A longer than normal post bringing edited extracts from the speech of Alison Seabeck MP, shadow Housing and Planning Minister on the housing parts of the Localism Bill, during the Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons. You can read the full speech on the Labour Housing Group website or indeed the entire debate here.
Alison Seabeck said:
The Opposition cannot let these proposals go unchallenged. We will press for votes on our amendments flexible tenancies and security of tenure.
The Government’s proposals on housing and homelessness are deeply damaging, and none more so than the proposal to end security of tenure in social housing. That will create two classes of tenant in social housing. There will be great uncertainty, because there will be different lengths of tenure and different levels of rent, with little rational relationship between the two. There will be a divide between those who have been fortunate enough to get security of tenure in their social housing, and those who have been made to wait for too long and will be granted a tenancy for as little as two years. Tenants whose financial circumstances improve above an arbitrary level will potentially be told to pack up and move on.
As a result of the complexity of the system that is being brought forward, which will be a bureaucratic nightmare, a household in a three-bedroom house could pay less rent and have greater security than a household next door in a two-bedroom flat.
However, the message from the Government to all families in social housing is, “Get a better job and you will lose your home. Invite your partner to move in with you and start a family, and you will put your home at risk.” At a time when we want people to do their best to get on in life, and to build something better for themselves and their families, this is the wrong policy. Labour will stand up for people who strive and who put the hours in to better their lot. What will happen to people who fall foul of the new Tory rules and are told to leave their council or housing association home simply because they have worked hard if they subsequently lose their job or fall ill and are unable to work? What will their entitlement be then? They will go to the back of the queue and start all over again. Where is the incentive to work and where is the fairness?
To solve the housing crisis, the Government need to build more homes. Their policy seems to be aimed at trying to solve the shortage of social housing by allowing everyone a year or two in a social home before moving them on. Ministers seem to have failed to realise that to house people we need not to give them shorter tenancies but to build homes.
What will be the consequences of that policy of limiting social housing so that it is not available to those who work hard to build something for themselves, or to those who invest in their homes and communities? What will happen when we reduce estates to being areas that people pass through at their most vulnerable point and transitional communities of the most deprived? We will go back almost to the state of social housing in the first half of the last century, when access to it was limited by law to the “working classes”. That term was only ever defined once in legislation, in paragraph (12)(e) of the schedule to the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1903, as those “whose income in any case does not exceed an average of thirty shillings a week”.
In today’s money, that would be an annual income of just over £7,000. Mean as the Government are, I do not expect them to set a threshold as low as that, which would make them comparable with Tory Governments of the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the message that their change will send is the same now as it was then: that social housing is for the poor. It is to segregate people from other sections of society that are seen as doing better.
It has been more than 62 years since the House decided to accept that segregating social housing off for just one deprived section of society was entirely wrong. In that debate, Aneuring Bevan said—it is as true now as it was then—that it was
“entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live…that from one sort of township should come one income group and from another sort of township another income group…if we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should be all drawn from the different sections of the community”.
Sixty years on, the idea that this country is stronger when its communities are more diverse, and that its society is more cohesive when it comprises of a broad and mixed swathe of people, is no longer supported by the Conservative party. Nor is it supported by the Liberal party, whose MPs did not oppose the measures in this Bill in Committee despite trying to raise their concerns by tabling amendments. They consistently withdrew those amendments without a vote. Just where is their fabled voice in government and their backbone? We still believe in mixed communities in social housing, underpinned by security of tenure, which the Bill targets so directly.
The framework published by the Department is quite clear that tenancies will be secure only for tenants who have a secure tenancy before 31 March 2012. Therefore, tenants with a secure tenancy will lose their security if their family grows and they need to move to a larger home, or if a person wishes to downsize to a smaller home and the only properties available for re-let are offered on a flexible tenancy.
The Bill is a retrograde step. Homeless applicants found to be in priority need and unintentionally homeless will no longer be able to draw on the security and stability of a social home with security of tenure. Instead, they will be placed directly into the private rented sector and if they refuse an offer, for whatever reason, the local authority will no longer have a duty to house them. They would then have almost nowhere to turn for help. It does not take much to realise the circumstances in which an offer might be unacceptable to an applicant. The accommodation might be too expensive, too far away from their child’s school or too close to an abusive ex-partner. It might also be damp, mouldy or unsafe—the list goes on. Key among all this is the insecurity that a private rented sector offer can sometimes bring. There was a very good article in Inside Housing this week, following a survey that clearly showed that a homeless person placed in the private rented sector was likely to face eviction very early, and to be turned around and around in a circle of homelessness.
The third biggest cause of statutory homelessness last year was the loss of an assured shorthold tenancy. As I said earlier, stability is vital in order to prevent what people have referred to as the revolving door of homelessness. With tenancies in the private rented sector being less stable and of a shorter duration, the risk of recurring homelessness is greater, so the need for stronger statutory protection increases.
If the Government are insistent that they wish to place homeless applicants directly into the private rented sector, it is only right for them to acknowledge the need to strengthen protections for the very predictable outcome of their choices. Evidence shows that homeless people housed in the private rented sector are more likely to be evicted.
Let me finish by saying that it is not just this Bill’s provisions that give cause for alarm, as changes to housing benefit will increase homelessness and rough sleeping. We have already seen homelessness increase by some 15% since this Government came into office. The Government’s consultation on statutory duties on local authorities has seen Tory councils like Hammermsith and Fulham viewing it as an opportunity to scale back their duties to homeless people, while Westminster council has been busy trying to ban soup kitchens.
Our new clauses and amendments are designed to defend mixed communities, to extend protections and advice to homeless people, to stand up for security and stability for low-income families and to prevent the segregation of those sections of our society that this Bill will surely deliver.