The recent debate on changes to social security has been and still is one of the fiercest in this generation of British politics. In many ways it has played out as a classic left v right ideological scrap, but has also prompted nuanced and wide ranging debate with the complexities of the deficit, infrastructure, unemployment and even Europe. It is not our primary intention in this article to rehash these debates, but to provide first-hand experience of events which have implications for two elements of one significant area of the debate: housing benefit.
The first concerns a good friend of ours who lived a few doors down from us until he moved out in the past week. He has been on incapacity benefit for a number of years and had lived in his (generously termed) ‘flat’ for about four of those. This ‘flat’ (see picture left) is in many ways a product of the housing boom and Thatcher’s right to buy scheme which allowed individuals to buy their own homes. The Victorian estate we live on used to be entirely council owned until right to buy; now, owner occupiers such as us are in the minority with most owners climbing the social ladder and moving to the suburbs, then selling on to rather more unscrupulous and opportunistic landlords.
Our friend’s former flat is one compartment of an average sized house which has been split into five rooms (with a tiny toilet and shower built into the room with flimsy plywood type material) by the landlord and then rented as flats despite the fact that there are quite literally bigger bathrooms in Wood Green, let alone Chelsea. The monthly rent is an astronomical £712 (yes you read that right) a month or £8,544 of taxpayer’s money a year – the equivalent of renting a three bedroom family house in Preston. Altogether the landlord will potentially be receiving (before tax) over £40,000 a year for these five ‘flats’ with no obvious inclination (or obligation) to keep up standards of housing – before we and a few friends came round to help with a bit of decorating, it was in a fairly dilapidated state. Those depending on social security for housing have limited choice when it comes to rental due to the reluctance of many landlords to accept benefit claiming tenants and the general shortage of good social housing. As a result, landlords offering this accommodation are able to charge a premium to the most vulnerable.
It is unlikely that many would seriously argue that money spent on housing benefit is not too high – reportedly around £23bn a year. The government and right wing press’ answer to this situation is to blame the most vulnerable as if the current economic crisis is in some way their fault and cap the amount that can be claimed for housing and other social security, with disastrous consequences. The rental market is out of control and taxpayers’ money is simply lining the pockets of private landlords across the country (especially in London). However a more effective solution should have been to tackle this issue from the top (for example with the gradual introduction of a rent cap) rather than this ideologically driven solution that demonises those at the bottom.
The second example concerns another friend whom we got to know recently since he came into the church community centre where Sam works asking for food support just after Christmas. He came from Poland and had a fairly successful period as a fashion photographer before a gambling addiction led to homelessness. When we met him he had temporary accommodation due to poor health, but was about to be kicked out leading to another friend from our church offering him a place to stay for a few months.
We began to see a more hopeful future develop – he started volunteering with Sam at the centre, he came round for meals, and we even supported him to find a job. That was until one day he suddenly disappeared leaving a note of apology saying that he had stolen from us to fund an ongoing gambling addiction following a relapse of which we were unaware. We clearly understood the risk of inviting him into our lives with regard to personal theft, however, as our borough is one of the few which has begun to trial the new housing benefit policy (as part of the new system of universal credit) of paying rent directly to tenants as opposed to landlords, it conspired that he was also able to gamble (and lose) £662 worth of housing benefit owed to our friend.
In justifying this questionable policy, welfare reform minister Lord Freud said in December that direct payments ‘will help people to step into the workplace without the many institutional barriers that now exist. However, we have always been clear that exemptions must be in place alongside the right support for those who need it and the Demonstration Projects are showing us and the housing community the steps that must be taken.’ It is unclear exactly how this support will be administered, especially as our Polish friend had previously applied for housing benefit with a note from a doctor confirming mild mental health issues. This was either scrapped from the record or ignored by the council who simply transferred the money into his account (this was about a month ago).
This should prove a serious wake up call to the government regarding the introduction of this policy within the new social security system (which will be replacing the current system across the country in October by combining all claims into one payment).
Housing benefit certainly needs reconsidering, but the current direction of reform is not focusing on the right areas and is not based in reality, two fairly important aspects of policy making.