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 But this lifeline could soon be withdrawn.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to turn – and it is not just victims of parental abuse and violence that face homelessness if their housing support is withdrawn.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.

Photo: Getty
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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