Posted by: Jules Birch03/07/2012
It was seconds out, round 27 in the Commons yesterday in the housing stats war but where were the two main contenders?
Communities and local government questions has become a stats slugfest between Grant ‘Slasher’ Shapps in the blue trunks and Jack ‘Jabber’ Dromey in the red but yesterday as the theme music from Rocky began to play there were two new boxers in the spotlight. Given everything that’s been happening outside the ring – new and highly contentious stats on affordable housing and homelessness to argue about and an official complaint from Dromey to the referee – was I the only one in the crowd to feel let down?
The warm-up question came from Conservative backbencher (but social housing rebel) Gordon Henderson. What steps was the minister taking to increase the availability of social housing? A golden opportunity surely for Shapps to deploy one of his new stats: the £19.5 billion that government and the private sector combined will invest in the new affordable housing programme to deliver 170,000 affordable homes etc etc. The answer was duly given but by junior (Lib Dem) housing minister Andrew Stunell rather than the man himself. Stunell went on to bat away questions about affordable housing starts, right to buy replacements and the housing benefit implications of affordable rent. He showed he has learned from the master by switching the comparison to affordable housing completions, pledging that replacements would be ‘a new social or affordable home’ and referring to social rent completions that are the legacy of Labour’s programme but it was not the same somehow.
The absence of the reigning champion was even more keenly felt when Labour’s Chris Williamson asked directly about the 68 per cent fall in affordable housing starts. ‘We have heard the minister tell us that everything is fine and dandy, but nobody believes him. I cannot help wondering if he is modelling himself on Voltaire’s hopelessly optimistic Dr Pangloss or on one of George Orwell’s cynical apparatchiks, or is he just plain incompetent?’
It was a good point complete with not one but two literary references but Stunell’s response was workmanlike rather than inspired: ‘The hon. Gentleman left off the correct response, which is that unlike him, I am supervising the development of more social and affordable homes. It was the Government whom he supported who cut the number of social and affordable homes by more than a quarter of a million. If his Government had performed properly in their period of office, we would not be facing that housing crisis now.’
The non-appearance of Shapps seemed especially curious when the next question was about housing support for members of the armed forces and up popped the man himself with an answer about his new statutory guidance on allocations and a pledge that bereaved spouses as well as reservists and those who were actually serving would get priority in future.
That was followed by more questions about affordable housing starts and another stats battle but Shapps had handed back to Stunell and instead of Dromey we got his boss, shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn. Benn kicked off with a direct reference to Shapps: ‘I’m not surprised that the housing minister has chosen not to answer these questions, given that the House knows he has a bit of a problem when it comes to statistics.’ Could Stunell explain how Shapps had claimed a ‘huge decline in affordable housing starts’ was ‘impressive’ and ‘rapid and dramatic progress’?
Stunell said it was rapid and dramatic progress ‘if someone inherits a situation in which they are going backwards’. Plans were on track and the housing sector had ‘risen to the challenge to deliver’.
Benn hit back with a great line suggesting that he should ask Michael Gove about his answer. ‘I suggest that he seeks the help of the Education Secretary and offers to take one of the new mathematics O-levels. I have a question: “If 49,363 affordable houses were started last year and only 15,698 affordable houses were started this year, should Grant describe this as: a) ‘a massive increase’; or b) ‘a 68% decline’? Please show your detailed workings.” Does the Under-Secretary not understand that every time his right hon. Friend does that, it is not just affordable house building that declines, but his credibility? When is the Secretary of State going to get a grip?’
The principle of parliamentary questions is of course that nobody actually answers them and Stunell picked instead a quote from the referee, the UK Statistics Authority. ‘If I may I shall very briefly quote this: “Official estimates of net change are available for social rented dwellings, but not for the wider stock of ‘affordable’ housing beyond this category. They show an overall reduction of 421,000 in the stock of homes rented from local authorities and housing associations over the period 1997 to 2010.” That seems to me a horrific indictment of Opposition Front Benchers, and what Government Members are doing is repairing some of that damage.’
This was much better even if Benn and Stunell do not immediately strike you as natural pugilists. And, finally, in the last two rounds came the Dromey/Shapps clash we had been waiting for. Dromey went on the attack over housing for the under-25s with:
‘Under Labour, homelessness fell by 70%. Under this Government, 1 million people are out of work; house building is falling; homelessness is rising rapidly; and now there is the proposal to punish young people who leave home to find a job or get an apprenticeship by making them lose their housing benefit and therefore the roof over their head. The measure was described as “absurd” by the YMCA because it will drive up homelessness and close the facilities that support those people. The Minister for Housing and Local Government has said that homelessness is what brought him into politics. Is it not becoming increasingly clear that his legacy will be rapidly rising homelessness and should he not concentrate on not making a bad situation worse, but on building homes, creating jobs and driving down homelessness?’
And Shapps hit back with:
‘From the great passion with which the hon. Gentleman speaks, one would imagine that he had a long-term interest in this issue; in fact, he is the eighth Labour shadow housing Minister whom I have faced. During the time the Opposition have been in place, guess how many Opposition day debates there have been in the Chamber about this important subject? Zero, none—there has not been a single such Opposition day debate. That is because the hon. Gentleman has a very loose relationship with statistics himself. Homelessness is lower than it was in 28 of the last 30 years—and it is less than half the level it was in the 13 years of his Government.’
It was an all too brief taster of the grudge match we had been denied earlier but it’s still not clear why we got boxing by proxy instead. One clue perhaps came in a question about the response from the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) to Dromey’s complaint. Shapps confirmed that, yes, the UKSA had replied. ‘The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) pleaded in his letter for an answer on whether I was right to say that the reduction in affordable homes for rent under Labour was 45,000 or 200,000. I am pleased to say that the UKSA wrote back to both him and me and confirmed that the figures showed an overall reduction of 421,000 homes for social rent during Labour’s time in office—a disgrace, and in stark contrast to the 170,000 that we will be building over the next three years alone.’
In the letter [download here], UK Statistics chair Andrew Dilnot confirms that the stock of homes rose by two million between 1997 and 2010 but that there was ‘an overall reduction of 421,000 in the stock of homes rented from local authorities and housing associations over the period from 1997 to 2010’. Dilnot also confirms that Labour provided 557,000 gross additional affordable homes between 1997 and 2010 – more than the 270,000 from affordable rent and right to buy replacement claimed by Shapps between 2010 and 2015 but over different periods. (I have more on the comparison between Labour and the Conservatives on my other blog here.)
On the other points of the complaint, yes, Shapps had chosen to highlight something other than a 23 per cent rise in rough sleeping but ‘the Statistics Authority recognises that Ministers often want to present such published statistical information in ways that best serve their political objectives’. Yes, on the presentation by Shapps of the figures on housing starts ‘the reference period (2009 instead of 2010) has clearly been carefully chosen, but this is not unusual in the context of a political debate’. As to the cost of building your own home ‘as far as we can establish there are no official statistics on the costs of self-building’.
If all of that seems to err very much on the side of civil service caution, the letter also includes earlier correspondence with Labour’s Nick Raynsford in which Dilnot’s predecessor Sir Michael Scholar said that ‘this is a complex picture, and, as so often in the political debate, the statistics are subject to selective use which has given rise to suggestions that they have been referred to in a misleading way’ and that he would ‘continue to press for a clearer and more systematic public presentation of all the relevant statistic material’.
After that he wrote to the DCLG suggesting a formal assessment of the statistics produced by the HCA and former TSA and Shapps requested this in a letter in March [PDF here]. Dilnot confirms that ‘it is our working assumption that the assessment will be taken forward in September 2012’.
Has that extra bit of scrutiny from the referee taken a little of the heat out of the housing stats grudge match? Only time will tell on that one but nobody is betting against several more rounds yet.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context