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

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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.