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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.