It’s time to oppose housing benefit caps

Believe me when I say I have little time to write blog articles. It might seem otherwise if you follow me on Twitter, but it’s true. On the other hand, it’s always fun to step aside and reel something off. Especially when it doesn’t fit with Twitter’s terse nature.

In other words, I have things to say about one aspect of the Welfare Reform Act 2012: probably one of the most heinous bits of legislation ever to hit the statute books, seemingly beloved of Tories and the right-leaning Labourites who consistently failed to oppose the Bill’s passage through in the Commons. Despite this being their actual job.

I’m talking about the government’s forthcoming housing benefit cap, which will apply to social housing tenants from April 2018 onwards. The driving force behind this, according to HM Government, is to ensure a level playing field between social and private sector tenants. And, of course, we have that old thing about reducing cash burdens on the public purse.

Social housing tenants who signed up after April 2016 will find their benefits capped to the same level as the Local Housing Allowance received by private sector residents, and this could also affect vulnerable people in sheltered housing schemes, though at time of writing it looks like Theresa May might row back on this side of things.

Killing older people through deliberate neglect isn’t a good look. I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. After all, if you’re old, ill and depend on sheltered housing to survive, where will you go when it closes? We are talking about housing of last resort.

The upshot of capping housing benefits in this way is that it will disproportionately affect people under the age of 35, as very soon this age group will only be able to claim the shared accommodation rate: an amount considered to be just enough to rent a room in a shared house. Lucky them. The rub is that most of the people in this category are in work, defeating the lazy stereotype promoted by the mainstream media and central government, that they are ‘spongers’. This is complete nonsense, and it is part of a deliberate narrative designed to demonise social tenants.

That’s the bare bones of it, and if you search online you’ll find various briefings, articles and discussions prepared to go into much more depth than me. My point is that the impacts of this on under-35s will be huge, because from April 2018 the housing benefits most of them receive will fall short of the cash they need to pay the rent. And this is without factoring in what could happen to people who depend on sheltered housing.

The worse case scenerio which we’re heading for at the speed of light, is that droves of younger people will find themselves on the street or, at best, living from hand to mouth in small rooms on whatever funds they can scrape together. I would be extremely surprised if housing benefit caps didn’t lead to a massive spike in homelessness, along with all the burdens this will place on strained local services.

Things are already bad. You don’t need to read statistical releases to find this out. Just take a walk through the streets of any large city in the UK, and you’ll notice every other doorway is freighted with rough sleepers and people who have fallen on hard times. It’s hard not to evoke Dickens at this point, and while we haven’t yet reached such staggering scenes of poverty, we’re already well on the way.

On a personal note, it’s galling that this policy has not been directly opposed by the Labour Party who voted in droves to shepherd it through Parliament. Either they are incapable of understanding the long term impacts of such policies, or massively self-serving. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what to think, but if something isn’t done to nip this policy in the bud, people are going to die in doorways.

Remember that the Westminster Government’s austerity cuts are currently closing down hostels, women’s refuges and youth centres. Social services are at breaking point, and the National Health Service is dying on its feet. While it’s true that some support services remain intact, this situation is changing year-on-year.

Ironically, the Westminster Government says it wants to cut costs and ‘change behaviours’ – but this approach will backfire over time, as social costs quickly mutate into cashable costs. The two are always inseparable.

In other words, poverty, disease, ignorance and despair are hard to deal with, create concrete problems for local communities and eventually need sorting out through social policies. We already have something designed to do this: it’s called the Welfare State. We should defend it at all costs.

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Mr S reaches out

I haven’t known S for long, but he’s a safe pair of hands. He’s had a varied career and tells tales of working on motorways, driving heavy goods vehicles and travelling around the country. There is asphalt in his voice and good kind earth beneath his feet.

S works for the civil service now, in an open plan office. Greying strawberry blonde hair dangles down his back in a long straight ponytail, and he regards me with the sad astute eyes of one who’s seen too much, but remained unbroken. He doesn’t just look at you, he looks inside you as if searching for something.

People like S are uncommon here, and it’s surprising how village-like a large city can be. There are people here who rarely leave Birmimgham, and some who never have.

S told me a story. I can only paraphrase it.

‘I was walking home from work and … do you know the place?’ He described an area I know well. It’s trendy and surrounded by public buildings. Not very open plan.

‘I saw this young couple. They’re in their 20s, I suppose, and you don’t often see couples like that sitting homeless on the street. They’d been sleeping rough.

‘My conscience kicked in, and I felt like I couldn’t walk past, so I spoke to them. They had a history of living in care homes, but they’d somehow met and fallen in love. I gave them some money … reached out a bit. It just seemed right somehow.

‘The young women fell pregnant, but she lost the baby. Gave birth to it on the steps of that building.’ S went on to describe where it was. I think I know.

‘All that was left there was a streak of blood which a cleaner mopped up the next day. No story left to tell about the dead child. Just a bit of blood. Nothing left.

‘Well, you’d never guess. I lost track of them after a while, but the other week I saw them walking along hand-in-hand, smiling. “S! Hello, how are you!” They’d got themselves somewhere to live. I don’t know how, but the young woman said, “You gave me hope, and I felt I could carry on.”‘ He gave her hope. Hope.

This probably counts as a happy ending. But in this era of iPads, apps and ‘always on’ technology, some people fall off the radar. Their lives are invisible to most of us. Unless, of course, we choose to open our eyes, reach out and give them hope.

A begging we will go…

I lifted the title of this post from an old folk song (I love my music, no matter how obscure), but sadly begging seems to be more noticeable in our towns and cities at the moment.

I live in Birmingham UK, and like any major town (population around 1 million) it has its fair share of problems. After more than a decade here I’ve come face-to-face with a few of them… sometimes up-close and personal.

A darker turn
But things have taken a darker turn and I rarely walk far without being accosted. People are quick to condemn. ‘They make a mint out of it!’ said a friend. I’m told that begging is quite lucrative; but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Most of the beggars I see don’t look good. Old age sets in early when you walk those mean streets alone, and some beggars (the word seems wrong somehow; demeaning?) are drug addicts. A very few are probably tricksters; but not many. There are easier ways to blag a crust even in this recession-raddled decade.

No. This kind of begging involves people who were already hanging onto the fringes of society before the recession kicked in.

Some lost their jobs, partners and homes. Others are still teetering on the brink waiting to fall over. To harp on a theme, I saw it before during the 80s, and now it seems we’re back where we started. So much for social progress in an age where money seems to the the measure of everything. ‘And why not?’ asks the siren voice of capitalism.

To give or not to give?
I avoid giving money to street beggars because I know where that can lead. I thought rather differently at one time, reckoning that a slack handful of change could make a real difference.

Then I read this article on a site called 24dash and it changed my mind. The article’s focus is on London, but the same advice could apply almost anywhere.

Emotions take over
I admit that begging upsets me. It bothers me on an emotional level because I feel powerless to do much about it. I buy the Big Issue and sometimes donate a small amount to a homeless charity. This seems paltry, because it doesn’t seem to prevent homelessness or begging – it just mops up afterwards.

Who wants to live in a society which is prepared to turn a blind eye and pretend that street begging is an inevitable but necessary evil? Not me. To me, money is not the measure of everything: it’s just an everyday tool.

I feel as if we’ve wandered into a deep jungle of intolerance, and we’re rapidly back-pedalling towards oblivion. Let’s hope not! Surely we are better than that.