Opposition Day Debate – Supported Housing
Wednesday 21 July
Grahame M. Morris (Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
Before I move the motion, I take the opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and members of his team to their posts.
I beg to move,
That this House notes that the Government intends to cut housing benefit for vulnerable people in specialist housing, including elderly people and people who are homeless, disabled or fleeing domestic violence; believes that this will have harmful effects on current and future tenants of these specialist housing schemes; further notes that there is already a significant shortfall in this type of housing provision across the country; notes that charities, housing associations, councils and others have made Government Ministers aware of the damaging impact these cuts will have on tenants and the financial viability of these schemes and that the Government’s proposal to mitigate these cuts with discretionary housing payments will not compensate for these cuts; notes that the Government’s own evidence review into the impact of its decision, commissioned in December 2015, has yet to be published; notes that the Government has postponed the implementation of these cuts for new tenants to April 2017 but plans to fully roll out its planned cuts to housing benefit in April 2018; and therefore calls on the Government to exempt supported housing from its planned housing benefit cuts and to consult fully with supported housing providers to identify ways in which all vulnerable people who need supported housing can access it.
Six months ago my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) led an Opposition Day debate on the Government’s decision to cap housing benefit support for vulnerable people in specialist housing. The decision will affect elderly citizens, our armed forces veterans, those with disabilities, people with learning difficulties and people with mental health problems. It will hit homeless people and it will jeopardise the safety of people fleeing domestic violence.
Following pressure from the Opposition Benches, and concerns raised by Members on the Government Benches, there was an interesting debate last week led by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous).
A campaign has been mounted across the country by community groups and housing providers. I was pleased that the Government agreed to delay the implementation of the cap, but I press Ministers now to go one step further. They must reverse their decision to slash housing benefit for a huge range of vulnerable people living in supported housing.
What kind of country would we be in if we abandoned the most vulnerable in our society?
What kind of message will it send, not just to the country and to vulnerable people but to observers around the world, about the priorities of this Government?
What credibility will be left for the outgoing Prime Minister’s repeated assertion that the Government would not balance the books on the backs of the poorest?
Unless Ministers reverse that destructive decision, that is precisely what they will be doing. I am willing to give way to the Secretary of State if he is prepared to stand at the Dispatch Box, say that he will reverse the decision and make the announcement that we are all hoping for. To implement that decision would be a damning legacy for the former Prime Minister and a broken promise to those who can least afford it.
The decision is not just detrimental to the most vulnerable members of society; in purely financial terms, it makes no sense.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is becoming more difficult for people to get housing benefit, and that in some instances, it might not be adequate?
Grahame M. Morris
Indeed, that is the case. The groups I originally listed are some of the most vulnerable in society—they are people who should be protected and who require supported housing. If the Government proceed on their intended course, some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people will be further disadvantaged, and the cost to the taxpayer and the Exchequer will be greater.
The Government’s proposal does not make financial sense, and it leaves the providers of supported housing in an invidious position. I know that housing providers—I have met many of them—breathed a collective sigh of relief when the decision to cap support was delayed pending a review, but they are still left in a very precarious position, with the sword of Damocles hanging over the services they provide.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne pointed out in a debate in the House on 27 January, unless the Government reverse this pernicious proposal, 156,000 units of supported and sheltered housing may have to close.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have received a letter from the New Charter housing group, which operates social housing in the Tameside part of my constituency. New Charter hits the nail on the head when it says that, as a result of this proposal, it
“will not have the income to sustain the provision of supported housing” and “will inevitably see the closure of some schemes.” It adds: “Many of these supported and sheltered schemes” in Tameside will “become financially unviable”.
Is that not exactly what will happen up and down the country if these cuts continue?
Grahame M. Morris
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point in a very concise way. [Interruption.] A member of the Government is saying from a sedentary position, “They don’t know,” but the situation is absolutely clear. The point I am trying to make is that housing providers need certainty over their income stream before they can plan for new provision—that is a reasonable point, which I am sure is not beyond the understanding of Ministers with a financial background.
Maria Caulfield (Lewes) (Con)
Is it not important to do this review, with housing benefit being rolled into universal credit? There is scaremongering that there are going to be cuts, but people do not actually know what the outcome is going to be, so let us have a constructive discussion during the review and give some certainty to the sector.
Grahame M. Morris
With respect, I must point out that Government decisions should be based on evidence. Before embarking on a plan and a policy, it would be sensible to look at the evidence objectively and scientifically. If the hon. Lady wants expert opinion, I am happy to give her that and to quote the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, David Orr, who met the then Housing Minister on 18 December last year. He said—this is an expert in the field—that the impact of the local housing allowance cap will be
“stark and make it extremely difficult for any housing associations to develop new supported housing.”
He also said: “providers across the country will be forced to close schemes.”
There is plenty of evidence of that, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House have had representations from housing associations and housing providers.
Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that a research project is now looking at this evidence? That conflicts with his motion on the Order Paper, which says:
“the Government intends to cut housing benefit for vulnerable people”.
That is pure scaremongering.
Grahame M. Morris
It is a matter of fact. It is a kind of chicken-and-egg situation: surely you review the evidence before you announce a decision and then put it on hold.
I believe the review was started in 2015—perhaps the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—so why are we still waiting for the results?
Why did the Chancellor of the Exchequer make an autumn statement that had huge implications for some of the most vulnerable people living in supported housing, without looking at the evidence first?
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Grahame M. Morris
I will give way this once, and then I would like to make a little more progress.
I do hope the hon. Gentleman will talk about the 20 years prior to this review, when there was no review.
For many years under the Labour Government, there was no review of what was happening with the additional housing benefit for people in supported housing or of how it was being spent. Does he remember that in the last debate on this issue, many people said they did not know where that money was? They did not know how much money was being spent, what it was being spent on or whether it was effective. Are the Government not therefore absolutely right to conduct this review and then to come forward with their proposals? Is he really not just scaremongering?
Grahame M. Morris
We have to deal with the position we now find ourselves in. Demand for supported housing has changed and increased dramatically. One million people rely on food banks, which certainly was not the case 10 years ago. We have a huge problem with people suffering from mental health problems and learning difficulties. We have a debt to our armed services personnel—our veterans—many of whom have post-traumatic stress disorder and need supported housing.
There are therefore new factors that we need to take account of, but, if I may be so presumptuous, it is surely the job of the Government to commission the studies. [Interruption.]
Well, indeed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne and my noble Friend Lord Beecham—or Jeremy Beecham, as we know him—in the other place have tabled a series of questions and got the answer that Ministers do not know.
That is a bit of an indictment of Ministers, who are supposed to compile an evidence base on which to make decisions.
Looking again at the advice of professionals, we see that the National Housing Federation estimates that a staggering 80% of the total planned new build will not be built.
Grahame M. Morris
The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but this is—[Interruption.] In practical terms it means that 9,270 specialist homes will not be built—[Interruption.] I will tell the hon. Gentleman why that is, because he is chuntering.
Grahame M. Morris
Sorry, he is sceptical.
The reason is that providers need certainty; without certainty they cannot proceed. Often, they are raising funding for these schemes—I can see the Minister for Housing and Planning nodding in agreement—and they need certainty when going to the market. Where there is uncertainty, they cannot raise the necessary funding. On that basis, as responsible organisations—they are a mixture of local authorities, housing associations, charities, charitable trusts and so on—they cannot reasonably go on to build the supported housing units I think everyone in the House agrees we need.
There is another effect as well.
That situation, in turn, has a knock-on effect on the construction industry. The jobs that would have been created, and that I think we all want, will not now happen. This is an important sector, and we should be growing it, not allowing it to contract. At a time when house building outside London remains in the doldrums, that will be another setback for the industry and the economy.
How on earth can Ministers expect supported housing providers to continue, when they know that spending cuts and other policy decisions have already hit people living in supported housing schemes?
Supported housing provides vital help for tens of thousands of people across this country. It is mark of a decent, civilised society that services such as this exist in the first place. They play a crucial role in providing a safe and secure home with support so that people can live independently and others can get their lives back on track. As I mentioned, that includes supporting ex-servicemen and women to find a stable home, including those suffering from post-traumatic problems, mental health needs and physical disability needs.
I remind the House of the armed forces covenant, which sets out the relationship between the nation, the Government and the armed forces. It recognises that the nation as a whole and this House in particular have a moral obligation—I call it a debt of honour—to members of the armed forces and their families. It establishes how they should expect to be treated and how we should expect to treat them.
I am an eternal optimist—I am a Sunderland supporter and we have escaped four times—but if Ministers do not do a U-turn today, they will be breaking that covenant with our veterans and those who have given so much in service to their country.
In addition to ex-servicemen and women, many older people also rely on supported housing to maintain their independence. These elderly citizens have worked all their lives and paid their taxes, only to find in the autumn of their lives that their Government are turning their back on them. Personally, I think that that is morally indefensible and a betrayal of a generation that gave us the welfare state and the national health service.
I know that some of my hon. Friends are going to address the issue of victims of domestic violence, who are another important group. Over time, a number of Members—not just Opposition Members, but Government Members—have raised concerns about the closure of homes for victims of domestic violence. I understand that at least 34 such establishments have closed, and I am advised by housing associations that all eight in my own region are at risk of closure, including that in my own constituency.
Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con)
The hon. Gentleman is talking about domestic violence refuges, but this Government committed £40 million in the autumn statement for services for victims of domestic abuse, which is a tripling of funding compared with the previous four years. Does he not welcome that?
Grahame M. Morris
I welcome the Government’s commitment to providing that specific support, but the problem is that the hostels, establishments and places of safety are disappearing. Places of safety are needed, mostly for women, but also for some men, who have suffered violence and threats of death. It would be a terrible indictment of the Government if they allowed such establishments to be closed.
Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
On the £40 million, which has yet to be allocated, and the £10 million gift before the election, the bids for money to be allocated to Refuge were submitted with sustainability plans for the future based on housing benefit at its current rate. The Government signed off on every single one of those plans, but then, dishonestly, went back on them.
Grahame M. Morris
I am grateful for that instructive intervention.
Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing up the important issue of domestic abuse services. I am sure that he will agree with the concerns expressed to me by De Gwynedd Domestic Abuse Service and many other agencies that arrangements for abuse sufferers under the age of 35 when they are moving out of refuges may well put victims at risk.
Grahame M. Morris
I completely agree. This is a very real concern that affects the constituencies of Members on both sides of the House. I shudder to think what the consequences will be if these facilities are allowed to close. It would be simple for the Secretary of State to announce from the Dispatch Box that he will do a U-turn on supported housing. The whole House and the country would breathe a sigh of relief if he did that.
Homeless people are another defenceless and vulnerable group who can and do benefit from supported housing. Supported housing for homeless people with complex and multiple needs, such as mental health problems, can help them to make the transition from life on the streets into a settled home. It can help them with education, training, life skills and normal socialisation. It also helps homeless people in desperate circumstances to stabilise their lives, and it can assist them into employment and a stable future. In short, it brings dignity back into homeless people’s lives and enables them to participate fully in society once again. It can also provide huge savings for our criminal justice system.
There has already been a steep rise in rough sleeping since the coalition Government came to power in 2010. That has been caused by a number of factors, not least the combined impact of rising rents, cuts to housing benefit allowances, which have affected younger people in particular, and reductions in services that local authorities can offer to vulnerable people on the brink of homelessness. Unless the Government have a rethink about the housing benefit system, there will be a further rise in homelessness. The inherent cost to the Treasury and society must not be pushed to one side. Are Ministers seriously suggesting that, in the sixth richest economy in the world, this country cannot provide that vital assistance to homeless people?
I have heard Ministers waxing lyrical about the importance of mental health provision, and I absolutely agree with them. It should be a priority and they have said that it must be a higher priority. People with significant mental health needs often have to utilise supported housing—the hon. Member for Waveney made this point in an Adjournment debate last week—to stabilise their lives and live more independently. If the Government’s rhetoric about prioritising mental health means anything, Ministers must not proceed with the plans to slash housing benefit for supported housing.
People with learning disabilities also need supported housing. I declare an interest, because I have an association with Mencap and Golden Lane Housing. In fact, I met the previous Minister, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who is in his place, to discuss some specific points. If Ministers are really serious about helping people with learning disabilities and learning difficulties to maximise their independence and to exercise choice and control over their lives, they cannot possibly countenance these cuts.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con)
I remember that meeting, which made it clear why this review cannot be rushed. Many unique and different challenges have to be supported through supported housing, and it is right and proper that the Government do not rush this. Crucially, support in the short term remains in place. That view has been echoed by Denise Hatton, the chief executive of the YMCA, who has said:
“It is positive that the Government has listened to the concerns of the sector and we welcome the fact it has taken appropriate action to protect supported housing.”
We cannot rush this, because that is how mistakes will happen.
Grahame M. Morris
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for the courteous way in which he met the delegation from Mencap. As a basic principle, however, surely we should compile the evidence and assess it before making a decision, but the Government have made an announcement, and that has introduced uncertainty. That is why schemes have been cancelled and why housing providers are giving notice of their intention to close facilities. A basic principle needs to be applied. The amount of time that the review has taken—I think it is of the order of 19 months or so—is another issue. Does it really have to take that long to have an impact study on which the Government can base their policy?
I will make progress because a lot of right hon. and hon. Members want to take part and I do not want to stifle their contributions. In my opening remarks, I said that these cuts make no financial sense. I remind Ministers that the Government’s own Home and Communities Agency has found that supported housing provision has a net positive financial benefit of about £640 million for the UK taxpayer every year.
Rather than cutting provision for supported housing, the Government should now expand and improve it.
The National Housing Federation has calculated that there is a current shortfall of 15,640 supported housing placements, so there is already considerable pressure on the sector. I have mentioned some of the reasons for that.
Local authorities, housing associations, charities and other providers in this sector really want to deliver the supported housing that the people of this country need, but delivering this ambition is virtually impossible because the Government have made the operating environment so uncertain.
Incredibly, in last year’s autumn statement, the then Chancellor introduced the cap on housing benefit to local housing allowance levels without the Government actually knowing what its impact would be. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne highlighted this point when he spoke at this Dispatch Box in January. Before the debate, he had asked Ministers for evidence about the impact of the decision. Specifically, if memory serves, he asked the Minister—
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Marcus Jones)
Grahame M. Morris
Perhaps I am mistaken and it was one of the Minister’s colleagues.
My right hon. Friend asked how many elderly people, how many women fleeing from domestic violence, how many people with mental health problems and how many young people leaving care would be affected, but, incredibly, the then Minister for Housing and Planning was not able to provide an answer. If the Government do not know how many people in supported housing are in receipt of housing benefit, how can we expect them to make a decision? It is absolutely vital to have such information to hand to make an informed decision. Ministers did not know what a profound impact their decision would have on providers and on the people who depend on these services, and it seems that they still do not know, unless they are just not answering questions on this.
To be fair, Ministers did commission an evidence review, but that was back in January 2015. Even though the review had not reported on its findings at the time of the last autumn statement, the then Chancellor still ploughed on regardless. Six months ago, my right hon. Friend was assured that the review would be ready later this year. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), teased us in the Adjournment debate last week by suggesting that the review would be published imminently.
Did Ministers know what the impact would be when the Chancellor included this decision in his autumn statement?
They did not know what the impact of their decision would be—that is for sure—when the issue was debated in this House six months ago.
That raises the question: what is happening, and when will we know?
When it comes to making policy, Ministers are old hands at making policy in an evidence-free zone. The use of evidence to develop policy seems to be an alien concept to the Government, but I would have thought it was in the natural order of things. This is something of a travesty. Although the Government’s evidence review seems to have ground to a halt, Ministers cannot claim to be completely ignorant. After all, the providers of supported housing have made their feelings known. I am sure that Ministers—even those in the new ministerial team—have met housing associations, charities and providers. We have met them regularly, and they have made their views absolutely plain.
I have mentioned the views of David Orr. He has said that housing
“providers across the country will be forced to close schemes.”
He has described the difference between supported housing and general needs social housing and explained why rents in supported housing are higher. He has pointed out that “the uncertainty about the future approach is already leading to supported housing under development being delayed or cancelled because of the long lead times involved in investment and development.”
Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con)
The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. He mentioned an “evidence-free zone”, but all I have noted so far from his speech are continual references to David Orr of the National Housing Federation. There are more voices in this industry than his. Is not the process the Government are going through about taking on those voices, and about gathering and discussing the information? There is not therefore an evidence-free zone.
Grahame M. Morris
I am grateful to the Minister—[Interruption.] I am sure it is just a matter of time. This is a terribly confusing time.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
He is absolutely right that there is a plethora of housing providers. I have met and received evidence from Mencap, Golden Lane Housing, Rethink Mental Illness and Changing Lives, as well as various housing associations, such as North Star and the Durham Aged Mineworkers Homes Association, and the National Housing Federation itself, all of which have raised concerns about supported housing in particular sectors. I have not listed those supporting members of the forces, but there is a similar thread and strand bringing this all together.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab)
Before my hon. Friend finishes his long list, which could possibly be even longer, may I remind him that the YMCA is desperately concerned about these proposals? We should place that concern on the record. I cannot believe anyone in this House wishes to destroy all the good work that the YMCA has undertaken.
Grahame M. Morris
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out what an important role the YMCA plays in providing supported accommodation for young people, particularly those leaving care and those in the younger age bracket.
It is important that we look at the evidence. I do not think that the sums add up. Ministers seem to be drawn to an evidence-free policy, but surely it should be obvious to them that a local discretionary scheme will not work.
Ministers have previously said that discretionary schemes can assist in mitigation, but that does not alleviate the uncertainty. Providers of supported housing need certainty in the rental stream to fund the cost of managing these schemes and to service the loan charges incurred in developing them in the first place. Any reasonable person—let alone a Minister—will know that people cannot rely on a fluctuating income stream to service the cost of a loan. If Ministers persist with this ham-fisted plan—let me call it that—existing supported housing schemes will close, new supported housing schemes will be cancelled and some of the most vulnerable people will be left to fend for themselves.
The new Prime Minister once talked about the Conservative party as the “nasty party”. When she spoke on the steps of No. 10, she said she wanted
“a country that works for everyone”.
The Government have an opportunity today to prove that the Prime Minister meant what she said just seven days ago, but if the newly appointed Ministers refuse to listen to reason and proceed with these callous cuts, they will be demonstrating that the Conservatives have not really changed and truly deserve their label as the “nasty party”.
I commend the motion to the House.