How the coalition is turning the screw on housing benefit claimants

The latest round of welfare cuts will accelerate the rise in homelessness and leave low-income families struggling to find rented accomodation.

Child benefit, tax credits and disability allowance have all been at the heart of the political debate on welfare cuts. Housing benefit hasn’t. Yet people are already feeling the pain of the government’s changes and cuts. The Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill presents the opportunity for another turn of the screw on housing benefit, especially on the people who rent from private landlords.

Local housing allowance (LHA) is the housing benefit for those in private rented accommodation whose low incomes mean they rely on help with housing costs. It is an in-work and an out-of-work benefit paid to over 1.3m people. These are not the Chancellor’s "skivers" lying in all morning behind closed curtains. These are people in low-paid jobs, pensioners, disabled people, single parents, couples with kids and young people estranged from their parents. Almost one in five on housing benefit work, and only around one in eight are on Jobseeker's Allowance.

Housing benefit has always had a link to actual rents due to the huge differences in rates around the country. The government broke this link when it decided to uprate LHA only in line with CPI inflation. Under this new bill, the LHA in each area will only rise by either 1 per cent or the change in the level of the lowest third of rents, whichever is lower. But rents have historically risen faster than inflation, and certainly by more than 1 per cent, so many parts of London and many parts of other UK towns and cities will become no-go, no-live areas for those on the local housing allowance. People will be forced into debt, then out of their homes and out of their local areas.

Crisis, the homelessness charity, found in a recent report that fewer than 1 in 50 properties are now accessible to LHA recipients under 35-years-old because rents are already higher than housing benefit rates and landlords are unwilling to let to those who need it. Shelter have calculated that linking the LHA to CPI inflation will mean one third of the country will become unaffordable for low income families within a decade, and the 1 per cent cap will speed up this social exclusion. It will also accelerate the recent rise in homelessness. Rough sleeping was up 23 per cent last year, the number of people going to their council as homeless is up 22 per cent in the last two years and the end of a private tenancy is now the most common cause for those officially classed as homeless.

The real terms-cut imposed by the 1 per cent cap on local housing allowance from 2014 is just the latest in a long list. In April 2011, the government brought in caps on LHA for each property size, scrapped the rate for a five bedroom house and cut all increases from the median rise in local rents to the lower third. Last year, it froze all LHA rates and raised the age below which LHA support is only available for the costs of shared accommodation from 25 to 35. And this year it is bringing in the "bedroom tax" and capping any rise in LHA at CPI, or 2.2 per cent.

It is hurting but it’s not working. The housing benefit bill is up by £2bn since the general election and the total number of people relying on LHA has risen by 35 per cent. Debate in the Commons yesterday was guillotined by the government, so there was no debate or vote on exempting housing benefit from the 1 per cent cap or on a modest amendment I tabled to require the government to publish an annual report on the relationship between rates of LHA and actual rents, and if these become significantly out of step to reconsider the 1 per cent cap policy.

This is only what the welfare minister, Lord Freud, promised during the debate on CPI-linked uprating in the Welfare Reform Bill in December 2011. He said, “if it then becomes apparent that local allowance rates and rents are out of step, they can be reconsidered" and when pressed by Labour’s Lady Hollis he conceded, "on the basis that the noble Baroness is going to be incredibly helpful to me in all the consequent amendments in the Bill, I will change the word 'can' to 'will'".

It will be for Labour lords to pick up the case again next month. If parliament can’t stop the screw being turned ever-tighter on housing benefit claimants, the least it can do is ensure ministers face the facts about who is hurting most and how badly.

John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and the former housing minister

Rough sleeping rose by 23 per cent in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and was formerly housing minister, local government minister and financial secretary to the Treasury

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.