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 But this lifeline could soon be withdrawn.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to turn – and it is not just victims of parental abuse and violence that face homelessness if their housing support is withdrawn.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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era