Mr Redwood’s contribution to the Opposition Day Debate on Housing Benefit (Under-occupancy Penalty), 28 Feb

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): This issue is creating a lot of passion, which I can understand. People’s homes are very important to them, and none of us wants to feel that the possession of our home is threatened or is subject to high-handed control from above. The morality of the argument, however, is not all on one side as the Opposition seem to suggest it is. Indeed, I would find their moral outrage more convincing if their Front-Bench team firmly pledged to repeal this measure if they were ever returned to office. I would also find it more convincing if when they were in office they had not taken the steps they did on private sector rented accommodation, probably as a prelude to going further.

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

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

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

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

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that there was a very different view of social housing in the past? Council housing used not to be seen as a precious resource. For example, at the time of the 1951 general election the Conservatives pledged to build 300,000 new homes. There was a view across the political divide that we should build council housing to improve social conditions. Is that not the vision that we should have now?

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

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

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

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

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

Several hon. Members rose-

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

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

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

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

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

My next topic is how to tackle the problems of insufficient housing and excess welfare spending. The issue of eligibility is key. My constituents tell me that they feel much more inclined to pay taxes to make sure that people who have been settled in this country for many years, or who have been born and brought up here, can get access to proper housing than to provide housing for people who have only just arrived and seem to know how to work the system to get access to housing. The Government could productively focus on that. I am sure there will be European Union rules, but we need to negotiate on this with our European partners, and make a stand if necessary, because there is a strong feeling in our country that public housing will be limited—more limited than some would like—and if we are to make choices, the priority must be those who have been here for some time and who have made a contribution and are part of our settled community. That does not always seem to be the case. I hope Ministers will see the issue of eligibility as a proper avenue for addressing both excess benefit expenditure and the shortage of available property.

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

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

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

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

Mr Russell Brown rose—

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

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

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4 Comments

  1. kevin R. Lohse
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Dear John. An excellent speech which went straight to the heart of the matter. “I want to live in an aspiration society” marks you as an irredeemable Thatcherite. Well done.

  2. Ben Kelly
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    It is because of those who oppose measures such as this that the country owes so much money.

    Benefits are for your needs not for your wants. Anyone in Social Housing needs three rooms maximum, one for parent(s) one for older girls and one for older boys. The number of rooms can be adjusted downwards according to circumstance.

    How anyone can argue against money being awarded according to the number of rooms you needs is beyond me. For those who use the roots and settled argument I ask why I can not live in the more affluent areas of London nearer my relatives. The only difference between me and a benefit recipient in this instance is who picks up the tab.

    Hear Hear to the eligibility criteria argument including the statement about Europe. We should not be distracted too away from the number of spouses from outside the EU who have the right gained to settlement who are also given free housing when their partnership breaks down (for whatever reason). Should these also have automatic right to accommodation or should the reasons behind the breakdown of the relationship be investigated?

  3. David Langley
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    It seems that the perfect storm of no social housing has arrived. A combination of greedy Building societies becoming banks and then stuffing imaginative repayment mortgages down house buyers throats, combined with the government selling social housing to their occupants with varying amounts of discount for length of occupancy. Big profits to be made by selling the social housing on the easy mortgage market, and then subletting another council house from itinerant social lets etc. The ease of credit by the new banks seeking to out-lend each other in this expanding market saw a massive rise in personal debt. People borrowing on the strength of their net worth. Comes the crash, no social housing built to accommodate
    the increasing population, both immigrant and home grown, the old social housing is largely occupied by two to three people who own it and are not moving.
    The perfect storm drowns the unprepared.

  4. David Langley
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Just a thought for “Cast Iron”, it seems both EU commissioners and Rumpey Pumpey are reported as telling him that there will be “No free lunch” meaning anything put up for renegotiation will get nowhere and is insulting to the remainder of the EU countries. This puts a completely different take on the policies of listing competencies to be returned to us. I totally despair of getting anything concrete getting done by this government who talk a lot about what is important but seem unable to kick start any policy due the EU handcuffs or inertia by tame ministers, who are unable to implement anything important except gay marriage and other stupid and time wasting distractions.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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