From The House Magazine: Andrew George MP: Constituency postbag: Fairness in housing
“Seek out the silent voices.” Paul Flynn’s wise advice – one of his ‘ten commandments’ when he signed off his Constituency Postbag feature in these pages last week – is an appropriate place for me to begin mine.
When I was first elected in 1997, thousands of hardworking families across the West Cornwall and Isles of Scilly constituency were living in overcrowded, extortionately priced, insecure and often substandard accommodation – if indeed they had anywhere to live. They suffered in silence and seemed to have no voice at all.
Whilst they struggled to pay their rent – and council tax, if they had a home of their own – the wealthy who had bought up the most desirable homes had been given favourable tax advantages by the outgoing Conservative government. This included a 50 per cent council tax discount, paid for by all other taxpayers.
Everyone was silent about this, mainly because they were not aware of it. I found, when I was elected, that other MPs overlooked saying anything about it, because most of them had a second home. So no-one rocked the boat.
Up to £200m a year of taxpayers’ money was being used to subsidise the wealthy to have their second homes, while thousands of local families in desperate housing need could not afford their first.
Having spent many months ploughing a lone furrow in Parliament, raising questions and pressing ministers, I called an Adjournment debate in the newly created Westminster Hall on 9 February 2000 (vol. 344, col. 105-112WH). Local government minister, Chris Mullin, replied.
I set out the case; highlighted the evident injustice of the situation; and catalogued the extremely disappointing and, as I put it, ‘complacent’ responses I had from a string of ministers before he arrived in his post.
In normal circumstances, ministers are expected to fill the available time in response with creative waffle (usually pre-written by civil servants practised in the art of conceding nothing), and to win their spurs with an elegant fob-off. For me, it was a war of attrition. If I failed again this time, I would be back again. Nothing would stop me.
Perhaps acknowledging this, Chris demonstrated an independence of mind which confirmed his reputation as a minister definitely not destined for high office. In his concluding remarks he told me: “The hon. Gentleman said that he had received a rather complacent response from the government, and, indeed, I have here a rather complacent response, which I will not read out. I am willing to follow up the point in my department. Perhaps we can discuss it later.”
Of course, the delivery of the legislation to remove the bulk of the council tax discount, and the agreement in Cornwall that the proceeds of the additional money would go towards new affordable homes for local families, didn’t happen immediately. However, it was with particular pride that I was able to hand over the first keys to the first home built with the proceeds of the second home council tax money, in December 2004, to Holly Moyle and her daughter in Goldsithney, near Penzance. Many more have been built since, and there’s still more to do.
Housing remains a major issue in my constituency postbag. The more you achieve for the ‘silent voices’, the more they seem, happily, to find their voice.
Amongst these cases have been the many families whom local authorities had told should not leave their homes when their private landlord gave them notice to quit, nor when the courts granted the landlord a possession order, because the council would deem them ‘intentionally homeless’, and therefore not eligible to be rehoused! A sharp intervention in 2007 from the housing minister, Yvette Cooper, clarified the matter, for the avoidance of doubt.
Like other MPs I’ve had to challenge the very significant discrepancy between the actual rental levels in West Cornwall and the maximum available housing benefit. On other occasions, the housing benefit service has seriously failed constituents who experience irregular work and income patterns and who have therefore found themselves in serious arrears with their landlords.
This raises another related point about the sometimes disturbing intimidation of very vulnerable people and families by landlords and agents. Mr and Mrs Trefusis (not their real names) and their sickly six-month-old baby daughter who live in a very cramped, damp bedsit at the top of a long flight of stairs in St Ives, were left in serious arrears earlier this year. They received a volley of intimidatory letters from their agent, one of which added the words: “You must clear your arrears this week. I’ve secured a possession order. I warned you before. I’m told it’s very cold on the streets right now…”
This bullying towards some of the most vulnerable cannot be permitted to go on. Is there another Chris Mullin out there prepared to listen?
From The House Magazine