In the Welfare Reform & Work Bill, Shelter is seeking an amendment that takes homeless households out of the benefit cap while they get back on their feet, just as they are if someone loses their job. The case for giving the same protections to people facing homelessness is self-evident; why should losing your home be regarded as any less important than losing your job?
To that end, Lord Best, an independent Cross Bench Peer, has tabled a strong amendment to the Bill, with Shelter’s support, clearly setting out when homeless households should be exempt from the benefit cap. It would cover those threatened with homelessness; those waiting for a homelessness decision; those who haven’t qualified for help but need reasonable support into other accommodation; and those accepted as homeless.
Not only does the amendment set out clearly who will be exempt, but crucially, it also sets out for how long – 39 weeks, the same protection from the benefit cap currently given to those who lose their job.
There are similar amendments tabled by other Peers, which Shelter and other organisations across the housing and homelessness sector, would happily take. Whilst none of them are silver bullets, they are all likely to assist homeless households and the local authorities trying to help them get back on their feet.
What is more, together these amendments represent cross-party support for an exemption for homeless households. Independent Cross Bench Peers, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all either tabled or backed amendments on this issue. But what is the likelihood of the Government listening to them?
To date, the Government has been reluctant to take homeless families out of the benefit cap and points to DHPs as the answer to any difficulties – but we know this doesn’t resolve the problems the benefit cap causes and the pot is spread thinly, across too many reforms.
This brings me to something the Government often cite as being very important: ‘unintended consequences’. In some cases, the Government has, to its credit, acted when presented with evidence of an unintended consequence. For example, it has made assurances that they are currently looking at exempting vulnerable groups from the blanket removal of housing benefit for 18-21 year olds. Similarly, the Coalition Government brought in an exemption from the benefit cap for various forms of support packages, including for things like fleeing domestic violence.
Exempting both of these small groups from sweeping cuts is very welcome, but there are far more homeless families still hit by the cap, not covered by existing exemptions, and struggling to find affordable, settled accommodation.
The original benefit cap’s intention was to ensure an unemployed family could not claim more in benefits than the average households earns, thus incentivising claimants in to work. However, most did not move in to work and a high number of capped households are actually homeless families, whose claims are higher because their needs are so great – and whose current circumstances add additional barriers to moving into work.
One consequence of the cap on homeless families is that local authorities are having to move people to cheaper, more affordable parts of the country, often on the fringes of major cities, where there are fewer quality work opportunities.
Surely when a homeless household is placed out-of-area – far away from jobs, the support networks that they may rely on for childcare, their local job centre, and their children’s schools – they will find it even more difficult to move into work. It’s not hard to imagine the impact becoming homeless also has on the less tangible barriers to moving into work like morale, confidence and motivation. Not to mention that temporary accommodation is of course temporary and households can be moved several times before being rehoused. This makes it harder to plan for the future and settle into a routine for things like commuting and childcare.
If you want to incentivise homeless families into work, the first step must be to find them a stable, affordable home.
It simply cannot be the intention of the Government to make it more difficult to rehouse homeless families – yet that is what is happening, and an even lower cap would make this worse. The beauty of Lord Best’s amendment is that it recognises this is not the cap’s intention, giving 39 weeks of respite while they get back on their feet. After this reasonable period, the cap would still come in to force, for better or worse, as the Government wants.
Shelter sincerely hopes the Government will consider Lord Best’s amendment very carefully. The issue has cross party support, the effect on local authorities’ ability to house homeless families is clear, DHPs are spread too thinly, the exemption has precedent, and it addresses an unintended consequence of the cap. All of which should give the Government pause for thought – Today we’ll find out what they really think of it.