George Osborne has been building up to this week’s festival of reaction with an interview on the Today programme. (It’ll be on i-Player later on; for now, there’s a good precis on Andrew Sparrow’s politics live blog). It looks as though they are getting ready for even more cuts in Housing Benefit: the Chancellor said it isn’t fair that some young people with jobs can’t afford a place of their own while others can go on the dole and get Housing Benefit.
This intervention manages to conflates two mistakes about Housing Benefit. Fortunately we have Housing Benefit statistics to check up on claims about this benefit. (For now, these statistics will disappear next year and it still isn’t clear what will replace them.)
The first mistake is the belief that Housing Benefit is only for people on the dole. In fact, it is a benefit for people whose incomes are too low to pay their rent, whatever their working status. There are more than a million and a quarter people over 65 who get HB – 25.6 per cent of the total. Another 135,000 (2.7 per cent) are women aged 60 to 64, most of whom will be over state pension age.
And it simply isn’t true that people getting Housing Benefit are all out of work. Of working age people on Housing Benefit, over 900,000 (24.1 per cent) are in employment. Of course, the majority aren’t – this reflects the reality that you have to be poor to qualify and you’re far more likely to be poor if you haven’t got a job. There has always been a large minority of HB claimants who are in work, but since the recession began to bite it is remarkable how this minority has grown:
It isn’t just unemployed people who are at risk from an attack on HB – below-inflation pay increases and rising numbers of people in involuntary part-time jobs are forcing more and more people in work onto this benefit.
The second mistake is to imagine that it is easy for young unemployed people to get Housing Benefit to pay their rent. There are special rules for people under 35 (25 till this year) that mean that they get a lower rate of benefit. Young people under 25 only account for 7.6 per cent of Housing Benefit recipients and a majority of young people on HB (53.3 per cent) have children – I do hope the government isn’t planning to make it impossible for them to pay their rents.
Just 2.4 per cent of under-25s are receiving Housing Benefit and don’t have children. That’s 180,000 people; there can be a hundred good reasons for this – they may be care leavers, they may have been thrown out of their parents’ homes or left unbearable situations, they may be young women fleeing domestic violence, they may have got their flat when they had a job but then been made redundant.
The assumption that Housing Benefit is a special perk for unemployed people is wrong. So is the notion that young people getting HB are ne’er do wells. I’m worried that we’re gearing up for a repeat of what happened in the 1980s, when the Fowler reforms took away 16 and 17 year olds’ independent rights to benefit. It’s a quarter of a century ago, so some readers may not realise that, before those reforms, you almost never saw young people begging or sleeping in the streets.
Those of us who campaigned against the 1986 Social Security Act repeatedly warned that it would force 16 and 17 year-olds into destitution. This was simply ignored by the government of the day, backed up by the same sort of media campaign that we’re seeing now. The Act came into effect in 1988, and within a year there were young people sleeping in shop doorways.
I fear we’re on the verge of repeating that mistake.