Following on from my rantlette on Saturday, some further light (and indeed fog) has been shed on the Govt proposals to remove the housing costs element of universal credit from those under 22 and how it is envisaged to work.
John Healey MP, Shadow Housing Minister tabled an urgent question in the Commons today (Tuesday). The full text of the session is here (Hansard). The level of ‘complacency with a hint of panic’ from the Minister is remarkable.
It appears that no-one who needs the housing costs element will be without it, while simultaneously 10,000 young people a year will be affected and £100 million saved over the parliament. The Minister is entirely happy she has complied with her Public Sector Equality Duty, while simultaneously refusing to disclose the equalities impact assessment on the regulations.
On that, the Minister kept saying that the EIA had been before the Social Security Advisory Committee, who had decided not to take in for formal reference. (And noted they could say nothing about the policy per se because “the Committee understood the core policy about removing the housing element for 18-21 year-olds claiming UC had been subject to Parliamentary scrutiny and was not an issue to be re-opened by the Committee”.)
Still, funnily enough, the SSAC response letter said
While the Department adopted a commendable approach in its consultation with stakeholders, we took the view that it had been less assiduous as far as health issues are concerned. The Committee concluded that the input of experts dealing in health issues affecting 18-21 year olds, and particularly mental health issues, could identify some issues that might have been overlooked to date.
And the minutes said
The issue surrounding the test of ‘inappropriateness’ and appeal rights was a serious one, but the Committee was content that the Department was committed to thinking again about this matter
I don’t think the Department did…
But, on to issues of how things will actually work.
How will the DWP decide whether it is ‘inappropriate’ for a young person to stay in a parental home?
Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab)
Further to the question from the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), will the Minister confirm what I believe she said earlier, which is that the only thing necessary for a young person to demonstrate before being entitled to the housing element of universal credit is that their parent has said that they cannot live at home?
Yes, and I think I have made that very clear. If it is inappropriate for a young person to live at home with their parents, they will be exempt from this policy.
So, if we are to take the Minister at her word, a letter from home excusing the young person from living there will be enough to trigger an exemption.
This is simultaneously farcical and short sighted. Farcical because making the regulations easy to evade, but short sighted because the most serious cases are likely to be precisely those where a ‘note from home’ would not be available.
For example, where there has been a serious breakdown in relations between the young person and the parent, so co-operation in any form is unlikely. Or a situation while the young person is attempting to escape a controlling or abusive parent, who will insist that the parental home is available for them precisely as a means of preventing them being able to leave.
On this, the Minister’s answer to Bob Blackman MP is hardly reassuring:
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
The principal reason why young people become homeless is a relationship breakdown with their family. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that decisions will be taken by the Secretary of State, not by local decision makers who may discriminate against young people when they cannot live with their family?
I commend my hon. Friend for his excellent work on the Homelessness Reduction Bill. Absolutely: it is a question of young people informing a work coach, somebody in the local authority or a trusted medical professional of their inability to live at home because their relationship with their parent has broken down, and in those cases they will receive the exemption.
I imagine this is exactly how the interview will go:
“Hello DWP Work Coach, I am 18 and I can’t live at home because my relationship with my parents has broken down”
“I am sorry to hear that, young person, I will arrange for your housing costs entitlement straight away”.
Meanwhile, the serious damage done by this policy may also lie elsewhere, unacknowledged by the Minister. As John Healey MP put it:
Ministers have said that the exemptions will protect the vulnerable, but the National Landlords Association declares:
“Never mind the nuances, all landlords will hear is that 18-21 year olds are no longer entitled to housing benefit…they just won’t consider them as a tenant.”
Indeed, research by the RLA suggests 76% of landlords fear this measure will leave under 21s unable to pay their rent, making landlords less willing to let property to those in this age group.
This is the result of producing a policy with an eye on the headlines while hoping to avoid the effects via exemptions. It doesn’t work. The exemption is useless if no tenancy can be found – and even a consideration for an exemption appears to rely on having rent liabilities in the first place, or at least in prospect.
Regardless of the Minister’s (non)answers, youth homelessness will rise…