Bedroom Tax Speech 2

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, as it is to speak in this debate. Indeed, it is a pleasure that the No. 1 conclusion in the report makes the case for rent controls in the private rented sector. That was an amendment that I suggested when we were deliberating over the report, and it received the support of the majority of the Select Committee, for which I am extremely grateful.

The under-occupation penalty for recipients of housing benefit in the social rented sector is the signature regressive social security policy of the current UK Government. Labelled the bedroom tax, in Welsh it is called the treth llofftydd—when there is a hashtag in Welsh on Twitter, we know we are in trouble.

The bedroom tax, as the Select Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), said, is part of the UK Government’s efforts to reduce the housing benefit bill. I, too, pay tribute to his chairmanship. It is a pleasure to be a member of the Committee and to work with him. He is extremely fair to me as the single Plaid Cymru member of the Committee. Despite his persona in the Chamber as a ferocious, right-wing beast, he is a very kind Chairman.

The UK Government, of course, have a three-prong strategy for reducing the housing benefit bill. First, there is a cap on benefits, which the official Opposition now support, with additional regional elements, should they form the next Government. Secondly, the annual uprating of welfare payments is pegged at 1%, which means that there are real-terms cuts to social security support every year. Thirdly, there is the bedroom tax, or under-occupancy penalty.

Despite all that, in its response to the 2014 Budget the OBR projected that housing benefit expenditure will increase by £1 billion by 2018-19. If they have time, I ask Members to read that report on their way back on the train this evening. Page 146 states:

“The largest driver of the rise in spending on housing benefit has been caseload growth in the private rented sector.”

The report goes on to say that the trend towards renting is driven primarily by the huge increase in house prices, which means that young people are unable to afford to
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purchase their own home. Only those who are supported by their parents are able to afford a deposit. The last bit of page 146 states:

“The rising proportion of the renting population claiming housing benefit may be related to the weakness of average wage growth relative to rent inflation. This explanation is supported by DWP data, which suggest that almost all the recent rise in the private-rented sector housing benefit caseload has been accounted for by people in employment.”

That makes my case for me. The key reason for the increase in the housing benefit bill, which we will see despite the regressive policies introduced by the UK Government, is spiraling rents in the private rented sector.

The Financial Times reported in 2012 that rents had increased by 37% since 2007, and it projected a 35% increase in rents over the following five years. That was before the housing bubble that we are now experiencing, with the OBR projecting that house prices will increase by 9.2% in the third quarter of 2014 alone. The OBR envisages a 30% increase in house prices over the next five years. When we couple those statistics with stagnant wages, it is unsurprising that more and more people in employment are falling into the trap of requiring housing benefit. Often when we discuss this issue, people miss that housing benefit is an in-work benefit; it is not for people who are unable to work but for people who are working now.

House prices are projected to reach 2008 pre-crash levels by 2019, which means we are in a greater boom and bust cycle than we were in 2008. As wages are stagnant, the bubble is being fuelled by increased debt. We are living in worrying times.

Geraint Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that bank lending to businesses is 30% down since 2008 but that bank lending for mortgages is beyond 2008 levels? House prices are going up, rent is going up but real wages are going down. When interest rates go up, we will have a sub-prime debt disaster on our hands.

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman and I are singing from the same hymn sheet. We were promised a rebalancing of the economy and a move towards business investment and exports, but we are seeing the same old boom and bust policies that have been the hallmark of the UK economy for many decades. The danger is that the boom and bust on this occasion might be even more serious than that built up in 2008.

Glyn Davies: I hesitate to intervene, and I ask this question with some degree of uncertainty, but I am pretty sure that yesterday I read a report saying that house prices have actually fallen in Wales in the last 12 months. They have gone up substantially across Britain, particularly in London, but across Wales I do not think they have risen in the last 12 months.

Jonathan Edwards: I did not read that report, but it makes a point about the unbalanced nature of economic growth across Britain. I am referring to the rising housing benefit bill in the UK context. The statistics I have cited do not refer to Welsh house prices in particular.

The Committee’s report found that Wales is being hit hardest by the lack of single social properties in the social rented sector. Wales is therefore being hit by a
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policy designed to address the public expenditure implications of the dysfunctional London economy. As I have consistently argued, we need a range of reforms. Before becoming an MP, I was heavily influenced by the reforms in the Republic of Ireland. I used to be a policy officer for the citizens advice movement in Wales, and some of these issues were prevalent then. The 2004 reforms in the Republic of Ireland were welcome. The Residential Tenancies Act 2004 achieved a number of objectives. First, it set up a private residential tenancies board. Secondly, it regulated the private rented sector, with an extension of tenancies to a more European model of longer-term tenancies. Defined rights and obligations were provided for both tenants and landlords, and access was provided to an inexpensive dispute resolution system. The bonds that individuals who rent often have to pay were safeguarded—unfortunately, on too many occasions people lose those bonds—and rents were capped, which is a policy that exists across the world. There are rent caps in New York, the home of global capitalism, so it is difficult to define them as some sort of socialist trap.

Guto Bebb: I do think that rent caps are a socialist trap. The fact that they are supported by the Committee’s Labour members, Liberal member and Plaid member is unfortunate because, in Wales, many people who have invested in buy-to-let properties have done so because of the previous Labour Government’s anti-pension policies. For many of those people, their private rented property is their pension provision. I find the attack on those individuals, who are trying to take care of their own situation in retirement, unfortunate to say the least.

Jonathan Edwards: The point I am trying to make is that if the Government are serious about bringing down the housing benefit bill, the only way to do it is to cap the cost of rents in the private rented sector. That is what all the OBR projections indicate. It is interesting that the Select Committee Chair referred to the evidence of the TaxPayers Alliance. When I gave the alliance a choice of either reducing the housing benefit bill or preserving free markets, it said that it preferred preserving free markets, which is more important to the TaxPayers Alliance than the Government’s tax liabilities. Perhaps it should change its name to the Free Market Alliance.

Guto Bebb: I think it has already been accepted in this debate that there is a link between private sector provision of housing and social sector provision of housing. Would rent controls result in any increase in private sector provision of social housing? If not, how will it help anyone looking for rented housing in Wales?

Jonathan Edwards: My point is that the OBR’s figures indicate that the Government will not achieve their objectives with the bedroom tax. If the objective is to bring down the housing benefit bill, the only way to do that is via rent control in the private rented sector. I welcome that the leader of the Labour party made a case overnight for some of the reforms for which I have been making a case for a number of years. Rent caps would drive down artificially high rental costs, and they would also curb boom and bust property speculation, which is a cycle we have seen far too often in the UK economy in recent decades. Rent caps would also help working people to remain in the cities, rather than being forced out, as they are in inner London. They would
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also stop the current policy’s social cleansing, through which people are forced to move from where they have lived for many years.

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

We also need to consider supply issues, which many Members have highlighted. The recovery of the 1930s following the great depression was largely driven by a massive public housing building programme. Rents paid for public housing provide a steady stream of revenue, so it is an ideal vehicle for drawing down private sector funds to deliver economic growth and address some of the social problems that we face.

I will now quickly return to the local indicators in Carmarthenshire, and I will finish on this point. Applications for discretionary housing payments have rocketed in south-west Wales. Between 2012-13 and 2013-14, the budget increased by 64% in Carmarthenshire, by 106% in Pembrokeshire and by 118% in Swansea. There were only 327 discretionary housing application payments in Carmarthenshire in 2012-13, but between April and May 2013 there were 534 applications. That is a 63% increase in the first two months of that year, compared with the whole of the previous year.

Nearly 2,000 people have had changes to their housing benefit entitlements in Carmarthenshire since this policy was introduced. As I mentioned, this policy only makes savings if people stay and pay.

I finish on a point made by my colleague, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). He mentioned the work of Paul James, a Plaid Cymru councillor for Llanbadarn Fawr, a veteran of the UK Army and also a servant of the French Foreign Legion, so he is not a man to be messed about with—[Interruption.] He has the Minister’s number! He is upset about the impact of the bedroom tax on veterans and their families, who were under the impression that veterans would be exempt full stop from the bedroom tax. Yet it appears that only people on active service are exempt. If that is the case, obviously, military personnel from Wales in barracks or in training would be outside Wales and not exempt, because our regiments are not held domestically. Our servicemen are not home-based; they go to barracks in England. Yet their families are being hit by the bedroom tax. The Minister must look at that. I should be grateful to hear his remarks at the end of the debate.

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