‘On benefits’. We live in a society which has given those two words an unwelcome significance they don’t deserve. Free state education, using the NHS, assistance from the police, relying on the basic state pension, we all often depend on the state stepping in to help us live full lives. The welfare state and the benefit system exists to do the same thing. And yet we’ve become comfortable as a society with the idea that ‘on benefits’ denotes a different type of person with TV shows like Benefits Street and Benefits Britain serving to reinforce these ideas of separation and stigma.
These negative attitudes matter. They lead to stigma, they lead to prejudice and too often they lead to people being treated as second class. We see it in housing perhaps more than anywhere else, where it has become almost normal to treat people differently because they are on benefits.
Go onto any housing website now and you will see it. ‘No DSS’. The Department for Social Security (DSS) was renamed years ago, but the meaning of ‘No DSS’ is still known to all. It means we will not rent this property to you if you are ‘on benefits’.
In 2018 Britain we have landlords telling people don’t apply if you are on benefits. Don’t apply, I won’t even consider you. It doesn’t matter if you have always paid your rent on time. It doesn’t matter if your references are great and you and your family really need a home. ‘No DSS’.
It’s prejudice and it’s discrimination.
The scale of the problem
And our figures show just how widespread this has become. YouGov surveyed almost 4,000 private renters and found that almost a third of people receiving housing benefits said they hadn’t been able to rent a home due to a ‘No DSS’ policy in the last five years.
Our housing system is in a state of emergency. Rough sleeping has more than doubled and we have 300,000 people living without a home. As our own figures recently demonstrated, most of those families who are homeless and living in temporary or emergency accommodation are in fact working. The failures in our housing system building up over decades mean that the basic deal that a job and an income would mean at least a secure home is completely breaking down. 1.2 million people are on the waiting list for a social home and we built just 5000 last year.
No wonder more people than ever are needing help with the costs of their rent. That’s what housing benefit does. And yet those receiving housing benefit have to contend not just with the problems of a brutal housing market, on top of that they too often have to deal with institutionalised stigma.
Campaigning to end DSS discrimination
At Shelter, in a new partnership with the National Housing Federation (NHF), we are determined to defend the rights of those who struggle with this prejudice. So this week, we and NHF are launching a new campaign to try to end the discrimination that those on benefits are experiencing in our housing market and to seek to stamp out the benefits bans that blight our high-streets. But we can’t do this on our own.
With your help we want to call this discrimination out where we see it. And we want to challenge those who are saying ‘No DSS’, possibly without even realising the damage they are doing.
Earlier this week I wrote to the letting agency Ludlow Thompson. Letting Agents are amongst the worst offenders for running ‘No DSS’ policies and Ludlow Thompson is frequently banning people on benefits from letting its properties right across its branches. How do we know? They told us. We conducted a mystery shopping exercise, phoning up letting agents and asking about their practices and 20 of the 21 calls made to Ludlow Thompson branches we were told they wouldn’t let a property to someone on benefits.
We wrote to them asking them to change this practice and earlier today they replied saying that they do not discriminate against renters who claim housing benefit.
Given what our mystery shopping exercise has found, this seems incredible. At the very least there appears to be a huge discrepancy between Ludlow’s stated policies in their letter to Shelter and what is actually happening in Ludlow branches.
So today we’ve written back to Ludlow asking them to make good on their promise and stamp this practice out. We’ve asked them to state clearly on their website that they welcome applications from those in receipt of benefits to all of their properties and to commit to training their staff that no tenant should be barred from any property simply because they are in receipt of benefits.
You can read our letters.
It’s good that Ludlow have confirmed this isn’t their policy but now they need to act to really stamp it out. Please join our campaign and let Ludlow Thompson know that you want to see them end this practice.
Ludlow are the worst offender we found, but they are by no means alone. Next week Shelter and NHF will publish more of our mystery shopping research showing just how widespread this practice has become. And we know to win this change we will have to challenge landlords, lenders and insurers as well to think about what they are doing. So in coming weeks, you’ll see us set out what more we can do to make sure others realise that a benefit ban or a simple ‘No DSS’ sign has real consequences for real people.
Challenging it in court
And it’s not just wrong. We think it is also unlawful. Why? Because in 2010 the government legislated to protect people from indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination is where there is a policy or practice which applies to everyone but it has a worse effect on those people who are protected against discrimination in law.
Straightforwardly, ‘No DSS’ practices are a policy or practice which disproportionately affects a number of protected groups, particularly women and those with disabilities – who are more likely to be receiving housing benefit and therefore suffer the most from policies not to rent to people on housing benefit.
So in addition to calling this practice out we are going to back that up by challenging it in the courts. In the next few months Shelter intends to bring a series of test cases to court which challenge those who refuse to consider letting to people on benefits and to ask the courts whether their practices are lawful or are in fact indirect discrimination.
Big society-wide change like this doesn’t come easily and it takes time. Shelter and NHF can’t do it on our own – but we believe there are many more people who look at this and think it’s wrong and it needs to change. If you are among them, please join our campaign and together we can make our voices heard.