Duncan Smith has created a ticking social time bomb - and we'll pick up the bill

Pushing the poorest people to borrow money to pay their rent, and far beyond their means, forces our social problems under the carpet.

Last week, in its annual assessment of major government projects, the Cabinet Office sounded a warning to the Department for Work and Pensions over its flagship policies: Universal Credit and the £500 cap on benefits. No wonder; evidence against the policy is mounting up.

In Ashton, Greater Manchester - the only area where the government’s fated Universal Credit welfare system has already been rolled out - personal debt is rising, leaving families in a precarious position as welfare reform kicks in.

New Charter Housing Trust, which manages social housing within the pilot area, reports a 29 per cent rise in the number of people contacting its financial support team in the last year. More worryingly, it also records a 19 per cent rise in the total amount of debt held by tenants contacting them for support. On average, tenants who ask for help come to them owing £8,400.

This is not housing debt; it is not rent arrears. It is consumer debt: credit cards; loans; pay day lending; ‘emergency cash’ provided by high street money shops.

Although the trend for rising debt began before the start of the welfare reform pilot, New Charter says it is on an upward curve.

Meanwhile there has been an explosion in the number of high cost ‘money shop’ lenders opening on our high streets.. Planning changes which came into force this week mean that high street premises can be turned over to payday lenders without a public consultation or a change in planning permissions. As the bad times roll, easy money has never been more widely available to the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society..

When the bedroom tax kicks in and benefits are capped, tenants struggling to make ends meet will prioritise food and rent over other costs, and at any lengths. Despite support from local food banks (Oxfam revealed this week that almost half a million people in the UK are now depending on handouts for survival - most of them working), sometimes the money just doesn’t go far enough.

Tenants who have never missed a rental payment in their life now risk building up arrears - with the threat of eviction from their home - or turning to the proliferation of under-regulated high street and online money to plug the gap. Many, out of pride and desperation, will take the latter route.

Pushing the poorest people to borrow money to pay their rent, and far beyond their means, forces our social problems under the carpet only for the bulge to rise up and burst forth - at great expense to the taxpayer - later.

And so to housing debt. At the end of last month law firm Winckworth Sherwood did a few quick calculations, estimating the rise in arrears after the roll out of welfare reform. It claims Universal Credit will lead to an average increase in arrears of £180 per tenant.

Rent arrears, and the associated threat of eviction, are complex problems for society. Housing associations can only afford to develop much-needed new homes by borrowing against their income streams, historically guaranteed by payment of housing benefit. Now their income is plummeting.

Some social landlords have decided to risk their own balance sheets to protect their residents, finding ways around the ‘bedroom tax’ by reclassifying bedrooms as box rooms or cupboards. Others have made a commitment not to evict over arrears caused by welfare reform.

But not every social housing provider can afford to do this, and private landlords will not be so understanding. Welfare reform will lead to arrears followed by eviction - costly legal procedures in themselves - and finally an exorbitant rescue package including emergency housing, crisis payments and the cost of supporting vulnerable children.

If you think this is a hyperbolic vision of the future, just look to Oxford, where the council’s emergency housing department is already so stretched that it is placing families in a local Travelodge until temporary accommodation can be found.

This is the paradox: tenants will either find a way to cover their rent, or they won’t. And either way we have a ticking social time bomb just waiting to go off, at vast cost to the public purse.

Work is underway to prevent this social meltdown. In Lewisham, the local housing organisation has set up a relationship with the credit union which means as soon as a tenant falls into arrears they are contacted and offered help by the union, before they have time to seek other more expensive financing. Yet these relationships are rare; it’s a postcode lottery.

The lifetime cost of welfare reform won’t be understood for decades, as children made homeless during their education fail to find stability and families now racking up huge personal debts plunge towards a lifetime of poverty and dependency. No doubt Iain Duncan Smith will be praying for a Labour victory by 2015 as the impact of his policies unravel our communities.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives to attend the government's weekly cabinet meeting at Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hannah Fearn is contributing editor of the Guardian local government, housing and public leaders networks

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.