particularly for those with disabilities or foster care responsibilities. But I ask my right hon. Friend to consider how we would deal with what would be an enormous loss to the savings. Our basic problem is that there are 1 million spare bedrooms while about 250,000 families live in overcrowded accommodation. It is important for us to try to balance all those factors.
Kate Hoey: Would the Minister like to visit one or two people who I know in my constituency? It is only across the river. They are elderly people with one extra bedroom who have lived where they live all their lives. Their children have moved outside London because they cannot get housing here, but they occasionally visit with the grandchildren. This is just unbelievable—it is genuinely unbelievable that any Government would think of making someone move away from their family home. Will the Minister visit and explain the situation to those elderly people, who are so worried and upset by what has been suggested?
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average reduction will be about £14 a week, but for many it will be about £12. Given the amount of notice that we are giving individuals and families, we want people to be able to consider the available options.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): In many islands or remote villages, there is simply no alternative accommodation; the turnover of social housing is so slow that it could take many years for a smaller house to become available. What support will be available for people on islands and in remote villages so that they can stay in their own communities?
Maria Miller: My hon. Friend and I have spoken about these matters and I understand the very individual problems that his constituency faces. It is because of those very individual situations that we have put in place significant support so that local authorities can consider different ways to support families living in rural areas some distance from other communities and make sure that they are not dislocated from their support networks.
Guto Bebb: This issue has been of real concern to me. In a recent letter that I received, Community Housing Wales argued that more than 40,000 individual tenants in Wales would be affected by the issue of under-occupancy. What it failed to say is that, according to Welsh Assembly statistics, more than 50,000 tenants in Wales are over-occupying. There is a need for social housing providers to look creatively at how they move tenants within housing stock.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) talked about her real concern for some of her constituents. I remind her, although she will know this already, that the measures that we are talking about are for working-age people only—not for pensioners. I encourage all hon. Members to ensure that the tone of our debate is based on fact and not fictional evidence.
Claire Perry: About a third of my constituency casework is made up of Child Support Agency cases, but another third is made up of housing. In Wiltshire, more than 12,000 people are waiting on the housing list. Week after week, young families come in who simply cannot get the housing that they need. Will my hon. Friend confirm that we must support the principle and do what is being discussed to relieve the pressure on social housing lists?
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Aside from the financial issues, there is the bigger issue of fairness, which hon. Members have talked about in their interventions. Is it fair for taxpayers to take the tough choices about where they live, only to fund tenants in the social sector to live in homes larger than they need? Is it fair that people who are renting from private landlords get housing benefit to live in accommodation that is a suitable size for their household and that those in the social sector are not so restricted?
If social sector tenants choose to continue to live in accommodation that is larger than they need, it is only right that they make a contribution towards the cost. They can meet any shortfall through employment or other means. Those are the sorts of everyday choices that people living in the private rented sector and those who are not getting housing benefit have to make every day.
Mr Speaker: Order. It is clear that at the moment, the Minister is not giving way. It is for her to decide whether to give way. I gently make the point that it is now four minutes to 6 and the debate must conclude at 7. If Members were to have the opportunity neither to make their points through interventions nor through speeches, I would anticipate an extensive disappointment. I am sure that the Minister will factor that into her calculations in tailoring her contribution to the debate.
The average weekly reduction is likely to be about £14. However, that is the average. Nearly 80% of claimants are under-occupying their accommodation by just one bedroom and will see an average reduction of about £12 a week. Working for just a few hours a week could help to meet that cost. The substantial investment that we are making in the Work programme and universal credit will ensure that people are supported in finding work, and that that work will pay.
We have listened to the concerns about the impact that these changes will have on specific groups, so we have committed to increase the budget for discretionary housing payments by £30 million from 2013-14. That additional money, which could help about 40,000 claimants, is aimed specifically at disabled people and accommodation for foster carers. We are working closely with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that we have an effective implementation plan that will support tenants, their advisers and housing providers.
Ultimately, the country cannot afford to fund what is approaching 1 million spare rooms from the taxes of hardworking families, when those spare rooms could be used by other families who are living in overcrowded accommodation.
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“Based on existing turnover of smaller accommodation it will take over seven years to re-house all of those households who are under occupying their current homes.”
“homeless households and those leaving care.”
Maria Miller: That is why we are already working with local authorities to ensure that they are well prepared for the changes. We have discretionary payments in place so that local authorities can take account of such problems. We reject the Lords amendment.
I will now move on to the remaining amendments so that I do not incur the wrath of Mr Speaker. The other Lords amendments in this group are minor and technical or simply clarify policy. They have already been announced and I do not intend to go into any further detail so that there is more time for Members to contribute to this important debate.
Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I will not follow the same order as the Minister. I will deal first with under-occupancy, because rarely have I heard such a pathetic defence of a Government’s position as I have heard here today. Their proposals are not based on fairness, and they are not intended to deal with the under-occupation of social housing. They are a bare-faced attempt to cut housing benefit.
Frankly, even though the Minister spoke for three quarters of an hour and kept telling us that she wanted to make progress, I felt as though we were back in the 19th century given some of what she said. She talked about social tenants as though they were a breed apart. I noticed that she called them “these people”. Many Members were once “these people” living in social housing, and some of us still are.
Mr Roy: I thank my right hon. Friend. What would she say to the 55-year-old man I met on Saturday, who has lived in his council house with his parents for 43 years and is now on benefit? He was genuinely frightened about the proposals being put forward. What can we say to that particular gentleman?
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Mrs McGuire: That the proposals are unfair and are an attempt to disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged in many respects. They, along with some of the other elements of the Bill, are about to hit the poorest people.
I want to put on record the fantastic work of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who is in her place. The Minister talks as though there were millions of houses out there ready for people to move into, but the Government do not know how many there are. They cannot even agree on what constitutes under-occupancy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North asked Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government what constituted under-occupancy, and they said that it was two spare bedrooms, whereas the Department for Work and Pensions has a far more restrictive interpretation.
Ms Buck: We know from the Government’s own impact assessment that under-occupation is a problem particularly, but not exclusively, in the north of England, and that overcrowding is a problem particularly, but not exclusively, in the south. Local authorities have legal duties to their tenants, and if somebody from Salford is seeking to downsize, local authorities in Doncaster or Hull are not permitted to take them because of residency qualifications. Will my right hon. Friend help me to understand something that the Government have completely failed to explain? How will tenants be able to move from one local authority to another?
I shall give the House an illustration of what I have said, for which I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell). Northumberland county council, which has a mixture of housing in various types of locality, has estimated that it will take eight long years before it can put in place the Government’s proposals. During that time, people on the housing list will not be able to get into housing that is suitable for them.
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Andrew Gwynne: Does not what we have heard highlight the Conservative party’s misunderstanding of how social housing operates in reality? As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said, we are talking about people’s homes. Even if they wanted to downsize, the housing stock is not there for them to move into.
Claire Perry: I am most grateful. On a point of clarification, I thought I heard the right hon. Lady say that Members of this House continued to occupy social housing. Does she think it is appropriate for MPs earning £64,000 a year to occupy social housing and, presumably, have lifetime tenancy over it?
Mrs McGuire: The hon. Lady has a philosophical misunderstanding about people’s homes and houses. My mother lived in a local authority house all her life. She never thought it was anything other than her home. She did not see it as second class or inferior. She lived in it and it was right for her.
Mr Speaker: Order. That is not acceptable. The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) should not shout across the Chamber, “My grandfather lived in a council house, you twit.” She should apologise. Frankly, she and other Members need to calm down. There is a decorum to this place. I know the hon. Lady. She would not behave like that across the dinner table, and she will not behave like that in this Chamber. That is the end of it. I hope we have an apology.
Sir Bob Russell: Successive Labour and Conservative Governments from 1945 to 1980 built a massive supply of family council houses, but for the next 30 years, they did not. It is a question of supply and demand. Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need more affordable rented houses?
Mrs McGuire: I would not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Housing was built in the 1940s and ’50s to deal with the nuclear family that everybody knew at the time. The way in which families have developed, including the growth in the number of single-parent households, was not factored in. That goes for the social rented and private sectors.
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The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) said that there are communities in all nations of this country—smaller communities, but sometimes larger ones—where there is an insufficient supply of houses, which is very true. People might have lived in them all their lives and would be unable physically to move.
Dr Whiteford: The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. This problem is not isolated to Argyll and other island communities. In Scotland, 44% of social tenants need a one-bedroom house, yet only 24% can have one. That is the fundamental nature of the housing stock in the whole country.
Maria Miller: I thank the right hon. Lady. It is very gracious of her to give way so that I can clarify matters. She will obviously be aware of the new national home swap scheme, which, importantly, will help people to identify housing in other areas, which is what she is talking about. We are also providing funding to councils of some £13 million over the next four years so that they can support under-occupying tenants who wish to move.
The right hon. Lady will also know that there is a great deal of commitment from the Government in terms of helping to build affordable housing: some £4.5 billion will help to deliver up to 170,000 new affordable homes. Those are all ways in which we can make the sort of changes that she wants. Just to clarify, as a lady who was born in a council house—
Mr Speaker: Order. This really is an abuse. It is a novelty, in my experience, for a Minister to intervene from the Front Bench reading from a folder. That really will not do. Interventions should be brief, and it would be good if the House—both sides—could get back into the courteous mood in which it found itself yesterday and for part of today.
Mrs McGuire: I listened to what the hon. Lady said, but she has obviously had no experience of trying to arrange a mutual swap in a small local authority area. We will have not only mutual swaps in small local authority areas, but national swaps, all supported by some anonymous Government agency. Frankly, the hon. Lady is living in cloud cuckoo land.
Mr Watts: Will my right hon. Friend encourage people to consider judicial review, because they are being asked to move to smaller accommodation that does not exist, on which basis the Bill is a fine on benefits and a fine on some of the poorest people in Britain?
Before I move on, I want the House to hear what Lord Freud said in the other place when asked about how people would cover the reduction in rent. The Minister glibly passed over it, saying that it was only £12 or £14 on average. Lord Freud said:
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“Claimants affected by this measure will have to decide whether to meet any shortfall themselves—from their earnings for example, or they could take in a lodger, or someone they know, to fill the extra bedrooms.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 October 2011; Vol. 731, c. GC72.]
How many times does the Government expect people to take lodgers into their family home? Will social landlords even allow lodgers to be taken in, because in my experience they do not allow it? I see the Liberal Democrats are nodding. Ministers also need to make it clear whether rent received in such circumstances would be taken into account in benefit calculations. They are putting people in an unbelievable bind.
This proposal is ill thought-out and will not achieve its aims. It is predicated on an assumption in the impact assessment that will not work. It will push the poorest people, including those who are working—we should not forget that this is an in-work benefit—into even greater disadvantage. It will force social landlords to take eviction action if people end up in arrears. In other words, it is a disaster of a policy, and we should support the Lords in these amendments.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): As well as the socially disastrous consequences that my right hon. Friend has mentioned, does she recognise that under the parity principle this measure would have to be transposed to Northern Ireland? Particular difficulties will be caused in relation to access to social housing in the future and to the demands for new social houses that are benefit-sized to be built in particular locations. Given the geo-sectarian tensions in parts of Northern Ireland, it could be a factor for destabilisation, with certain communities being seen to be punished for their current demographic status.
The Government should never have brought forward this proposal, although I welcome the Minister’s statement today that they have reduced the fee. Why they put everybody through the anxiety of putting a fee—