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Low income households

September 14, 2010

Low income households

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), on obtaining this important debate. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I discuss issues affecting central London specifically and some of the alleviation that will take place in our local authority area. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to identify the key problem of in-work poverty. We often think of low-income households as consisting of people who are simply out of work, but in-work poverty is an important issue.

There are a range of issues that have not been dealt with over the past 20 years. Perhaps we can achieve little on some of them, such as the impact of unregulated immigration, over which we, as members of the European Union, have no control. I am not making an anti-European statement; that is simply a fact. There is no doubt that with the growth of the EU, immigration levels over the past six years have played an important part in driving down wages. Employers have perhaps been somewhat irresponsible in taking advantage of that, but it has and will continue to have a significant impact on welfare.

Understandably, the hon. Lady prayed in aid the high-profile report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on the Budget, and its concerns about what will happen on 20 October. It is fair at least to argue that the outgoing Labour Government made it clear that they too would have had to do a lot to sort out the deficit. The erstwhile Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that their own Budget would have included £40 billion in cuts. None of those was specified, so it is slightly unfair for the hon. Lady to be accusatory, as she has not analysed where Labour’s cuts would have come into play and what impact they would have had on the lowest-income households.

Ms Buck: I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said in my comments. The IFS analysis says that the more progressive elements of the changes to tax and benefits, which the coalition Government now claim will balance out their other changes, were in fact among those proposed by the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer. The less progressive changes, which will hit lower-income groups disproportionately, are the ones introduced in the June Budget.

Mr Field: That is a fair point. To be absolutely honest, the core problem that we all face is a lack of any explicit mandate for anything that is being done on the issue. For we Conservative Members who have been warning about the deficit and levels of public debt for many years, at a time when conventional wisdom was that we would stick to the outgoing Government’s spending plans, that is obviously a matter of some concern.

During the run-up to the general election, a spurious debate took place in which all parties danced on the head of a pin. Apparently, the necessity for £6 billion in cuts was a matter of Armageddon on one hand or sunlit uplands on the other. As the political class, we all took a decision to keep the electorate away from some of the harsh choices that would have been inevitable whoever won the election. That lack of an explicit mandate will cause difficulties in making the necessary case for deficit reduction, a case that I have discussed many times in the House. It is of great importance that we reduce the deficit as responsibly and as early as possible, not just to impress the money markets.

I feel strongly that we will now face intergenerational conflict. Almost uniquely outside wartime, the children of the present middle-aged generation-I see several 40 and 50-somethings here-will have a less good financial situation than the one that we have taken for granted. In many ways, that is a terrible indictment of the debts that we are building up, and it is one reason why we need to reduce those debts. It will make this country a more acceptable place for our children to live in.

The hon. Lady and I both have sons. I worry for my son when he comes to adulthood at 20. I hope he will have the education and skills to make him a globally mobile citizen. He and many of the brightest and best of our young men and women may choose to vote with their feet. I fear that we are already seeing an element of that, given the huge levels of unemployment among our graduate population, many of whom have globally mobile skills that they may well use to go elsewhere. I took for granted the opportunities that were available to me when I left university in the 1980s. We need to bring back those opportunities as quickly as possible. Reducing the deficit and ensuring that debt is kept to a minimum will provide a level playing field for future generations.

I appreciate that others want to speak. I will say a bit about some things that are happening in central London specifically. Due to the grave financial situation inherited by the coalition Government, all of us, whether in business, in households or in local and national Government are, understandably, being forced to tighten our purse strings. My local authority, Westminster city council, is no exception. One clear priority in Westminster is the most vulnerable in our community. Hopefully, that is a benefit of having two Members of Parliament for Westminster, one on each side of the political divide, to make the case.

It is easy to characterise my constituency in particular as extremely wealthy. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), whom I have not had a chance to meet, is an erstwhile constituent of mine, and indeed a former candidate for the Barbican in 1997. She will recognise that although the Cities of London and Westminster contain pockets of incredible wealth, there is a lot of poverty not far from the surface. An important part of my job has always been to provide a voice for the most vulnerable in my community.

Bob Russell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to pockets of poverty, which are different sizes in different parts of the country. If housing benefit is cut and people cannot afford to pay the rent, what happens to them?

Mr Field: I will come to that later. One issue facing us in central London is that-without wanting to be unkind about it-it will cease to be our problem. Many of those people will leave central London and end up being rehoused elsewhere, potentially in communities a long way from where they were brought up, where housing is relatively cheap but they have no connection. That is a problem we need to deal with.

I have historically had a concern that too much of the social housing, particularly in central London, has tended to be clogged up with people who are perhaps in long-term unemployment or who have chaotic lifestyles. There inevitably needs to be some sort of balance. As the hon. Lady says, the interests of some of the most vulnerable and voiceless people need to be properly looked after.

In Westminster, we have an innovative scheme called the family recovery programme, which provides a form of intensive intervention. That programme tries to assign resources to specific families with a track record of causing problems within the community. In 2008, Westminster council identified a small number of families with complex and entrenched social problems, who were responsible for the vast majority of the antisocial behaviour in Westminster. The social impact on the neighbourhoods in which those families were located was immeasurable. I think all hon. Members know that it takes only one or two problem families on an estate to ruin the quality of life for all who live there.

The kind of engagement that the family recovery programme has been involved in includes appointing a specific team to work with individual family members on a one-to-one basis. Such a programme is not inexpensive, but Westminster’s commitment to its family recovery programme has been unswerving and in the two years that it has been in operation the results have been encouraging. The proportion of families who remain unregistered with a local GP has fallen by more than two thirds and more than 80% of children for whom truancy had been an issue have increased their school attendance. In a study of families where crime and disorder was a major concern, the number of offences of which they were accused decreased by 69% in the 12 months following a family recovery programme engagement. The average number of suspected offences per month fell from nine in the previous year to roughly one and a half. Importantly, a survey of 100 of the families’ neighbours found that two thirds were either satisfied or very satisfied with the response from both the police and the council.

A housing renewal programme is also in place, which is integral to the city council’s plans to support households currently in employment in Westminster that are on low incomes. The strategy outlines the city council’s commitment to health and well-being. Its objectives are to increase the amount of housing, particularly family housing. Much of both the social and private housing that is being developed tends to be very small, caters for two adults and often has no more than two bedrooms.

We need more affordable homes for local workers and we need to increase the range of tenure types to help residents who wish to get on the housing ladder to do so. The hon. Lady made the stark reality of the situation very clear when she said that, without relying on help from family members, the average age at which someone gets on the housing ladder is 52. That is a pretty depressing statistic. One appreciates that in central London we are part of a global housing market. However, affordable housing is not just a central London issue; it is a problem in suburban areas and I am sure in the Solihulls and Colchesters of this world. Only a generation ago, the average person in their mid-20s could get on the housing ladder, but that is now an absolute impossibility, unless they work in a highly remunerated business. In addition, through CityWest Homes-the city council’s arm’s length management organisation for housing-the city council is committed to building some 500 new homes across our existing estates over the next four to five years. The majority of those will be available for social housing.

Returning to the housing benefit issue that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) mentioned, we are still awaiting full details of the cap and we do not know quite how it will operate. I hope the Minister will give us a bit more detail on that, although I appreciate that she and her Department have a very busy work load that they are still working on in the run-up to 20 October. It would be helpful if we could get some indication of the cap, particularly for those authorities whose housing benefit profile means that there is likely to be a significant shift as a result of Government policy.

I know that my city council is lobbying for a significant proportion of the additional money that was announced in the emergency budget to help manage out the existing system. As part of that, a policy will be developed to clarify whom the city council will prioritise for help. Although the details will depend on the nature of the discretionary award, it is likely to focus particularly on low-income households, pensioners and, of course, disabled residents.

Local housing allowance residents will also be written to shortly to advise them of a change to the system. Obviously, in many ways, the uncertainty is the most difficult element of the situation. We have all had letters-the hon. Lady has probably had more than I have-from constituents who are worried sick about the potential changes. That has perhaps not been helped by one or two of the scare stories being put around. However, those people are legitimately worried about where their medium and long-term future will lie. I hope we will be given some concrete details as quickly as possible, so that, as I said, we can ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities are properly looked after.

I want briefly to touch on a local matter on which I have worked with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the hon. Members for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). That issue is the Crown Estate’s announcement of its intention to sell properties on the Millbank estate. With Westminster city council, I have been lobbying through the Greater London authority and independently to try to ensure that we keep the key worker nominations that are on those estates. Fewer than 1% of properties in central London are currently available at intermediate rent, so it is essential that properties such as those provided by the Crown Estate remain available at their current level of subsidy. Although Westminster city council remains concerned about the sales, given that the Crown Estate has been proven a successful landlord over many decades, guarantees have been received that the intermediate rent properties will remain available at their current rate in perpetuity and that there will be no reduction in the number of intermediate rental properties.

I could say much more, but I appreciate that other hon. Members want to have their say on the matter. Such issues will be high profile for us all and I accept that the nature of representative-and perhaps argumentative-politics means that they will be utilised by the Opposition to try to make political capital with both coalition parties. As someone who feels strongly about the most vulnerable, who need a voice and must be looked after in our communities, it is important to me in my role as an inner-London Member of Parliament who feels passionately about such matters to do all I can.

These are not simple issues. Clearly, we all have to face the fact that there is a huge deficit, which we need to address for the reasons that I set out in my earlier comments. As a matter of equity for the entirety of our communities-particularly the young-we need to do so with some haste. However, it is also of great importance that the most vulnerable are looked after. I am very worried-as the hon. Member for Westminster North is-about those in work ending up in poverty. It is understood that the workless will have some poverty issues, which are equally important and must be dealt with, but we all have a great concern about the people in our communities who work extremely long hours-they often have two or three jobs-to try to make ends meet. The voice of such people is often ignored and they are often regarded in the national context as not being such high priority welfare cases. However, those cases are very close to our hearts and we will do our best to represent those interests both in the House and at local government level in the years to come.