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 But this lifeline could soon be withdrawn.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to turn – and it is not just victims of parental abuse and violence that face homelessness if their housing support is withdrawn.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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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