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New Clause 10 - Changes to age of eligible claimants of housing benefit

Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 20th October 2015.

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‘(1) The Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 130(1) insert—

“(1A) The Secretary of State shall not make provision about eligibility for housing benefit in respect of the age of a claimant except by primary legislation.”.’—(Hannah Bardell.)

This New Clause aims to ensure that any changes to the age of eligible claimants for housing benefit must be made by primary legislation rather than regulation. The Government intends to withdraw entitlement to housing benefit from 18-21 year olds and it is understood this change would be enacted by regulation.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 12—Entitlement to housing costs element of universal credit for 18-21 year olds —

‘(1) Entitlement to the housing cost element of Universal Credit shall not be restricted for those 18 to 21 year olds who fall into the following categories—

(a) those who have previously been in work;

(b) a person who lives independently;

(c) those with a disability or mental health problem receiving Employment Support Allowance or Income Support;

(d) those with dependent children;

(e) pregnant women;

(f) those who are owed a rehousing duty under—

(i) section 193 of the Housing Act 1996;

(ii) section 9 of the Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003;

(iii) section 73 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014;

(g) those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness who are being assisted by local authority housing teams;

(h) those who are living in statutory or voluntary sector homelessness accommodation;

(i) those who have formerly been homeless and have been supported by voluntary or statutory agencies into accommodation;

(j) those who have formerly been homeless between the ages of 16 and 21;

(k) a person without family or whom social services have found that a home environment is not suitable for them to live in;

(l) care leavers; and

(m) those leaving custody.

(2) Within three months of section [Entitlement to housing costs element of universal credit for 18-21 year olds] of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must, by regulation, provide definitions of—

(a) “a person who lives independently”;

(b) “risk of homelessness”; and

(c) “a person without family”.’

To ensure that 18-21 year olds who meet one of the listed conditions are entitled to receive the housing cost elements of universal credit.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Business, Innovation and Skills)

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. As I will be changing brief for the Scottish National party, this will be the last  opportunity I have to speak on this subject. I will be moving to Business, Innovation and Skills, where I hope to continue the work that I have done.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Indeed; what can I say?

The SNP fully supports the intention behind Labour’s new clause, and we seek to prevent any young person from being locked out of the housing system due to age. We heard our youngest Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), speak passionately in her maiden speech about the fact that she would be the only 18 to 21-year-old in the UK who would be supported in housing under the Conservative Government’s proposals. We have already said that we will support Labour’s new clause 10, because we share the concerns of the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury.

The SNP is concerned that the Government’s intention to remove young people’s access to support with their housing costs could lead to an increase in youth homelessness. According to Crisis, youth homelessness is already on the rise, with 8% of 16 to 24-year-olds recently reported as homeless. In four years, the number of young people sleeping rough in London has more than doubled. In a written answer on 14 September the Government confirmed they would restrict 18 to 21-year-olds from access to housing benefit. Their rationale, which we believe is deeply flawed, was cited as a wish not to allow young people to slip into a lifetime of benefits. The Government may not realise that it is not simply a matter of people deciding to have to rely on housing benefit to keep a roof over their head; many young people are not able to live at home with their parents for a variety of reasons. The fact that the Government are already squeezing the pockets of working families and families with more children will make it even harder for parents to afford to keep their children at home for longer.

Of the 19,000 18 to 21-year-olds who will be affected by the change, 60% are in social housing, all of whom will have been subjected to the stringent eligibility test and only deemed a priority by the local authority because they are in need. The remainder of those eligible for help live in the private rented sector and receive the shared accommodation rate—the lowest rung of housing benefit, according to Shelter, barely enough to cover a room at the bottom end of the market.

We have seen the increase in housing costs across the UK, which has locked out this sector of society. That is frankly wrong. The Government have failed young people by failing to provide economic opportunities and stability in the workforce. Growing numbers of talented young people are left unemployed. The Minister cannot simply say, “Stay at home, and your parents will look after you”, because that is regressive and smacks of a lack of vision. Many young people cannot live at home and housing benefit is the only thing that stands between them and homelessness. Between 2010 and 2014 Crisis helped to create 8,120 tenancies in the private rented sector for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, with support from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The SNP believes it is unfair to restrict entitlement to a benefit based solely on age rather than on evidential grounds. We support Labour’s wish for a blanket ban on the Government restricting entitlement based on age, but as the answer to a written question on 14 September confirmed, it looks likely that the Tories are intent on locking young people out of this lifeline. That is why we have tabled new clause 12, which would provide restrictions related to vulnerable people who may be impacted. I recognise that the Government have said that they will bring forward exemptions for particularly vulnerable young people, but the full details of that proposal are not in the Bill. We tabled the new clause to ensure that young people in the circumstances that I have described are protected.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Does the hon. Lady agree with me that it is very important to look closely at what the Government say counts as vulnerable? One can imagine them saying that they are going to look after vulnerable youngsters, but their definition will be restricted. For example, they may include young people leaving care but not anyone else. We need to be careful, because Opposition Members’ definition of vulnerability may be different from what Ministers are trying to get away with.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Business, Innovation and Skills)

The hon. Lady must have read my mind. I was just coming on to the point about care leavers and those who have experienced violence or abuse. As the hon. Lady says, the categorisation of those who are vulnerable must be a unified approach. We must be in agreement on that throughout the House. Some young people may be unable to live with their parents because of relationship breakdown—for example, if they have been thrown out because of family circumstances such as a parent remarrying—or because of their own lifestyle choices or sexuality, but they might find that difficult to prove. Many young people who have found themselves homeless are currently supported into accommodation funded by housing benefit, either by a local authority or by a homelessness organisation. Without that support, those vulnerable groups will be homeless and unable to meet housing costs. Housing benefit helps those people live independently when living at home is no longer an option, and removing it could leave people choosing between returning to a destructive family home or the street.

Accepting the new clause would at least show that the Government were serious about their commitment to protect the most vulnerable, which we must have within the law. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, and I urge hon. Members to support our new clause 12 as well as Labour’s new clause 10, to ensure that vulnerable young people can access housing support to keep them off the streets.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

As everyone always says, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I really mean it. It is an honour.

As soon as I heard of the plans for the removal of housing benefit from those aged 18 to 21, I was understandably alarmed. There are many reasons why, and I have discussed with colleagues on the Government Benches. I took to my feet in Prime Minister’s questions and asked the stand-in Prime Minister, the Chancellor, to guarantee that certain vulnerable groups would be exempt from the changes. I highlighted to him then, as I do to the Committee now, that every year, Women’s Aid conducts a survey of residents to provide socio-demographic information about a sample of women residents living in refuge services in one day. Last year, on that one single day, 132 women living in refuges were aged 18 to 20. In Birmingham, women aged 18 to 21, who had been beaten and tortured, raped and belittled, made up 25% of all residents living in Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid refuges. Almost all will have received housing benefit to live in the refuge and stay safe. That gives an idea of the number of women in that group.

Anyone who has ever worked in supported accommodation with victims of domestic violence will know that that group—those living in refuge—represent the tip of the iceberg of those living within the community and suffering the same thing. As an example, in the last year that I worked in refuge, 800 people came through our refuge services, and 8,000 were rehoused in the community. That means that around 10% were in refuge. From those figures, we can see how many people within the community are fleeing violence. If we take the idea that 25% of those people are aged 18 to 21, the Committee will see my concern.

Up and down the country there are young people who simply cannot live with their parents, such as abuse victims, care leavers and kids whose parents have died, moved away or simply do not want them to live with them. Those are people with little or no earning power, no networks and no safety net. I want the Government to answer this simple question: where will those people live?

In response to my parliamentary question, the Chancellor assured me—I was grateful to hear it—that the vulnerable people I referred to would be exempt. Bravo to him for that. He stated that again in his Budget statement. However, even in new schedule 1, tabled by the Minister, the detail of who will actually be exempt is a bit too thin on the ground. The charities working in the field are still not sure. I am still not sure, and I have worked in the field for many years.

As has been well rehearsed in the Committee when we have debated a number of other amendments, we are on unsafe ground if we allow this issue to be dealt with in regulations rather than in primary legislation. I want to see definitive legislative exemptions for the following groups: care leavers, young parents, people living in supported accommodation such as refuges or young people’s homelessness services, victims of domestic and sexual violence who are fleeing violence and being rehoused in the community, those moving on from supported accommodation and young people at risk of homelessness. It may well be the Government’s plan to do so.

I am being all nice to the Government today. As I said in last week’s sitting, I praise the Department’s move to exempt those in supported accommodation from the benefits cap introduced in the last Parliament.  However, in order to offer safety and comfort to the young people I have outlined and the hard-working and cash-strapped local organisations and charities that support them, Opposition Members would like the certainty of legislation.

I would very much like to work with the Government to get this right and to protect those who need protecting. How can we debate and vote on the Bill on Third Reading without knowing whether homeless young people across our constituencies will be protected? Will the removal of housing benefit without proper legislative guidance for councils not undermine the homelessness duty in every local authority area? As someone who has worked in supported accommodation services, I can guarantee that without guaranteed access to housing benefit for those leaving refuges and hostels, this welfare reform will slow down young people’s recovery from homelessness. It will create bed-blocking in specialist services and will mean that supported accommodation beds are not available to others who need them. We are turning people away from those beds at a phenomenal rate—hundreds of people every day in my local authority alone.

The Government’s so-called living wage, of course, will not apply to this group of people. If we are to sign up to the idea of it actually being a living wage, we must also sign up to the idea that those who do not get it therefore cannot afford to live. We must put down in black and white exactly how we are going to mitigate that, especially for the vulnerable and abused. I ask the Government, with grace, to look at the evidence being provided by the brilliant alliance of youth homelessness charities, a copy of which I have sent to the Secretary of State and the Chancellor pretty much every week since I have been here, and to reconsider how they manage the situation. I ask for primary legislation rather than regulations, to offer security and simplicity to all those in both the statutory and voluntary services dealing with these cases.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) 9:45 am, 20th October 2015

May I begin my remarks by thanking the hon. Members for Livingston and for Birmingham, Yardley for their thoughtful contributions? This is an important area, to which the Government naturally want to develop the right approach.

I should like to make two points. The change in housing support debated thus far refers specifically to the new youth obligation that will be introduced from April 2017, the purpose of which is to help young people to develop the skills and experience they need to get into work. Specifically, from day one of their claim, young people will benefit from an intensive period of work-related support, which will include job search support, interview techniques and structured work preparation. After six months, having built up their work preparation and received support to help them to get into employment, they will have the choice of applying for an apprenticeship or traineeship, of gaining the work-based skills that employers value, or of taking up a work placement. The youth obligation will be integrated with universal credit, ensuring that those moving into work will be better off and supported.

With regards to the housing changes, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley was right in her comments and in the representations she has made to the Government. She has heard that the Government are focused on protecting vulnerable people.

The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury made a relevant point about the definition of vulnerability. We want to ensure that we get that right, so we are currently working with a wide range of stakeholders to understand those vulnerable groups. That work needs to be completed for robust policy and, importantly, for support, measures and exemptions to be put in place to help those groups. That work is still under way.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley touched on a number of stakeholders, some of whom we are working and engaging with. Should she like to present others to the Government, we would be very happy for her to do so.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Will those consultations be completed before Report and Third Reading?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will be honest: I simply do not know, so I will find out and come back to the hon. Lady on that.

The hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley and for Livingston touched on the various groups that cannot rely on the stability of a family home. We are focused on that and want to do everything we can to help those young people. That is the reason for the exemptions to protect the vulnerable. We are discussing the policy with landlords, housing associations and charities, who provide a unique perspective on the groups discussed.

I hope we can work together on stakeholder engagement. As I have said, that work is under way and the policy will not be introduced until next year, which gives us time for the detailed approach we absolutely need. I therefore urge the hon. Member for Livingston to withdraw her new clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 54 Decision Time — New Clause 10 - Changes to age of eligible claimants of housing benefit

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.