This week the Government sneaked out a statement admitting that George Osborne’s crude cuts to housing benefit for people in supported homes will be delayed while Ministers frantically do what they should have done months ago and examine the impact of the Chancellor’s plans.
It’s a small but important victory for Labour and the charities, housing associations and councils that have been campaigning to stop these cuts. It’s a pre-Budget backtrack by the Chancellor but only a small step back, which is totally insufficient.
We first exposed this as a national concern in December and challenged Ministers again with an opposition debate in Parliament in January. Jeremy Corbyn raised it at Prime Minister’s Questions last month.
We’ve been saying from the start these crude cuts will be a catastrophe for those who can least afford them.
The National Housing Federation predicts that 156,000 homes could close – almost half of all of this type of specialist accommodation.
This would leave thousands of frail elderly people, those with disabilities, veterans, people who are homeless and women fleeing domestic violence without anywhere to turn. Already the impact of the planned cut is being felt, with plans for 2,400 new specialist supported homes having been scrapped because of these changes.
This crude short-term cut is a false economy. Providers of supported housing take pressure off public services like the NHS and the police. If homes are closed, it is the public sector that will have to step in to help those who rely on them.
Just like with tax credits, these cuts are a mark of the Chancellor’s misjudgement. He has over-reached himself: first, by making crude cuts to meet extreme fiscal targets with no care for the consequences and second, by believing such benefit cuts will prove “good” politics when they are bad policy and bad politics.
This cavalier “cut first, think later” approach has caused policy panic. In response to my questioning, Ministers now admit they don’t even know how many people will be affected, what the average loss in housing benefit support will be or how many specialist homes will have to be closed as a result.
Ministers are now rushing to finish an evaluation exercise to answer these most basic questions.
Campaigners must now use the two weeks until the Budget to make the case to their MPs and to Ministers that the Chancellor must now go further and not just delay but scrap these crude cuts.
For the Chancellor’s part, he must use the Budget to make clear he will halt these extreme plans, publish a full impact assessment and consult fully with providers to safeguard the future for this essential housing.
If he doesn’t, then his political choice to close vital homes at the heart of the lives of thousands of elderly and very vulnerable tenants will be clear – and Labour will make sure this haunts him and his Party all the way to the 2020 Election.
John Healey is Shadow Secretary of State for Housing and Planning