Rising homelessness shows the damage caused by welfare cuts

Homelessness has now risen by 34% since 2010, with measures including the benefit cap and the bedroom tax blamed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Crisis.

As the economy continues to recover and as George Osborne declares that Britain is "on the mend", it will become even more important to remember those left behind. Today's Joseph Rowntree Foundation/Crisis report reminds us of one of the most worrying trends of recent years, that of rising homelessness. The study found that the number sleeping rough rose again last year by 6% in England and by 13% in London. Over the same period, the number in temporary accommodation increased by 10%, with a 14% rise in B&B placements. In total, homelessness has increased by 34% in the last three years (having fallen in the previous six), with 185,000 now affected in England.

While emphasising the long-term structural problem of the mismatch between housing demand and supply (the subject of my interview with Sadiq Khan this week), the report also makes it clear that the coalition's benefit cuts have made the situation worse. It states: "welfare benefit cuts, as well as constraints on housing access and supply, are critical to overall levels of homelessness." In London, in particular, the introduction of the £20,000 housing benefit cap, and the £26,000 total benefit cap, has made it "more difficult to secure new private tenancies for those on low incomes."

The report is also sharply critical of the bedroom tax, warning that "the size criteria is far too restrictive, and fails to make allowances for households where health and other factors mean it is unreasonable to expect household members to share a room." It adds: "Most fundamentally, in many parts of the country, social landlords simply do not have sufficient stock available to transfer tenants willing to move to smaller accommodation, and in some cases have estimated that it would take from five to thirteen years to transfer all the tenants affected."

The DWP has responded by insisting that "There is no evidence that people will be made homeless as a result of the benefit cap, the removal of the spare room subsidy or any of our welfare reforms." It added: "We have ensured councils have £190m of extra funds this year to help claimants and we are monitoring how councils are spending this money closely."

But the Discretionary Housing Payments funded by the coalition do not even come close to filling the gap in support. As the report points out, "the issues raised are more deep-seated than can be adequately dealt with by a declining discretionary top-up budget that assumes that these problems are very short-term." It reports that the bedroom tax was "viewed by most of our local authority interviewees as the most 'overwhelming' of all of the welfare reform issues", with a severe rise in arrears, often among households that had never previously fallen behind with their rent. It is further confirmation of why it was morally right, as well as politically astute, of Labour to pledge to abolish the bedroom tax if elected.

While some might expect the crisis to ease as the economy grows at its strongest rate since the crisis, the report warns that the reverse is the case. It points out that policy decisions, most notably welfare cuts, "have a more direct bearing on levels of homelessness than the recession in and of itself." In this regard, it notes that most of those interviewed expect a "new surge in homelessness" as welfare cuts continue to bite and as specialist homelessness funding programmes come to an end. But judging by its response today, the coalition is content to remain in denial.

The number sleeping rough rose last year by 6% in England and by 13% in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.