Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Plea to halt housing benefit cuts

MLAs bid to stall plan which could leave hundreds homeless

Stormont is to be asked to halt planned cuts in housing benefit which could affect 6,000 people, making many of them homeless by early next year, according to housing charities.

MLAs Alex Maskey and Fra McCann of Sinn Fein will use a little known procedure known as ‘A Prayer of Annulment’ today to try to delay the UK-wide change being introduced here.

They warn that, unless the proposals are modified, it could lead to hundreds of people sleeping rough this winter as well as costing the taxpayer more money.

Mr McCann said: “Around 6,000 people currently in receipt of the single accommodation rate of Housing Benefit could see their benefit reduced by half.

“For many, a 50% reduction in housing benefit is tantamount to a notice to quit,” he added.

The change, which is due to come into force next January, seeks to save money by funding people under 35 to live only in shared accommodation, for instance hostels, instead of flats.

At present this requirement only applies to those under 25.

Extending it to people aged 35 will bring around 5,892 more people into the shared accommodation net, mainly single men.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Conser

vative minister who is promoting the idea, argues that it will encourage them to find work in order to get a place of their own.

“He is wrong. Homelessness, insecure housing and rough sleeping undermine the ability of a person to secure work. It renders them less employable not more,” Mr McCann argued.

The Housing Rights Service (HRS) warns that dealing with the fallout could actually cost the Executive money because there is not enough hostel accommodation here to meet demand.

A HRS paper presented to the Assembly’s Social Security Advisory Committee Evidence quoted studies which show “that a typical example of homelessness can cost £15,000 to the public purse with a more complex case costing in the region of £83,000”.

Most Stormont parties agree that the cost-cutting measure will have worse effects here than in England, where the housing mix is different.

However, the benefits are currently funded from London and many MLAs fear that if we change the rules the Executive may be asked to fund the difference.

Mr McCann argues that this need not happen.

He believes that if the Prayer of Annulment is passed it would leave time to make a case for special treatment .

A decision on the move is likely to be taken early today.

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