Neil Hudson – 2022 Speech on the Supported Housing Bill

The speech made by Neil Hudson, the Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border, in the House of Commons on 18 November 2022.

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson). I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for introducing this Bill, but in the top trumps of adulation, I do not think that I can compete with my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt).

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East is a proud champion of speaking up for the most vulnerable in society, and I pay tribute to him for all the work he has done in this area and for introducing this important Bill. I am really pleased that it has so much cross-party support, as it shows the importance of what he is doing. This House is at its best when we are united in the common good of trying to protect the most vulnerable in society.

I also welcome the Minister to her place, and I look forward to hearing from her later. What really resonated with me, as a vet and a scientist, was when my hon. Friend and other colleagues talked about the paucity of data in this area. If the data are not there, we just do not know what we are looking at. We can make good policy with evidence-based decisions, and we need the evidence out there. This debate today has highlighted the importance of that data collection.

It is clear that those who are protected by this Bill are among the most vulnerable in our society. I pay tribute to those across my constituency of Penrith and The Border who support the most vulnerable people. In the housing arena, I pay tribute to Eden Housing Association, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I hope that the Bill complements the work of people up and down the land who are supporting the most vulnerable in society. At a time of economic crisis, when people’s livelihoods have been affected, forcing them to live from day to day, it is so important that we are putting forward good legislation to provide help in these troubling times.

I welcome the fact that the Bill will try to stamp out the awful practices that have been highlighted today of rogue landlords exploiting people. There have been some pretty harrowing examples from Members on both sides of the House, and it is so important that the Bill will clamp down on these practices and rid them from society. These people on benefits are really struggling, as are many people across the country. As we have heard today, this is a compassionate piece of legislation, and when we are driving Bills with cross-party support through the House, it is so important that compassion is at the heart of that. To get political, I welcomed the Conservative Government showing some of that compassion yesterday with measures in the autumn statement, and the fact that we are now uprating benefits in line with inflation is critical to that compassionate conservatism.

We have heard from many Members, including esteemed medical colleagues, about the mental health implications in the supported housing sector, and we have also heard about physical wellbeing. Something that has really resonated with me today is the mental health impact of the situations that these people find themselves in; that impact is lasting, profound and very damaging for them. The mental health stresses in this sector compound the trauma that many of these people have experienced, having faced domestic violence, homelessness and all other manner of challenges in their lives. If they are then challenged in their own homes, that exacerbates the awful problems in their lives.

In rural areas such as my constituency of Penrith and The Border in Cumbria, the factors that challenge mental health are compounded by rural isolation. I have pressed the Government to ensure that policy making reflects the challenges we face in different parts of the country. Rural communities often struggle to get the mental health support they need due to the long distances and poor connectivity, whether that is physical or virtual connectivity or even mobile phone signal. This is something I feel very strongly about. I sit on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I initiated an inquiry on rural mental health. We looked at some of the trigger factors for people in rural communities, and we found that challenges in the housing sector were among those.

The Bill has to be part of an holistic approach, to protect the most vulnerable in exempt accommodation. We have heard today about mental health, and I feel passionately that mental health needs to have parity of esteem with physical health. The two go hand in hand, and they need to be balanced together.

To segue into another issue, as a vet, I am passionate about animal health and welfare. As a dog owner, I know the impact that animals have on people’s lives and the importance of people being able to have animals in their accommodation. I have worked with Ministers on various types of legislation, and we want people in the rental sector to be able to have pets in their accommodation. Responsible pet owners should be allowed to have a pet, to give them that companionship and to help their mental health and the health of the animal. That is something we can move forward with.

Dr Luke Evans

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about the impact of animals on mental wellbeing. Does he agree that having an animal to provide that support is even more important in rural areas, where loneliness is such a big problem?

Dr Hudson

I very much agree with my medical colleague about the role of animals in society and in supporting us, and the support we can give to our animal friends, and that is pivotal in rural communities. We love animals in rural areas and in towns and cities. Our love for the animal world is something that unites us in humanity and across the Chamber.

I welcome the statutory requirement on local authorities to publish a strategy for supported housing, so that they can respond to the needs of their area. In rural areas such as my constituency, the importance of local councils and local democracy cannot be overstated. Local councils and parish councils are at the heart of these communities, in terms of community engagement and providing the key services on which we all rely daily.

I urge central Government to take care that the Bill’s statutory requirements on the Secretary of State at national level do not create inertia or an inability to act at local level. We have seen a bit of inertia in Cumbria with local government restructuring, as we move to two unitary authorities. Sadly, local democracy has ground to a halt as people jockey for position and decide who is in charge of which parts of the county. Parish councils are struggling to get things through, and grant applications are not being looked at. For local democracy, we have to make sure that we do not have inertia after decisions are made. This is a really good Bill and, when it gets on to the statute book with cross-party support, we need to make sure the process is lubricated.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) highlighting the lack of housing in rural areas, exacerbated by the upsurge in short-term holiday lets and Airbnb, which is also a critical issue for us up in Cumbria. I welcome the fact that the Government are listening to Back Benchers who have raised the lack of housing. In our rural communities, we see people being driven out of their local area because they cannot find rented accommodation, so I welcome the fact that Ministers are looking at this issue on a cross-departmental basis. There has been a consultation on short-term holiday lets, and I look forward to the Government working through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to make sure we have sensible legislation so that people in rural communities can live, work, study and have their kids go to school in their local community. I very much hope the Government move on that, too.

There is a huge impact on employers in rural Cumbria, as they are not able to attract staff to come and work in their pubs, restaurants and farms because of the lack of housing due to short-term holiday lets. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth has raised this issue, as have I in Cumbria and as have other colleagues from up and down the land. It is a key point, and I hope the Minister will look at it in parallel legislation.

Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for bringing forward this Bill. I welcome the strong cross-party support, including from the Government, as the compassion at the heart of this Bill has my firm support.