Sharon spoke in the Second Reading of Andrew George's Affordable Homes Private Member's Bill, which seeks to mitigate some aspects of the Bedroom Tax.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on introducing the Bill and making the case for it. He is sincere in his personal opposition to the bedroom tax. I am therefore pleased to support him in trying to do something about it.
Like the hon. Gentleman, and like all hon. Members—I am sure this applies not only to Opposition Members—many dozens of constituents have come to see me or have written to me about the policy. That is hardly surprising. Gentoo, the largest social housing provider in Sunderland, tells me that more than 4,000 households across the city’s three parliamentary seats are affected by it. I do not know what supporters of the bedroom tax among Government Members tell their constituents who come to their surgery or who write to them, distraught about the impact the measure is having on their already stretched and limited incomes. Perhaps supporters of the bedroom tax do not see those people. Perhaps they ignore the letters and e-mails. That must be the explanation—it is the only one I can think of for why Government Members stand up and speak in support of a policy that is causing their constituents such hardship.
Which of those Government Members’ constituents are most likely to be affected? According to their own impact assessment, it is overwhelmingly disabled constituents—people for whom an extra room is often not a luxury, as we have heard, but a necessity. It is not a spare room; it is a room for their partner to sleep in because their disability means it is impossible for them to sleep together any more; a place for their carer to sleep in; a storeroom for the equipment they need to manage their condition; or, in the case of one of my constituents, a sensory room for a disabled child.
What do Conservative Members say to constituents who tell them these stories or to those who could do without the extra room, but for whom no suitable smaller
properties are available? Yes, the Government have had to introduce the discretionary housing payments to avoid mass evictions across the country, but they are limited not just by a budget, but by strict criteria, as we have heard, that have led to cases such as the terrible tragedy mentioned by the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) of a disabled person committing suicide. There have been numbers of such cases across the country and it is an absolute disgrace.
Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Does the hon. Lady share my concern that although when one writes to a Minister one is told that discretionary housing payments are the solution, disabled adults have to apply every three months on forms that are dozens of pages long? Is this not a demeaning process?
Mrs Hodgson: It is extremely demeaning. Once someone has applied and been approved, it should be on the understanding that their condition will not change. Why should something that made someone eligible change three months later? It leads to the added anxiety and mental health stress we have heard about.
Ministers argue that their policies will lead to a rationalisation in the allocation of social housing and to those in overcrowded conditions suddenly having access to hundreds of thousands of homes they believe are being under-occupied, but as we have heard from several Members, a negligible number of households have been able to do that. Fewer than one in 20 across the country have managed to downsize within the social rented sector, and just 1.4% have moved to the private rented sector. In some of the worst areas for under-occupation in my constituency, the numbers have actually gone up in the past year. What do Conservative Members advise constituents who come to them in this Catch-22 situation of not being able to afford to pay the bedroom tax but not being able to downsize to avoid it either?
What do they say when they hear the effect of having to pay the tax on the already-stretched household budgets of those with the lowest incomes to start with? The consequences of losing £700 a year might be negligible to Conservative Members, some of whom might earn that in a few hours of work outside this place, but to the vast majority of people in my constituency, especially those affected by the bedroom tax, it is a significant sum of money and losing it forces them to make choices many Conservative Members could never imaging having to make. It is the difference between having the heating on or not; between eating enough food or not; between be able to afford a child’s school uniform or not.
Conservative Members need not take my word for it. The DWP makes it clear that families and households are going without essentials thanks to the decisions it took and a policy it continues to defend. It has to be said it has a lot of competition, but it is one of the most disgraceful policies to have darkened this House over the past few years. It typifies the DWP under this Secretary of State: vindictive and incompetent in equal measure. And it highlights the priorities of this Tory-led Government: pay-offs for those at the top, penalties for those at the bottom. The faces on those Benches might change, but the true face of the Tory party never does. I am therefore pleased to support the hon. Member for St Ives in at least trying to undo some of the most pernicious elements of this policy, and although I do not think it goes far enough, I sincerely hope the Bill will be allowed to progress to Committee so that we can make amendments there or later on the Floor of the House.
People across the nation know that it is, of course, the Labour party that has fought against the bedroom tax from day one. It is the Labour party that continues to lead the fight now, and it is only a one-nation Labour Government who will scrap this wretched policy, electorate willing, next year.