Bishop of St Albans says tackling housing insecurity key to tackling poverty

On 14th July 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Bird, “That this House takes note of the case for tackling the causes of poverty in the United Kingdom”. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke about the need to tackle housing insecurity. He began by paying tribute to Baroness Sharp, who had made her valedictory speech.

The Bishop of Derby’s speech in the same debate can be seen here.

St Albans 2The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, it is a great privilege on behalf of all noble Lords to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for her nearly 18 years of service to this House, and not least for that pertinent and passionate valedictory speech, which went to the heart of many of the issues we are debating today. I am constantly amazed at the sheer talent and expertise that is on display in this Chamber, of which she has just demonstrated an outstanding example. Her scholarly contributions to this place, particularly her steadfast championing of adult and further education, have been greatly valued, especially during her time as a Front-Bench spokesperson.

As the first woman candidate to be elected for the SDP she has always been something of a pioneer, helping with the early development of biotechnology and encouraging investment in science—work I know she is proud of. Noble Lords may also be interested to hear that, following her graduation from Newnham College, Cambridge, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, worked on the Board of Trade, dealing with overseas territories, which is where she met her husband. It is perhaps sad and slightly ironic that she is leaving this place just at the very time when we need the skills that she could have brought to bear. On behalf of all the Members of this House, I thank her again for her service and wish her well for the coming years.

I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for this important debate and pay tribute to the inspirational work that he has committed so much of his life to. We in the churches share many of his concerns. Part of our response has been in providing immediate, short-term through food banks and other charitable schemes, which is essential as we respond to immediate needs. But of course this debate is about the longer-term response and how we address the causes of poverty. Part of that has been dealt with in our response through the growth of credit unions and debt-counselling schemes. The charity Christians Against Poverty worked with nearly 13,000 clients last year, with money advice, debt relief and programmes to support people in overcoming addictions and dependencies. The Living Room, a charity in Stevenage and St Albans in my diocese, is also making a significant impact by supporting people who are overcoming addictions, which are often a significant cause of poverty.

At the moment, there are a number of government proposals that have great potential to ameliorate the causes of poverty—for example, the Help to Save scheme, which is aimed at providing the essential financial buffer that protects poor families from the entrapment of debt. Talk of extra resources for family mediation is welcome, although it must become a reality. I know that there is a Private Member’s Bill in the other place which would seek to create a breathing space for families struggling under the burden of debt. That would be a great step forward and is something that I hope the Government are actively considering.

However, one of the major underlying causes of poverty on which I will focus for a few minutes is insecure housing—something that has already been addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe. At the moment, all the indications are that this is becoming a more serious problem—it is getting worse. Without the security of an established base, the chances of holding down sustainable employment, of developing a stable family life or of people establishing themselves within the support networks of a local community are greatly diminished.

A stable home creates the platform from which other causes of poverty can be properly tackled, but this stability is on the decline. House prices are rising faster than average income, partly due to the fact that we are simply not building enough new housing. The amount of new social housing is falling, just as private rents are rising well beyond the reach of many low-income families. Short-term, insecure tenancies are fast becoming the norm, while local authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to provide stable housing for vulnerable families. Statistics released earlier in the year show that homelessness is rising: 2015 saw a 19% rise in the number of households outside London who had to be placed in temporary accommodation by local authorities.

The provision of stable homes for low-income families must become an integral part of the life-chances agenda. Starter homes may be beneficial for some but they are not viable for those living in poverty. The investment in shared ownership is welcome but it does not go far enough. The Housing and Planning Act will cut off local authority routes to securing social rents, and the situation will only worsen if construction and development are hit badly by Brexit, as early indicators suggest they could well be. Just yesterday, the biggest housebuilder in the UK indicated that it will consider slowing the rate of construction if investment falls.

We need fresh thinking, whether it is around direct government investment in housing projects, freeing up councils to invest in new social housing stock or making changes to the private rental market to encourage long-term rents—for example, through government-backed social letting agencies.

I warmly welcome yesterday’s comments from our new Prime Minister in which she said that her belief in a union of all citizens means,

“fighting against the burning injustice that … If you’re young you will find it harder than ever before to own your own home”.

But words must be accompanied by deeds. Will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what changes Her Majesty’s Government will make to ensure that all people can find adequate and suitable housing as we seek to address this very fundamental cause of poverty?


The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) (Con) [extract]..Let me pick up a few of the points made about housing, which was another issue raised by several noble Lords—the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans—including the importance of having the right housing to tackle poverty. Everybody needs the security and stability of a decent affordable home, and it is a government priority to increase the provision of affordable homes. We have doubled the housing budget to more than £20 billion over the next five years. That includes £8 billion for affordable housing, which will deliver 400,000 affordable housing starts.

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