On Wednesday Labour used its Opposition Day Debate to call the Tories to account on yet another of their ill-thought through attacks on the most vulnerable in our society.
The issue is cuts to housing benefit.
The victims – the elderly, homeless, those fleeing domestic violence.
The attack is on housing benefit cuts for supported housing – on essential accommodation for these groups.
Osborne, flailing around to make yet more ‘welfare’ cuts, targeted these people through his caps on housing benefit in his Autumn statement.
Charities in the field believe that the effects of his crass moves would be to make housing of this sort uneconomic.
As Labour’s shadow Housing minister, John Healey, put it
“With one short, sweeping sentence, Osborne put at risk almost all supported and sheltered housing for the frail elderly, the homeless, young adults leaving care, those suffering with dementia, people with mental illness or learning disabilities, veterans and women fleeing domestic violence.
According to those who provide that type of housing, he condemns nearly all such housing schemes to closure.
He has already caused the cancellation of building work on nearly 2,500 new homes for people in those groups.”
Labour chose to use the Opposition Day Debate – where Labour can call the shots – on Wednesday to call the Tories to account.
And won a temporary reprieve.
The Tories have agreed to suspend plans to exempt supported housing from the 1% social rent cut for a year, and to look again at the impact of housing benefit cuts.
John Healey welcomed the move – but pointed out its total inadequacy:
“It has taken Labour to force some recognition from Tory Ministers of the devastating effect George Osborne’s cuts could have on supported housing for the most vulnerable. But their response is totally inadequate.
“On the pressing concern about housing benefit cuts for elderly and vulnerable people in supported housing, Ministers have offered nothing but warm words.
“Ministers don’t seem to understand that decisions are being made now to halt or scrap development of new supported housing, and preparations to wind up existing accommodation could start within weeks.
“Labour will continue to argue for these vital homes for the elderly and vulnerable to be exempted from the Chancellor’s cuts.”
Owen Smith MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, agreed:
“This is the fourth time in two days the government have been forced to back down on attempts to undermine our social security safety net. They have lost votes on abolishing child poverty targets, been overruled by the courts on the Bedroom Tax and benefit cap exemptions for carers. Now they’ve been forced to admit the mess they have made of plans for supported housing.”
You can read an edited version of John Healey’s speech below – and it’s certainly worth reading in detail – and the full debate here.
Events of the last few days make clear the vicious omnishambles of the Tories so-called ‘Welfare Reforms”.
As Owen Smith concluded
“As with the U-turn on tax credits, the Tories’ haphazard rush to push through callous cuts is creating a complete mess. The Tories should not just pause on this cut, but drop the whole Welfare Reform Bill, which is increasingly coming apart at the seams.”
John Healey’s speech opening the debate (lightly edited)
“The Government’s planned cuts to housing benefit support for vulnerable people in specialist housing, including the elderly and people who are homeless, disabled or fleeing domestic violence, risk leading to the widespread closure of this accommodation; there is concern from charities, housing associations, councils and others across the country about the severe effect of these cuts; supported housing has already suffered as a result of Government spending cuts and policy decisions; the planned changes will apply to all new tenancies from April 2016; there is clear evidence that the Government’s proposal to mitigate these cuts with discretionary housing payments will not work. So Labour called on the Government to urgently exempt supported housing from these housing benefit cuts and to consult fully with supported housing providers to safeguard this essential accommodation.
Labour called the debate to give voice to hundreds of thousands of elderly and vulnerable people whose homes have been put at risk by the Government.
We have also called the debate to expose the decision to challenge; and to expose it to compassion and to care.
We want to expose it, too, to common sense.
In his November spending review, the Chancellor announced that
“housing benefit in the social sector will be capped at the relevant local housing allowance.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1360.]
With one short, sweeping sentence, he put at risk almost all supported and sheltered housing for the frail elderly, the homeless, young adults leaving care, those suffering with dementia, people with mental illness or learning disabilities, veterans and women fleeing domestic violence.
According to those who provide that type of housing, he condemns nearly all such housing schemes to closure.
He has already caused the cancellation of building work on nearly 2,500 new homes for people in those groups.
The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary—Owen Smith—and I therefore joined forces to use the motion and the debate to draw attention to how the Chancellor’s crude housing benefit cut could hit the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who totally depend on such specialist housing, many of whom are the most vulnerable people with nowhere else to turn.
The National Housing Federation says that 156,000 homes—at least that number of people will be affected—are set to close.
A survey by Inside Housing found that one in four supported housing providers are set to close everything, while 19 out of 20 say that they will close some of their supported accommodation.
Since the spending review I have been asking Ministers for evidence regarding the decision.
I asked the Minister for Housing and Planning how many elderly people will be affected by the Chancellor’s cut, but he told me that the Government do not know.
I asked how many women fleeing from domestic violence will be affected—don’t know;
how many people with mental health problems—don’t know; how many young people leaving care—don’t know.
The Government do not even know how many people in supported housing receive the housing benefit that they plan to cut.
The Minister did tell me, however, that the Government have commissioned an evidence review. It started in December 2014 and should have been completed by November 2015, but was not. Why not? In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me that the delay was due to
“the emerging complexity in the design and delivery of the review”
and “General Election Purdah restrictions”.
The Minister therefore did not know what he was doing when he commissioned the review, and he must have been alone in the House and the country in not knowing that there was a general election in May last year.
He says that the review will be ready later this year, so he does not even know when he will know what, at the moment, he does not know.
What a shambles!
What a serious dereliction of duty from a Government who should be making policy on the basis of evidence, especially when that policy affects the lives of so many very vulnerable people.
It is absolutely clear that the Government need to act immediately and confirm that they will exempt in full supported housing from these housing benefit cuts. They then need to work with housing providers to ensure that such housing can be developed and secured for the future.
The devastating decision has been made with no consultation, no impact assessment and no evidence.
This is not a tussle between Government and Opposition Front Benchers because the situation concerns each and every Member of the House.
Every MP has in their constituency hundreds of residents in supported or sheltered housing, many of whom cannot pay their rent and service charges for themselves and totally depend on housing benefit to help to cover their costs.”
(Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Is not the real unfairness that supported housing, for many of our constituents, is an expensive but necessary choice? Without additional support from the housing benefit system, those people would not be able to afford such accommodation, which is vital to their everyday needs.)
“Every Member of the House has constituents who are threatened by the Chancellor’s crude housing benefit cut.
In the Minister for Housing and Planning’s local authority area of Great Yarmouth, there are some 258 people in supported housing and at least 139 in sheltered housing.
The numbers are even higher for Swindon and Tunbridge Wells.
What do we say to these residents and their families?
What do we say to the committed charities, churches, housing associations and other groups that provide such specialist housing and are so concerned?
We have not seen the information and we have not seen the evidence—we have not even seen the fag packet. Without the information and the evidence, why on earth did the Chancellor take this decision in the spending review before Christmas, thus pre-empting exactly what good policy and decision making should be based on?
Owen Smith and I called the debate to give voice to widespread concerns, to try to make the Government think again and to say that they must make exemptions from the cut.
Let me explain how the process will work.
The Chancellor’s decision caps housing benefit for social tenants at a new rate, which is the same amount that private rental tenants receive through the local housing allowance. For most general council and housing association homes, this will not cause tenants any immediate concerns as their rents are lower than that level.
However, specialist housing services and schemes that provide extra care and support involve much higher housing costs, with their higher rents and service charges often covered by housing benefit.
The Government know that from their 2011 report on supported housing, which listed the main reasons:
“providing 24 hour housing management cover…providing more housing related support than in mainstream housing…organising more frequent repairs or refurbishment…providing more frequent mediating between tenants; and providing extra CCTV and security services”.
That is why rents in that type of accommodation do not mirror the rates in general private rented accommodation in the local area, but that is the level of the Chancellor’s cut and cap.
Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) In Nottingham, the housing charity Framework is appalled at the impact of the change on the supported accommodation it provides for some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency. It says that hundreds and hundreds of spaces will have to close by 2018 if the change goes ahead. This is a very real problem facing some of the most deprived and vulnerable people in the country.
John Healey: The fears that Framework expressed are widely voiced and shared by providers who offer that type of housing and support. I do not know what figures he has for Nottingham, but Homeless Link cites figures in Birmingham that expose the shortfall. The average national rent in a homeless hostel is about £180 per week. The local housing allowance rate in Birmingham is half that figure, at £98.87 a week. The local housing allowance rate for a room in a shared house, which is all that single people under 35 are entitled to, is just £57.34 a week—a shortfall of over £120 per week, per tenant.
Supported housing is not just an emergency bed or a roof over someone’s head; the support helps people to get their lives back together. Last year, 1,500—or two in five—people housed by St Mungo’s in its hostels moved on from supported housing into individual accommodation. Last year, St Vincent’s—the Manchester-based housing charity—saw 15 of its young Foyer residents go on to university, one to Oxford. For thousands of other people with severe autism, learning disabilities, dementia and mental illness, living as independently as possible in supported housing, there is no alternative but hospital and residential care, which are much more institutionalised for the residents and much more expensive for the taxpayer. This policy risks turning the clock back on people’s lives and standards of care by 40 years.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): John Healey has illustrated his case by referring to people for whom the alternative may be much more expensive and less adequate care. There are other people, such as women fleeing domestic violence with their children, who come to very good accommodation in my constituency, who will have no alternative at all if those places are closed down as a result of these measures.
John Healey: Clive Betts, who chairs the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, understands this better perhaps than anyone in the House.
There is no alternative to the supported housing needed by many of the most vulnerable people, and which they have at present.
That is why Ministers must act immediately to exempt supported housing in full from the crude cuts and undertake a detailed consultation with providers about how such housing can be secured in future. Before Christmas, I revealed the scale of the problems facing people in specialist supported housing.
Since then, we have had a series of half-baked statements from the Government.
First was, “This is unnecessary scaremongering”. Not true—we are giving voice to the warnings and evidence from those who have the facts and will have to manage the consequences. Those are organisations the British public trust and respect, including Age UK, Mencap and Women’s Aid.
“nothing will change until 2018.”
Not true—the cut and the cap apply to new tenancies from April this year, so the problem is immediate. My local housing association, South Yorkshire Housing Association, has told me that
“it takes time to rehouse anyone, let alone the most vulnerable people. Consultation on scheme closures will need to begin within a matter of weeks”.
No one will sign contracts for supported housing when they do not know whether the basic costs can be covered. New investment has already been stopped in its tracks: one in five providers has frozen investment and new schemes, according to the Inside Housing survey. Golden Lane Housing, Mencap’s housing arm, had plans for £100 million investment over the next five years in supported housing across England, but they have been scrapped.
“Additional discretionary housing payment funding will be made available to local authorities, to protect the most vulnerable, including those in supported housing”.
Not true—the fund is run by councils to deal with emergency applications from people already coping with the bedroom tax, the benefits cap, and the cuts in the last Parliament to the local housing allowance. Awards often run for only a few months. The fund is currently £120 million a year, and it is a short-term and overstretched measure.
Policy costing in the autumn statement scores the cost of the Chancellor’s housing benefit cut at £515 million. The Government proposed to top up the discretionary housing payments fund by not £515 million but £70 million. Housing organisations rightly dismiss the idea that the fund is the solution, saying that that is “nonsense and unworkable”.
The question for the Minister for Housing and Planning and for the Secretary of State—who was in the Chamber a moment ago, but then scarpered—is: did they discuss the cut with Treasury Ministers before the spending review? Was the Department even consulted? Either they did not spot it or they did not stop it. Either way, the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Department have been disregarded and overruled by the Chancellor.
The Housing and Planning Minister is in the Chamber to try to explain why housing schemes supporting more than 150,000 of the most vulnerable people, with nowhere else to turn, are set to close, while the real culprit keeps his head down in the Treasury.
Forced to backtrack on tax credits when a tough stance on benefits backfired, the Chancellor turned to housing benefit cuts across the board to make his fiscal sums add up.
With this, he has made the same errors of judgment.
He has put politics above good policy and even basic humanity.
He announces first, and asks questions later.
He is failing many vulnerable people, and he is failing the taxpayer too.
This decision is a big test for the Conservative Government. The Prime Minister said just before the election:
“I don’t want to leave anyone behind. The test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society.”
So will the Government act immediately and confirm that they will exempt in full from this crude, sweeping housing benefits cut those in supported and sheltered housing? Will they work with those who provide that housing to ensure that it is secure for the future? The only decision for Ministers to take on the motion before the House is to exempt that housing—a decision that would be based on evidence, compassion and care.”