How unkindest cut of all will put many on streets
Will we soon see homeless families walking the streets of Northern Ireland looking for a hostel bed to lay their heads on?
Maybe it won't come to that. But a significant rise in levels of homelessness seems inevitable, arising from changes to housing benefits introduced in the Coalition Government's June Budget.
A paper just published by the Assembly's research and information service quotes a series of predictions of the effect on the north: restriction on access to the private rented sector; reduction in the ability of tenants to keep their homes; the breakdown of families; increasing rent arrears in the private sector and social housing; increased reluctance on the part of landlords to let to people on benefits.
The Housing Executive's head of research says: "The most damaging proposal is the intention to change the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) calculation from one based on the median (mid-point) rent to one based on the 30th percentile (20% below mid-point)."
University of Ulster research puts figures on the amount likely to be lost by tenants in the private rented sector: 68% of housing benefit recipients already have to find an average of £20-a-week to boost their benefit to the level of their rent.
This will rise by £7 or £8 - a sum which will likely be meaningless to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, but, for many of the 50,000 tenants affected in the north, may mean the difference between just about making ends meet and making choices between eating and heating.
"It will inevitably mean more private tenants losing their home and greater difficulty for landlords trying to ensure they collect a viable rent," say UU researchers.
The Assembly's research and information services unit lists other measures in Duncan Smith's benefits hit-list, including: an end to the provision allowing tenants to hold onto a maximum of £15-a-week when the rent being paid falls below LHA - implying a poor standard of housing; pegging LHA to the Consumer Price Index rather than local rents; a 10% reduction in benefits paid to the long-term unemployed on Jobseekers' Allowance.
Duncan Smith insists that cutting housing benefits will result in a "fairer system", by ensuring that claimants cannot live in houses which people in work can't afford. But housing benefit has always been an in-work benefit, one of its purposes being to enable people in low-paid work to afford reasonable rents calculated according to local average levels.
As for families on housing benefits living high on the hog, the Commons Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) observed: "We have seen no evidence to suggest that the vast majority of housing choices made by HB recipients have been either reckless, or extravagant."
The SSAC's conclusion was, simply, that: "The Government should not go ahead with the package of amendments as proposed."
In December, the Commons Work and Pensions Committee forecast: "Many people are likely to struggle to meet the shortfalls between the reduced amount of benefit . . . and the rent they need to pay to secure appropriate homes. As a consequence, many are likely to have to move to cheaper properties and to cheaper areas." Government-driven downward social mobility.
Duncan Smith loses no opportunity to explain that his mission in politics is to reform the social security system to make it not just fairer, but "fairer for all".
It is notable, though, that, whereras the way to encourage the lower orders to step up to the mark is to take money away from them, the way to win high performance from those at the top is to offer them bonuses and sky-high rates of pay. Announcing the changes last year, the Work and Pensions Secretary began by telling us: "The housing benefit measures should be considered within the wider context of the budget deficit and the reduction in public expenditure that the Government is making to tackle it."
People at the bottom end of the housing ladder must make a hefty contribution towards paying for the profligacy of governments and the market recklessness of the rich. He afterwards moved on to the 'fairness' argument.
The measures harmonise with another Victorian aspiration which Tories have long held in their hearts - making a clear distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. There is no mention from Duncan Smith of the obvious fact that another way to widen the gap between those with a job and those without would be to boost wages.
The benefit changes will deepen the effect of the cuts coming from Westminster and compliantly passed on by the Executive.
The predictable effect will be drive those in society with good reason for anger further down into despair - or rage.