Why we must defend housing benefit for the under-25s

Removing the vital lifeline that the benefit provides will lead to a surge in hardship and homelessness.

Jade’s father sexually abused her from the age of 11. Living in fear throughout her adolescence, she tried to commit suicide three times. Because she had nowhere else to go, she remained in her family home until she was 19, when she could bear it no longer. Now 21, she lives in a shared flat paid for by £70-a-week in housing benefit, while she looks for work as a trained hairdresser. But this lifeline could soon be withdrawn.

David Cameron, Iain Duncan-Smith and George Osborne say that under-25s should live with their parents. They have all spoken of abolishing housing benefit for this age group. With £10bn in welfare cuts looming, we fear this is no idle threat. We have decided to take a stand against this arbitrary, unworkable and irresponsible cut, and today launch a campaign, No Going Home, to defend housing benefit for under-25s.

Jade is one of 385,000 people under the age of 25 who claim housing benefit in the UK. Some may be lucky enough to be able to move back in with their parents but many, like Jade, will be left with nowhere to turn – and it is not just victims of parental abuse and violence that face homelessness if their housing support is withdrawn.

Last year, some 10,000 young people became homeless and turned to local authorities for help precisely because their relationship with their parents had broken down and they had nowhere else to go. For others, their parents may simply refuse to take them back (they have no legal obligation to do so). Some will have moved away, or left the country entirely. Many parents just don’t have enough room to take in their grown-up children – a particularly serious problem when you learn that the majority (204,000) of under-25s claiming housing benefit have children of their own. In 21st century Britain, do we really want to go back to multi-generational families left with no option but to live together in cramped conditions? We should not forget those who have no parents at all. It is unclear where orphans are supposed to go when their housing benefit is abolished. Care-leavers face a similar problem.

Cameron has said that young people today are given a choice that says "Don't get a job. Sign on. Get housing benefit. Get a flat. And then don't ever get a job or you'll lose a load of housing benefit." Yet 66,000 under-25s on housing benefit are in work. Stagnant wages and soaring rents mean that they are forced to claim housing benefit to make ends meet. If their housing support is removed, they face having to move away from their jobs, which seems particularly unfair and counterproductive, punishing those who have succeeded in finding work in a very difficult labour market.

A further 99,000 of those affected are looking for work, and using housing benefit as a temporary measure while they get back on their feet. Jade is a trained hairdresser, and until being recently made redundant she was working at a local salon. The good news is that even with youth unemployment hovering around 20 per cent, two thirds of young people claim JSA for less than six months. However, withholding the support of housing benefit could easily transform a short period job hunting into long-term unemployment and homelessness forcing young people to move away from where the work is.

Twenty eight thousand young housing benefit claimants are sick or disabled and claim Employment and Support Allowance, and, in a compassionate society, surely deserve our support. Removing the vital lifeline that housing benefit provides will cause real hardship and, in the worst instances, homelessness.

Abolishing housing benefit for under-25s even contradicts the government’s own policies. Other cuts already announced are aimed at encouraging people whose children have moved out to downsize. The housing support available to young people is already very modest. Young single people in the private rented sector are only entitled to a room in a shared house. For a young person to have been allocated a social house they have to prove particular vulnerability and going forward will only be guaranteed a tenancy of two years.

It is clear that for many under-25s abolishing their housing benefit would be a disaster, but it would be bad for everybody else too. The average housing benefit claim is £89.46 a week – a figure that pales into insignificance compared to the costs of hospital admissions, hostels, B&Bs and prison – all of which, sadly, go hand in hand with homelessness.

Money aside, there is a strong moral argument for not casting these young people adrift. 18-24 year olds are adults with adult responsibilities, who may have paid taxes and National Insurance for a number of years.  They may have got married, had children, or voted, even served their country in the armed forces. So it is arbitrary and discriminatory to say that, just because someone needs help with their rent, they cannot be allowed take responsibility for themselves or make decisions about where to live, work or raise a family.

If this plan goes ahead it will be a disaster for many people trying to make their own way in the world but who need some support.  In Jade’s own words: "If it wasn’t for housing benefit I probably wouldn’t even be alive. I know it’s like dead drastic, but I feel like a burden on everybody. I have not wanted to live with my parents since I was about 12, 13. I’ve always had this situation at home. But if I wasn’t here now… I would be dead. That is me being honest." For Jade’s sake, and many more, we need to unite against any attempt to cut housing benefit for under-25s and make the coalition see sense.

Leslie Morphy is the chief executive of Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people.

To find out more and to add your voice please go to No Going Home

Last year, 10,000 young people became homeless and turned to local authorities for help. Photograph: Getty Images.

Leslie Morphy is the outgoing Chief Executive of Crisis, the national charity for single homelessness people.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories