Charities revolt against plan to abolish housing benefit for under-25s

13 charities, including Shelter, Barnardo’s and the Teenage Cancer Trust, warn that the move will "take away a vital safety net".

The abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s would be the coalition's most irresponsible cut yet, inevitably leading to a sharp rise in homelessness. With George Osborne nonetheless expected to confirm the move in his Autumn Statement on 5 December, 13 charities, including Barnardo’s, the Teenage Cancer Trust, Crisis and Shelter, have written to today's Times (£) urging the government to think again. They warn that the cut will "take away a vital safety net for young adults who lose their job, experience domestic violence, become ill or disabled, or who are themselves bringing up children. And it will penalise working young adults with low earnings."

The latter point is an important one. Osborne and David Cameron have consistently sought to portray housing benefit as a payment for the unemployed, with the Prime Minister recently stating: "if you're a young person and you work hard at college, you get a job, you're living at home with mum and dad, you can't move out, you can't access housing benefit. And yet, actually, if you choose not to work, you can get housing benefit, you can get a flat."

What Cameron either doesn't know or won't say is that nearly a quarter – 23.2 per cent – of working age claimants are in employment, with 93 per cent of new claims between 2010 and 2011 made by households containing at least one in-work adult. Those who claim housing benefit do so to compensate for substandard wages and/or extortionate rents. If Cameron wants to "tackle" the welfare bill, he should seek to increase the former and reduce the latter.

The letter goes on to note that while the PM "suggests that young adults who fall on hard times should move in with their parents... for many, this is simply not an option and could place them at risk."

It states: "Their parents may be violent or abusive, or may have thrown them out because of their sexuality, or relationships may have broken down. Some will be young people leaving care. What’s more, many under-25s are already parents themselves. If they fall upon hard times they cannot be expected to squeeze their own young family back into their childhood bedroom."

Quite so. Of the 381,000 under-25s who claim housing benefit, 204,000 (54 per cent) have children. Cameron has at least pledged to exempt those who are leaving care or those who have suffered abuse from the cut, but he has said nothing to suggest that it will not apply to those with children. Thus, as the letter concludes, "It will blight the future of some of our poorest and most vulnerable young adults and that of their children. We urge the Government to reconsider." Let us hope it does.

The 13 charities warn that the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s will "lead to increased homelessnes". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder