Time to drop the ‘hated’ ban on housing benefit for 18-21s

Reports over the weekend suggest Ministers and advisers are looking again at controversial plans to bar 18-21s from claiming housing benefit. The current government inherited highly risky plans to prevent younger people receiving housing support under Universal Credit, with the ban due to take effect in a little over four weeks.

Shelter and others have warned of the devastating risks for those unable to stay with family who will be left without any safety net. There are many reasons why a small number of young people in challenging situations may be unable to live at home and need support from the benefit system to keep a roof over their head. Housing benefit can be a vital lifeline for those escaping violence, abuse, estrangement or bereavement.

Sources admit that the current crop of Ministers and their civil servants “hate the policy” but feel unable to abandon it entirely because it is a manifesto commitment.

This is disappointing. Shelter and other homeless charities have been involved in negotiations behind the scenes on how to de-risk the policy by providing exemptions for the most vulnerable. We have not been assured that pressing ahead, even in a modified form, will not increase homelessness.

We remain sceptical that the bureaucracy of the welfare system will be able to correctly identify and protect all of those who need an exemption. The impact of failure will be grave: without a family or welfare safety net to fall back on, a rise in rough sleeping among young people is a very real risk.

The ban also risks excluding younger renters wholesale from the private rented sector. Landlords will be deterred from renting to any 18-21 who could find themselves unable to pay the rent. Social landlords will be unable to offer tenancies to households without the means to pay and, without housing benefit, even hostels will be rendered unaffordable.

We appreciate that Ministers do not reconsider manifesto commitments lightly. But we question the wisdom of pressing ahead with a policy that ministers know is unwise and creates a real risk of increased rough sleeping.

The current government inherited a package of welfare reforms from the Coalition and Cameron governments that attempted to speak to the public’s attitudes towards welfare. We’ve carried out a huge amount of research into public attitudes towards the benefit system and are under no illusions that many people do have serious concerns with some aspects of the welfare state. Research for us in the middle of the Coalition government revealed that the public were in a highly unusual position: they would actually rather that the government took £10 away from someone on benefits than gave them £10.

This is what the ban on housing benefit for young people promised to do. Previous Ministers theorised that, if young people couldn’t be made better off and were stuck living at home, then they could be reassured that their unemployed peers weren’t living the life of riley on the state.

But Ministers today need to calculate whether an attempt to chime with the public’s attitudes is worth an increase in homelessness. It is they who will be held responsible for the impacts of the policy, while those that devised it are no longer in government.

Not a single voter will be better off if the cut goes ahead. It will not make it easier for young people to move out and rent or buy their own property. It will not change the fact that the current generation are facing lower living standards than their parents. It will not change the huge generational divide in housing wealth. It doesn’t even save money. The number of young people needing such support is mercifully small and the ban is expected to save just £3.3 million. As always with welfare cuts, the advantages are diffuse and hard to quantify, while the downsides will fall sharply on a small group.

The manifesto commitment to punish a tiny group of 18-21s is one of the worst inheritances of the May government and is certainly out of step with the welcome promise of no more benefit cuts. It portrays a lack of imagination, which cannot be allowed to stand when young people desperately need real solutions. We urge current ministers to listen to their instincts and not push ahead with a policy they hate.