The Chancellor and the Work and Pensions Secretary yesterday revived the prospect of removing housing benefit from under-25s.
In typically divisive language, they penned a Daily Mail piece which asked whether it is “right that school leavers should be able to move directly from school to a life on housing benefit without finding a job first?”
This followed the Prime Minister’s speech in June, where he originally floated the idea. His justification? “There are many (claiming housing benefit) who will have a parental home and somewhere to stay – they just want more independence.”
Is the Prime Minister correct to assume young people on housing benefit can and will be able to move back to live with their parents? I think not; and if history tells us anything, I’m on firm ground.
Before housing benefit, young people living in hotels, hostels and similar accommodation claimed Board and Lodgings Allowance.
In 1985, Thatcher’s Government reformed it by capping the level of allowance and then removing it after eight weeks in cities such as London for under-26s.
The parallels with Cameron’s proposals are straight forward. Removal of benefit and entitlement based on age, not need. Just like the Conservatives of 2012, the Conservatives of 1985 claimed young adults would flock home to their parents.
As now, others disagreed. The Social Security Advisory Committee warned:
”We think the major problem with the proposals is the risk of creating a class of rootless young people…” It continued, “We do not believe it can be assumed that adequate alternative accommodation is open to claimants under 26 either in the public or private sector, or that permanent residence with parents or friends is an option which is realistically available.”
The Committee was proved right.
As a 1998 report by Crisis noted, that the reforms “were undoubtedly a factor in the continued rise in the level of single homelessness throughout the 1990s”.
St Mungos say a key reason why people end up sleeping rough is difficult family background.
The simple fact is, whether they do not get on with their parents or whether there is no longer space at home, for some young people housing benefit is the only safeguard they have from a life on the streets. Without it, the journey from home to homelessness and onto the street can be a very slippery slope.
And yet, as bad as the situation was in the 1980s through to the 1990s, the context today is worse.
Today, the number of people sleeping rough is accelerating. In London last year, rough sleeping increased by 43%.
This has been driven to some extent by the government cutting the Supporting People budget by an estimated 11%. This, combined with the removal of the ring-fence that guaranteed this money was spent on helping vulnerable groups like rough sleepers, has led many local authorities to use that money to plug the gaps in other budgets and cut hostel provision.
At the same time, David Cameron’s government is actively preventing young adults from returning to the family home.
In social housing, the bedroom tax on tenants with spare rooms seeks to force families into downsizing once their children move away to university or to find work.
In the private rented sector, we now know that many London families are moving to smaller flats in order to fit within Iain Duncan Smith’s new caps on Local Housing Allowance.
Completely at odds with this latest welfare proposal, the government has created a policy framework that may force more young adults out of the family home and prevent many from returning.
In government, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are wedded to driving forward the same old failed Thatcherite agenda, wilfully ignoring the housing crisis at the root of so many social and economic problems.
Meanwhile, they divert attention by picking on those most affected by this crisis.
A slightly altered version of my article was published by The Guardian. View that here.