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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.