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 But this lifeline could soon be withdrawn.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to turn – and it is not just victims of parental abuse and violence that face homelessness if their housing support is withdrawn.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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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

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