In the Tories’ cuts to young people’s housing benefit, the nasty legacy of Cameron and Osborne lives on.
It has been nearly five years since David Cameron first voiced his intention to scrap housing benefit for young people. To the delight of Conservative backbenchers, Osborne confirmed the policy in summer 2015, albeit with a partial climb-down from the original plans to scrap it for 16- to-24-year olds. Since then, charities and think tanks have been both clear that this measure would be disastrous for vulnerable young people and vociferous in their opposition to it. For them, the measure would lead to an unmanageable increase in homelessness with little financial savings.
And they are not wrong. Research shows that only £3.3m will be saved from the measure – an unjustifiably small amount considering its impact. By putting 9,000 young people at risk of homelessness, the measure runs completely counter to the government’s professed aim reducing homelessness. Charities believe that scrapping housing benefit for young people – or the “housing element of universal credit” for new young claimants as it’s officially called – will undermine many of the provisions contained for this age group within the homelessness reduction bill that’s currently passing through parliament. This is why even Tory MPs have called it “catastrophic”.
The claim by the Whitehall department responsible – Work and Pensions (DWP) – that the measure is aimed just as much to promote “behavioural” change, as it is to achieve savings, is clear evidence that the government recognises that these cuts do not justify their impact. Yet it’s impossible to see how this measure will change behaviour in any positive way. Preventing young people from accessing housing support, and forcing them to live in families which could well be abusive or unstable, is hardly likely to induce good old-fashioned values of independence and self-sufficiency. Instead, it will foster the exact opposite. Forced to live at home, young people will be unable to break out of poisonous family relations, secure some degree of independence and start new lives for themselves. Those in supported housing could be affected even further if they’re forced to leave their temporary residences without any guarantee that they can continue living independently.
The government’s reply is that it has now included far-reaching exemptions to the policy. Vulnerable young people will not have their housing support taken away – so the story goes. But it’s far from clear that these exemptions can help vulnerable people who are unable to engage with the bureaucratic welfare system. Young people with undiagnosed mental health problems, coming from broken families, and unable to form proper relationships, will be likely to fall off the system – becoming even more vulnerable as they cannot secure somewhere to live.
Even if they do manage to engage with the system and apply for exemptions, it’s difficult to see how their claims will be decided since the decision-making grounds are so subjective; the secretary of state can allow exemptions if it’s “inappropriate” for a young person to return home. This will unnecessarily complicate social security procedures further for claimants, DWP decision-makers, caseworkers and landlords. In fact, there is growing concern that the latter group will refrain from letting to young people full stop, as a result of the potential tenant’s unclear exemption status. Young people will be caught in a catch 22 situation – unable to get a certificate for exemption and unable to get a tenancy from a landlord.
To make matters worse, the government is refusing to release an impact assessment for the measure. It doesn’t know how many young people will be exempt or how many will be homeless as a result. Nor does it have any way of tracking those who will become homeless, since it only applies to new claimants of universal credit. And, out of embarrassment about the proposals, it is denying charities the opportunity to read its equality impact assessment and establish how many people they will be seeking to help.
The result is another under-scrutinised Tory policy intent on making poorer young people pay for the mistakes of its economic mismanagement. There has never been greater urgency for a Labour government.
Graham Jones is MP for Hyndburn.