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Why the Conservative housing benefit cut will make more young people homeless

As part of government welfare reforms, 18 to 21-year-olds are losing their automatic entitlement to housing benefit.

One morning, when Catherine Geddes was 16, her mother dropped her off at college, informed her that she’d changed all the locks, and told her daughter she would never be allowed to return home.

Catherine, who grew up in Huddersfield, had a volatile family life. Her violent father would drag her up the stairs by the hair, and lock her out of the kitchen. Catherine developed mental health problems and self-harmed. The dysfunction was too much for her mother – who had two younger children – to deal with, and she left her daughter to find a new life for herself.

Now 23 and living independently in a council house near Bradford, Catherine tells me how she relied on claiming housing benefit when she was kicked out of her family home. She moved into a hostel, and her rent was paid directly by the government.

“My housing benefit went to them, you also got a housing worker who would help you with bills, set up your property, make sure you were ok, things like that,” she recalls.

Without this assistance, Catherine says she would have been forced to live on the streets – something that she experienced for two weeks when she was waiting for her accommodation payment to come through. “It’s absolutely harrowing,” she tells me. “And it’s not just that – you just lose all sense of your self-esteem, you just feel useless, you feel like you’re better off dead, you can’t see a way out.”

From Thursday 6 April, the government has removed young people like Catherine’s automatic eligibility to housing benefit. Now, the onus will be on 18 to 21-year-olds to prove that they should be entitled to claim the benefit to a member of staff at the Jobcentre known as a work coach. Otherwise they are expected to carry on living at home.

Homelessness charities such as Shelter, Crisis and Centrepoint say that this will lead to a rise in homelessness, as vulnerable young people who can no longer live at home fail to navigate the complicated new system – and private landlords become less likely to let rooms to them.

“People’s lives are complicated; they don’t fit into neat little boxes”

The government expects to save £105m from this cut by 2020. It will affect around 1,000 young people in the first year, and 11,000 in this Parliament as universal credit is fully rolled out. The Department for Work & Pensions has issued a list of exemptions, which are supposed to stop young people in precarious situations from losing out.

But it’s not that simple. The concern is that young people will be unable to “prove” their circumstances to a Jobcentre employee. “Some of the things you might have to disclose are very, very sensitive issues, such as sexual exploitation and things like that – things that people might not want to share with their work coach,” Heather Spurr, a policy officer at Shelter, warns. “As an 18 to 21-year-old, you haven’t matured yet, you might not have the confidence that a 30-year-old might have. People’s lives are complicated; they don’t fit into neat little boxes.”

“Most people don’t want to talk about their personal lives, especially young people,” adds Balbir Chatrik, director of policy and engagement at Centrepoint. “Many don’t want to bad-mouth their parents – they probably don’t want to say if their parents can’t keep them because they haven’t got the finances, or are addicted to drugs or alcohol. That’s not very easy to admit.”

Chatrik is concerned that young people will “slip through the net” because they either won’t bother applying, believing they’re not eligible, or they will be unable or too traumatised to prove their vulnerable circumstances.

“It’ll lead to a massive increase in homelessness”

Young people will also be less likely to find alternative housing, due to the new policy creating a “Catch-22” renting situation. You can’t apply to be exempted from the housing benefit cut unless you have a tenancy agreement with your landlord. But any potential landlord is very unlikely to rent to you unless you can prove your funds, ie. unless you can prove that you can claim housing benefit.

“If you imagine the journey this young person’s going to go on – even if they do have an exemption, it's going to be incredibly difficult for them, because there’s this negative feedback loop,” says Spurr.

Also, because of this new system, landlords will simply be less likely to let to young people because they are now less able to claim housing benefit. “It’s really hard for 18-to-21s to be able to rent a place anyway, because landlords would prefer someone who’s in work,” says Chatrik. “Now [the new policy] is having a chilling effect on landlords, and they’ll be even more reluctant to rent to 18-to-21s.”

She warns: “Young people will stay in hostels like ours, and they won’t be able to move on. So you’ll have the equivalent of bed-blocking in hostels.”

As a consequence, the number of young people sleeping rough is expected to rise. “It’ll lead to a massive increase in homelessness,” says Chatrik.

“It risks leaving people with nowhere to go but onto the streets,” adds Spurr. “We’ve been warning that this could lead to an increase in youth rough sleeping. While the exemptions are welcome, if you just give them a read, it is so, so complicated to understand whether you’re exempt or not. It’s incredibly difficult for someone to navigate.”

“Everyone needs stability; why would anyone choose not to have that?”

The policy was announced by the Conservative government in 2015, and was a party manifesto pledge ahead of the general election. The DWP worked with charities to come up with the lengthy list of exemptions, and also narrowed the age range for the restriction (it was originally going to withhold the entitlement from 18 to 24-year-olds).

But Centrepoint calculates that up to as many as 9,000 young people who would once have been protected by the benefit will be “left destitute”. And Shelter’s director of campaigns, policy and communications, Anne Baxendale, laments the “sometimes impossible burden of having to prove they can’t go home” that some will now face. “Put simply, many young people will slip through the net and end up on the streets.”

Chatrik believes there is a political rationale to the government hitting 18- to 21-year-olds. “Young people tend not to vote,” she tells me. “They’re a much easier target than all the people who do vote.” She adds that government ministers may not realise why some young people cannot stay with their parents. “They [people working in government] were at home, they could live at home,” she says. “So maybe it’s not as easy for them to see that actually it’s unsafe for some young people to live at home. I suspect not many of them have experienced that.”

Catherine, who now volunteers for various charities and does some work for Centrepoint, feels “absolutely devastated” that teenagers with difficulties like she had will no longer have a guaranteed safety net. “I’m really scared about their future,” she says. “It’s a very young and vulnerable age to be at. A lot of people leaving home or being kicked out are for genuine reasons. You don’t want to be putting yourself in vulnerable situations. Everyone needs stability; why would anyone choose not to have that?

“I cannot understand why this is happening, because we’re the next generation. We are going to be the next generation of workers, of parents, of everything. To give out that message that we’re not even worth having a house – people are going to lose faith in the political system.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.