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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.