Friday, 30 July 2010

A Depressing Tale of the Shambles that is Housing Benefit.

Today's surgery seems to be all about Housing Benefit. The whole system is a shambles. For every Somali family living in million-pound luxury in the West End, there are God knows how many other people struggling to keep even the most modest roof over their heads.

Today we have two such enquiries. The first is from Mr & Mrs Farrow, a nice couple in their late fifties. Mrs Farrow is chronically sick and can't work, and Mr Farrow recently got made redundant. They have been forced to claim Housing Benefit for their two-bedroomed council bungalow. So what, you might say - their housing costs are being covered, aren't they? Well, yes, except that the Farrow children are grown up and have moved away. So the Council have decided that they are under-occupying their house, and will only pay a proportion of their rent as Housing Benefit.

Mr & Mrs Farrow have no income with which to make up the shortfall and with her health problems and his age and lack of IT skills, I can't see this being resolved by either of them finding employment any time soon. They are terrified that they will fall into arrears with their rent, and end up being evicted. They've been told that they could always seek an exchange to a one-bedroomed house - but they haven't got the money to pay removal expenses, even if they could find someone to swap with.

Not only that, but they've already had to bail out one of their sons by allowing him to move back home on more than one occasion, and this wouldn't even have been posible had they not had the other bedroom. There seems to be no option but for them to try to "find" the additional rent from Mr Farrow's Jobseeeker's Allowance. The Boss agrees to write to the Council and beg them to use their discretion, but I'm not optimistic about the result.

The business about the Farrow's son is thrown into sharp relief later on in surgery, when Gemma McKeown comes in to see The Boss. It's unusual for someone as young as Gemma to even visit their MP - she's only twenty-three, but has been self-supporting for some five years after a breakdown in relations with her family. She's also recently lost her job, and it looks as if she will soon be homeless too.

I am shocked to hear that young people under the age of 25 are only entitled to approximately 50% of the Housing Benefit payable to people over that age. How stupid is that? Their landlords don't charge them less just because they are younger. The amount of Housing Benefit Gemma receives isn't even enough to cover the cost of her room in a shared house in one of Northwick's grottiest areas, and homelessness is a very real threat if something isn't done. She doesn't have parents like Mr & Mrs Farrow who will take her in.

Her chances of employment don't seem much better than the Farrows' either, as the only jobs she's been qualified to apply for so far have all been on contracts which guarantee only between zero and four hours a week. Nothing like enough hours to reassure her that she will be able to earn enough to pay her rent, even if she succeeds in getting one of the jobs. God knows what we can do to help her, but I'm going to try bloody hard to think of something.

My head hurts by the end of surgery, and even Andrew is uncharacteristically quiet. I think it's dawned on him that he can't blame this Housing Benefit fiasco on the coalition, and he was even sensitive enough  - for once - to avoid adding to the constituents' misery by scare-mongering as to what the ConDems' proposed changes to Housing Benefit might do to make matters worse.

All I can think of is that Connie and Josh could find themselves in Gemma's situation, if Max and I were ever to split up, and become unable to provide a roof over their heads in an emergency. I am going to turn Johnny down. Any transient pleasure he might be able to provide would be as nothing compared to how shitty I would feel if I contributed to making my children homeless. I might be capable of low cunning in the face of the long Recess, but I am fundamentally a good person. At least, I hope I am. Who knows - I might even still be a socialist at heart?


  1. "I might even still be a socialist at heart"

    The triumph of hope over reason. Some day you are going to have to accept that socialism has never improved lives, instead it imprisons people in poverty and farms their votes.

    Meanwhile, keep up the good work with the blog. It is the best of the lot!

  2. Now I'm even more depressed ;-) (Though glad you like the blog!)

  3. I'm surprised to learn that under-25's are not as entitled...Mr A and I have never run into this rule and have claimed on and off since we were 20 & 21. Or could it be that because we're married we don't fall under this ridiculous rule?
    It's especially stupid considering that the minimum wage for under-25's is lower than that for over-25's. So logical. We'll make people legally able to pay you less! Then we'll use the same criteria to help you less!

  4. Back in 2000-01 I chaired a Welsh government task and finish group on homelessness. As part of the inquiry we took evidence from a UK civil servant on housing benefit. When we asked him why it was that those under 25 were not entitled to full benefit he told us that it was done deliberately to discourage them from leaving home. Clearly, in the leafy south east of England they do not have broken families and young people do not get thrown out on the street by step-parents or by their real parents for a whole host of offences related to their growing up. :-(

  5. Peter, I agree entirely. It also seems hypocritical that on the one hand, governments want to encourage mobility in the jobs market, but with so many jobs now being on short-term contracts, young people who ARE willing to move to find work (which is already harder to find in their age bracket), can so easily find themselves homeless if they can't move smoothly from one contract to another, and need to rely on HB for even a short period of time.

    Either that, or their parents must have to keep moving their belongings from one side of the country to another, and keep rooms free for that purpose for years after their kids first move out!

    Arienette - I'm not sure why you have not come up against this problem, but am not an expert in Housing Benefit. Maybe you are automatically treated as an over-25 if you are married? I'd be interested to find out. (You don't say if you also have children, which would explain it if you do.)

  6. Re: Final paragraph - HURRAH!

    From an un-reconstructed old romantic who's been married to the same long suffering woman for thirty-two years.

  7. I'm glad you approve ;-) But would your wife?!

  8. Molly: We didn't at the time of initially starting to claim, but do now. I also now receive higher rate DLA which offers us a bit more protection. At the time though, we were married but without children, not pregnant, and not in receipt of benefits other than JSA for Mr Man.

    Had I not met Mr A I shudder to think where I'd be now. My parents left the country when I was 19, I have no family here. When failing health and financial ruin (caused by student loans company, not by frivolous fresher spending) caused me to drop out of university I was INCREDIBLEY lucky that my at-the-time-fiance's family were willing to take me in. Had they not had the space or had we not been together, I'd have been out on the street. It's scary to think that a vulnerable a person as I was at the time would have been left to fend for themselves.

  9. i myself had the same problem with housing benefit, being made redundant (my entire department closed down) at the start of the recession. the stupid local housing allowance would only give me £220 a month, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a room anywhere around here for less than £250. plus that means you have to find a spare room in a shared house, which means living with a load of randoms, if both they and the landlord are willing to have you. not the safest situation for a young woman on her own. and where are you supposed to get the deposit (which can be double the normal amount - benefit claimants are automatically viewed as nightmare tenants who will wreck your property and then flee having paid no rent) and first month's rent? housing benefit is paid in arrears...landlords aren't the friendliest bunch, as a whole, and i doubt many would be happy to say "oh no, don't worry. i know i demanded rent in advance, but i'm quite happy for you to pay me a month late, every month...."

    can you tell this is my pet peeve?! thank goodness it's not something i have to worry about at the moment :)

    another relevant pet peeve - when i was made redundant, i was only a few months out of uni (and earning bugger all) so i hadn't even paid off my overdraft, let alone put by any savings. after trying to make the meagre housing benefit and JSA stretch for a number of months, i asked the jobcentre staff what would happen if i got a job. my benefits would stop the very first day of my job. in my experience, you don't get paid in a new job for at least a month (sometimes it can be longer, due to hr procedures). you also need to have something to live off during this month, and your living costs will probably be higher as you will be having to get to the new job (bus fare, petrol etc). furthermore, benefits are designed to be the BARE minimum required for survival, so the idea that you should somehow save up some of this benefit to live off during the period between starting work and getting paid is pretty much a contradiction in terms.

    people moan about benefit claimants saying they are better off on benefits and that's why they won't work. how about the claimants who would LIKE to work, but would face a full month without a penny to feed themselves, pay bills, rent and all other essential costs? they would go from living on the breadline, to potentially becoming homeless, bankrupt, losing the new job, etc etc etc.

    ok paying people benefit after they've started a job sounds like a bad idea, but if it actually ENABLES people to get back into work where they otherwise could not, it would save so much more money.

  10. I imagine that the "how can I start work with no money" problem is one of the problems that IDS wants to fix with his reforms - he seems pretty clued up about the effects of marginal un-employment benefit loss.

    I dread to think what would happen if I lost my job - I an single and under 25, and my currently weekly paycheck of about £180 is barely enough to live on, and I hardly live in a luxury style - I own an old narrowboat as it was cheaper than renting a flat,and I imagine it would be near impossible to claim housing benefit that covered its cost.

  11. Thanks very much to everyone for their thoughtful contributions. Please feel free to keep on adding your comments.

    It seems to be a widespread problem that seriously needs looking at. While I haven't yet seen the detail of IDS's proposals, I too believe that he has taken a genuine and committed interest in this subject for a long time. (As I had hoped the Labour Party also would, when Frank Field was told to "think the unthinkable" - but then ignored.)

    Just have to keep our fingers crossed that sensible changes will be made, and not just those that save the most money to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

  12. No constructive comment, I'm afraid (other than that IDS would appear to be the real thing; if allowed).

    I am so lucky never to have had to deal with this. So far.

    Knd Rs


  13. Piers, thanks for your comment. I'm sure some of those who have been affected will be touched by your gratitude that you haven't had to deal with this so far.

    The problems mentioned here do show a different side of the coin to the media's usual focus on housing benefit scams or excesses - although the system does seem to allow for those only too often.

    It's been my experience that it is often those who have the least legitimate claim to benefits who are the most successful in obtaining them, while those who are genuinely sick, disabled, or trying hard to find employment are often placed in impossible situations, and penalised financially.

    I, like you, am very much hoping that the spirit of IDS' proposals will be honoured. I am also hoping that this government, unlike the last one, will consult widely with CAB debt and welfare benefits advisers before making changes to the benefits system - whose expert views on the pitfalls of tax credits were largely ignored prior to their creation.

  14. Molly, Sadly, as far as housing benefit is going, things are going to get quite a bit worse, at least in the short term.

    The emergency Budget is reason - this does three things

    1. It moves what Local housing allowance pays from the median rent in the area to the 30th percentile- so a lot of people in private rented sector will be find their benefit is cut.

    2. if you're on Jobseekers allowance for more than a year, it changes the amount you can get on housing benefit from 100% of housing costs to 90%

    3. Especially for the Farrows, they're going to get tougher on working age families in "overlarge" social housig accommodation - like the family you quote.

    Plan is to cut benefit entitlement to regional rental average for appropriate sized accom. I'm guessing that for Farrows this wld be 1 bedroom. Aim is to save £500 million a year from this.

    The good news is that this won't start to bite until 2012/13.

    The bad news is that Osborne announced in the budget that he wants to save much more than so far announced, and Housing is probably the most obvious place to look...

  15. Thanks so much for this, though the effect on HB of the emergency budget is even more depressing than I’d thought.

    I had assumed that the Farrows would be deemed to only require one-bedroomed accommodation especially as, locally, the greatest shortage in the social housing stock is in two-bedroomed accommodation like their existing home. I think they already realise this - but are desperately worried about their future inability to offer a home to their children, both of whom are under 25 and whose employment is insecure.

    The news about the change from median rent is terrible, as is the potential impact from the cut to 90% for the long-term unemployed. Is this to be applied to the long-term sick and/or disabled too?

    Do you know what the situation is going to be vis a vis the under-25s? (Though I have a horrible feeling that I know that the answer to that won’t be good news either.)

    Let’s hope that the media are going to press IDS hard on this subject, though of course releasing his proposals during Recess is likely to give the coalition a far easier ride.....

  16. One doesn't have to be a 'socialist' to be 'a good person'. You imply the opposite.
    In fact, as at least one commenter has pointed out, Socialism seems to have resulted in misery wherever it's been tried.
    In Britain, '[t]hey [socialists] always run out of other people's money. It's quite a characteristic ...' © Margaret Thatcher. Boo, hiss ... I know, BUT ...
    As I've said before, luv your blog.

  17. Ah, well - you forget that I am daily tormented by the loss of my youthful idealism ;-) Glad you like the blog anyway, though!

  18. By reading this blog I am feeling more depression, moreover it also seems to be more hypocritical.

  19. Oh, dear - I hope it wasn't something I said? Not clear whether it's the situation re Housing Benefit you find depressing and hypocritical, or me?!