Prime Minister’s Questions – Housing, food banks, tax credits & mental health

Jeremy Corbyn: I want to thank all those who took part in an enormous democratic exercise in this country, which concluded with me being elected as leader of the Labour party and Leader of the Opposition. We can be very proud of the numbers of people who engaged and took part in all those debates.

I have taken part in many events around the country and had conversations with many people about what they thought of this place, our Parliament, our democracy and our conduct within this place. Many told me that they thought Prime Minister’s question time was too theatrical, that Parliament was out of touch and too theatrical, and that they wanted things done differently, but above all they wanted their voice to be heard in Parliament. So I thought, in my first Prime Minister’s Question Time, I would do it in a slightly different way. I am sure the Prime Minister will absolutely welcome this, as he welcomed the idea in 2005, but something seems to have happened to his memory during that period. So I sent out an email to thousands of people and asked them what questions they would like to put to the Prime Minister and I received 40,000 replies.

There is not time to ask 40,000 questions today—our rules limit us to six—so I would like to start with the first one, which is about housing. Two-and-a-half thousand people emailed me about the housing crisis in this country. I ask one from a woman called Marie, who says, “What does the government intend to do about the chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords in this country?”

The Prime Minister: First of all, let me congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his resounding victory in the Labour leadership election. I welcome him to the Front Bench, and to these exchanges. I am sure that there will be many strong disagreements between us during our exchanges, but when we can work together in the national interest we should do so, and I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his job.

If we are able to change Prime Minister’s Question Time and make it a more genuine exercise in asking questions and answering questions, no one will be more delighted than me. Last week, when we discussed a substantial issue with substantial questions and proper answers, I felt that that was good for our House and good for our democracy, and so I welcomed it.

Let me now answer, very directly, Marie’s question. We do need to see more affordable housing in our country. We delivered 260,000 affordable housing units during the last Parliament, and we built more council houses in our country than had been managed in the previous 13 years, but I recognise that much more needs to be done. That means carrying on with our reform of the planning system, and it means encouraging the building industry to come up with innovative schemes like the starter homes scheme, but, above all, it means continuing to support the aspirations of people to be able to afford their own homes, which is where schemes such as Help to Buy come in. But I say this to the right hon. Gentleman: we will not get Britain building unless we keep our economy going.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I thank him for his commitment that we are going to try and do Prime Minister’s Question Time in a more adult way than we have done it in the past.

The effects of Government policy on housing are obviously enormous, and the decision to cut, for example, 1% of the rent levels in councils and in housing associations without thinking about the funding issues that those authorities face is a serious one. I have a question from Steven, who works for a housing association. He says that the cut in rents will mean that the company that he works for will lose 150 jobs by next March because of the loss of funding for that housing association to carry on with its repairs. Down the line, that will mean worse conditions, worse maintenance, fewer people working there, and a greater problem for people living in those properties. Does the Prime Minister not think it is time to reconsider the question of the funding of the administration of housing, as well as, of course, the massive gap of 100,000 units a year between what is needed and what is being built?

The Prime Minister: What I would say to Steven, and to all those who are working in housing associations and doing a good job, is that for years in our country there was something of a merry-go-round. Rents went up, housing benefit went up, and so taxes had to go up to pay for that. I think it was right in the Budget to cut the rents that social tenants pay, not least because people who are working and not on housing benefit will see a further increase in their take-home pay, and will be able to afford more things in life.

I think it is vital, though, that we reform housing associations and make sure that they are more efficient. They are a part of the public sector that has not been through efficiencies and has not improved its performance, and I think it is about time that it did.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Prime Minister for that, but it leads me neatly on to what happened yesterday, when the House sadly voted for proposals that will cost families who are affected by the change in tax credits £1,300 per year. That is absolutely shameful. I received more than 1,000 questions about tax credits. Paul, for example, asks this very heartfelt question: “Why is the government taking tax credits away from families? We need this money to survive and so our children don’t suffer. Paying rent and council tax on a low income doesn’t leave you much. Tax credits play a vital role and more is needed to stop us having to become reliant on food banks to survive.”

The Prime Minister: What we need is a country where work genuinely pays, and that is why what our proposals do is reform welfare, but at the same time bring in a national living wage which will mean that anyone on the lowest rate of pay will get a £20-a-week pay rise next year. That is why the figures show that a family— [Interruption.] I thought that this was the new Question Time. I am not sure that the message has fully hit home.

I do not want to blind the House with statistics, but I will give just two. First, after all our changes, a family where one of whose members is on the minimum wage will be £2,400 better off. Secondly—and I think this is really important—between 1998 and 2009, in-work poverty went up by 20%, at the same time as in-work benefits rose from £6 billion to £28 billion. The old way of doing things is not working, and we should not go back to it. What we must do is tackle the causes of poverty: get people back to work, improve our schools, improve childcare. Those are the ways in which we can create an economy in which work pays and everyone is better off.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Institute for Fiscal Studies says there are 8 million people in paid work eligible for benefits or tax credits. They are on average being compensated for just 26% of their losses by the so-called national living wage that the Government have introduced. So I ask a question from Claire, who says this: “How is changing the thresholds of entitlement for tax credits going to help hard-working people or families? I work part-time; my husband works full-time earning £25,000”—they have five children—“This decrease in tax credits will see our income plummet.” They ask a simple question: how is this fair?

The Prime Minister: The country has to live within its means and we were left an unaffordable welfare system and a system where work did not pay. We see today the latest set of employment statistics where the rate of employment in our country has yet again reached a record high—more people in work, more people in full-time work—and we are also seeing unemployment fall in every region of the country except the south-east, and the sharpest falls are in the north-west, the north-east and the west midlands. What we are doing is moving from an economy with low wages, high tax and high welfare to an economy where we have higher wages, lower taxes and less welfare. That is the right answer: an economy where work pays, an economy where people can get on. Let us not go back to the days of unlimited welfare. Labour’s position again today is to abolish the welfare cap; I say that a family that chooses not to work should not be better off than one that chooses to work.

Jeremy Corbyn: Many people do not have that choice; many people live in a very difficult situation and rely on the welfare state to survive. Surely all of us have a responsibility to make sure that people can live properly and decently in modern Britain; that is surely a decent, civil thing to do.

I received over 1,000 questions on the situation facing our mental health services and people who suffer from mental health conditions. This is a very serious situation across the whole country and I want to put to the Prime Minister a question that was put to me very simply from Gail: “Do you think it is acceptable that the mental health services in this country are on their knees at the present time?”

The Prime Minister: As I mentioned before the first question, there will be areas where we can work together, and I believe this is one of them; we do need to do more to increase mental health services in our country. We have made some important steps forward in recent years. Mental health and physical health now have parity in the NHS constitution. We have introduced for the first time waiting time targets for mental health services so they are not seen as a Cinderella service, and of course we have made the commitment—a commitment I hope the right hon. Gentleman will back, undoing previous Labour policy—to back the Stevens plan for an extra £8 billion into the NHS in this Parliament, which can help to fund better mental health services, among other things. There are problems in some mental health services and it is right that we make that commitment.

But I make this one point to the hon. Gentleman: we will not have a strong NHS unless we have a strong economy, and if the Labour party is going to go down the route of unlimited spending, unlimited borrowing and unlimited tax rates, printing money, they will wreck the economic security of our country and the family security of every family in our country. We will not be able to afford a strong NHS without a strong economy.

Jeremy Corbyn: May I take the Prime Minister back to the situation of mental health in this country, which is very serious? I agree with him absolutely on parity of service, and I hope the spending commitments are brought forward, rather than delayed to the end of this Parliament, because the crisis is very serious. We know this from our constituents, we know this from people we meet, we know this from the devastation that many face—and indeed some have taken their own lives because of the devastation they face.

I ask a question from Angela, who is a mental health professional, so she knows exactly what she is talking about. She says this: “Beds are unobtainable with the result that people suffering serious mental health crises are either left without adequate care or alternatively admitted to facilities many miles away from their homes, relatives and family support systems. The situation is simply unacceptable.” What does the Prime Minister say to Angela and people like her who work so hard in the mental health services, or people going through a mental health crisis who may well be watching us today on Prime Minister’s Question Time and want to know that we take their conditions seriously, and take seriously their need for emergency beds and to be near their homes and support system, and that we as a society take seriously their plight and are going to help them and care for them? What does the Prime Minister say to Angela?

The Prime Minister: What I would say to Angela, and all those working in mental health—and indeed all those suffering from mental health conditions—is that we need to do more as a country to help tackle mental health. That is obviously about money into the health service, which we will deliver, but it is also about changing the way the health service helps those with mental health conditions. The right hon. Gentleman rightly talks about mental health beds, and they are important, but frankly so is the service that people get when they visit their GP. Many people going into their GP surgeries have mental health conditions, but they are not treated for those conditions and do not get access to, for instance, the cognitive behavioural therapies that are increasingly being made available. So my argument is, yes, put in the resources, change the way the NHS works and change public attitudes to mental health—that is vital—but I say again that we will not be able to do any of those things without the strong economy that we have built over these last five years.