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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.