Speech on Government Welfare Reforms to Wandsworth Council, 5 December 2012
Thank you Mr Mayor, this motion relates to a series of government measures that affect people who need support to afford to live in Wandsworth.
So the debate is about the sort of place we want to live.
We could start with the views of two residents – neither one a known Socialist: the Director of Housing and the Director of Finance.
In paper 12-689 they conclude these measures will affect thousands of residents and will lead to an increase in arrears, evictions and homelessness, and the reforms will cost the council more than £7m a year in unpaid rent.
So it’s an important debate – and I hope a reasoned one. Residents deserve more than ‘no cuts at all’ versus ‘something must be done’.
So while I think this policy is badly intentioned and will have awful consequences, I’m happy to begin with three straight statements:
Housing Benefit has got out of control; I agree with the principle of a benefit cap; and I think there is too much fraud in the current system.
To take these in turn:
1. Housing Benefit is out of control
It is sinful that £20bn a year is paid to landlords, money that could be much better spent building homes.
Remember that Housing Benefit itself was a short-term sticking plaster for lack of affordable home-building under governments of both parties.
So now we have ripped off that sticking plaster. More than 500 3- and 4-bedroom houses are left exposed. The landlords of these properties, not being charities, will over time most likely return them to market rents or sell up. This will force people from our community, and crucially dozens of family-sized properties will be taken out of the affordable stock forever.
So what steps has the council taken to negotiate with these landlords? Are we reaching out to residents, or simply waiting for them to come to us?
2. The benefits cap
I don’t think one family should consistently live a better life on benefits than the neighbouring family that works every hour God sends.
But any cap set nationally needs a serious London weighting.
A search in Battersea for 2-bed flats under the new Housing Benefit cap of £290 a week today turned up no properties.
The Universal Credit cap of £500 a week for a family including housing costs is reasonable in Plymouth, but not Putney.
The most obvious impact of caps at these levels are to exclude low-income families from certain parts of London. Why not set the caps at Wandsworth averages?
3. There is too much fraud in the system
There is, I’m co-operating with the Housing dept on a case at present.
But this paper contained no anti-fraud measures at all. This is a policy that targets legitimately claimed benefits – in the depths of the recession.
These reforms will end the situation where the children who live in a Housing Association home in my road can grow up chatting to the doctor and the accountants who live in the neighbouring properties.
We want to make social housing truly something people aspire to, not qualify for, but these reforms will only intensify poverty on our estates.
Government should move housing subsidy from landlords towards bricks and mortar and we should focus relentlessly on housing delivery and training and job opportunities for local people. A housing stimulus is a good way out of recession, and a good job is the only way out of poverty.
However you vote tonight, I would encourage all members to investigate these issues in their own wards. There are people out there who will need your support and protection. Thank you.