After May 7th – What happens on welfare?

I probably don’t need to tell you that last week was dominated by the launch of the main parties’ manifestos; it was pretty hard to ignore the leaders’ efforts to get the biggest possible splash for their election commitments.

But tellingly, there were no new headline policies on welfare. Although public support for the principle of a safety net remains strong, people are still concerned by the parts they think are open to abuse. Policies that seek to address these concerns, or exploit them, have proved popular – although we’ve always thought there are limits to the public’s enthusiasm for cuts.

This is presumably why the parties only set out a few key pledges, sprinkled across their manifestos, instead of a wholesale reform agenda. The pledges speak to the same themes, but the presentation belies the impacts for those in need, as well as the lack of commitment to tackle the root causes of rising welfare spending.

Take benefits for 18-21 year olds. The Conservative manifesto made removing housing benefit from these young people a key pledge. At the same time, Labour plan to restrict access to housing benefit as part of plans to move young unemployed people onto a new benefit linked to education and training. Whilst others have come out in favour of continuing support for this age group, including the Lib Dems, UKIP and the SNP.

The logic of these policies is easy enough – in their different guises they both say that if you’re young and can live at home, the state shouldn’t bank roll you to live independently. Whether we should be subdividing our society into deserving and undeserving ages is a topic for another day. But, in a simply practical sense, what if you can’t live at home?

Our services help many young people who have fled abusive relationships, are estranged from their parents, or been kicked out because of their sexuality. But where are the safeguards for these people in the manifestos? Housing benefit pays for stays in refuges and hostels – they’re not free – but if vulnerable people can’t flee what are their choices? Do they go back to abusive conditions or to the streets?

Then there are the catch-all policies that make up innocuous sound-bites, and nothing is simpler than saying you’ll freeze working age benefits. The Conservatives want a 2 year freeze during the next Parliament, and the Lib Dems a 1% capped increase for 2 years. Labour are keeping relatively quiet on this one but did only mention protecting tax credits.

Local Housing Allowance (LHA), housing benefit for private renters, is one such benefit that would be hit by a freeze. Of 4.4 million households renting privately in England, Scotland and Wales, 1.4 million claimants are in receipt of some LHA to help with their housing costs. Despite millions needing support for housing costs we’ve seen little on trying to tackle the root causes. Rents are increasing faster than wages, and worryingly the current freeze has meant tenants are soaking up the increases, some by cutting back on essentials like food. With less help over the next few years, more will be put at risk of shortfalls, arrears and ultimately homelessness. The apparent consensus that LHA can be squeezed a little bit more is very worrying; if the next Government wants to prevent people spiralling into homelessness, it is an area that should instead be prioritised for additional spending.

Similarly, we arrive at the benefits cap. The Conservative’s flagship welfare reform, they have now pledged to lower it to £23,000, dragging thousands more struggling families into scope. Lib Dems have committed to keeping the £26,000 cap and so have Labour, but the latter could also lower it in some places after a proposed review.

One of our main concerns with this arbitrary cap is that it applies to Temporary Accommodation (TA) – where homeless families are placed by local authorities. TA is expensive, much more than social rents, and families have no choice over where they are placed – if they then can’t keep up with rents they will get in to arrears and become homeless again, despite already being technically homeless.

So if the parties are going to keep this cap or even lower it, they should take homeless households out of scope because it does nothing to help them into work, lower the benefit bill or keep them in their homes.

On the more controversial policies we find a bit more difference, not least the “Bedroom Tax”. Labour want to scrap it, the Lib Dems want to take disabled people out of it, and the Conservatives stand by it (judging by its absence). It’s perhaps little wonder this is a clear dividing line; it’s become an easy target for Labour but one which the Conservatives will be loathed to U-turn after such a dogged defence.

What all of this tells us is that political parties are still tinkering with individual polices. Each political party has banked on a few key pledges to win small numbers of votes, whilst making a token effort to control the benefit bill. But almost of which will hurt families struggling with housing costs.

For organisations like Shelter, there’s a lot to be worried about in the manifestos. Sadly, we’re used to it and we will always make the case against bad housing and homelessness under any government. But what we need to see more of – from all parties – are plans to tackle the structural causes of the high housing benefit bill – high rents, lack of housing supply, diminishing council housing stock, as well as low pay.

Ok, it isn’t snazzy, it won’t make a splash in the media, and doesn’t lend itself to a colourful nightclub launch, but until all parties commit to investing in bricks not benefits we will never be able to help everyone who has fallen on hard times back on their feet.