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

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation