The Tory-led government’s plans to cut housing benefit for young people could cause homelessness.
Against a July backdrop of continuing news about the weakness of the economy and further post-Budget U-turns on fuel duty, the prime minister chose to single out ‘feckless’ 16 to 24 year old social housing tenants and their ‘dependency’ upon housing benefit as the great danger facing the UK.
Coupled with the phantom EU referendum announcement, the prime minister’s Dartford ‘welfare crackdown’ speech was clearly designed to throw red meat to the Tory right and place some clear blue water between him and the deputy prime minister.
David Cameron said:
“The state spends almost £2 billion a year on housing benefit for under-25s. There are currently 210,000 people aged 16 to 24 who are social housing tenants.
“And this is happening when there is a growing phenomenon of young people living with their parents into their 30s because they can’t afford their own place… almost 3 million between the ages of 20 and 34.
“So for literally millions the passage to independence is several years living in the childhood bedroom as they save up to move out…while for others, it’s a trip to the council where they can get housing benefit at 18 or 19 – even if they’re not actively seeking work”.
The prime minister’s proposal, although including no commitment when it would be enacted, is to remove access to housing benefit for anyone aged 16 to 24 years affecting around 7 percent of social housing tenants.
Despite the reassurance of some exclusions – possibly those suffering domestic violence – it was both explicit and implicit in segments of the prime minister’s speech that the picture being painted was of an ‘undeserving’ group of young adults who are receiving subsidised housing while their more responsible, thrifty and ‘deserving’ peers stay at home with their parents.
Research by the Human City Institute shows that this is a parody of the real position.
•• Edwina Currie strikes again: Young people must ‘learn sense’ 25 Jun 2012
The latest attack on the poor has a long history of course and goes back to at least the Elizabethan Poor Law where the aim was to ‘set the poor to work’ – yet the prime minister speech plums a new depth in its willingness to muddy the waters by selective use of statistics and putting unconnected trends together.
For instance, the statement starts by quoting the amount of housing benefit it costs to support young adults and then moves on to quote the number living in social housing without acknowledging that many of those in the 16 to 24 age band will be living in the private rented sector; another unjustified swipe at the sector.
It then moves on to compare this age group with 20 to 34 year olds who remain living with their parents – not comparable at all – with no recognition of the lack of affordable housing being the problem.
The prime minister finally claimed that it’s easy to access social housing paid for by housing benefit, even though there are 5 million people waiting for a social tenancy, and confuses the way social housing is let, which remains on the basis on need (at least for the time being). A requirement to be ‘actively seeking work’ is not a major consideration currently.
The facts, however, show that young people living in social housing are mainly workers, students, parents or disabled, trying to create a better life for them and their families rather than the stereotype of young singles lying in bed all day at the tax payers’ expense.
For a start, almost 40 per cent of social tenants in the 16 to 24 age group do not receive housing benefit at all, equivalent to 84,000 of the prime minister’s 210,000. Of those who are claiming housing benefit, 19 per cent are economically active – in work or full-time education or training.
A further 36 per cent are mainly lone parents looking after their young children and not available for work in the main. Only 39 per cent of those claiming housing benefit, or 23 per cent of the total 16 to 24 year old group, are unemployed.
The majority of 16 to 24 year olds are not single people having moved into social housing as a lifestyle choice but responsible young adults living in couples or with children – 32 per cent have at least two household members and 47 per cent have three or more.
The likelihood of parents, even if willing, taking back into the parental home whole families is remote, and would probably lead to increases in overcrowding and recurrent homelessness (one in five 16 to 24 year olds were previously homeless and many more were living in temporary or inadequate housing).
Leaving aside the impracticalities of the proposed policy, it is highly improbable, given the number of exceptions that would need to be made, that it would save much public money to pare down the deficit, or free-up many social tenancies against the backdrop of a housing crisis that deepens by the day.