Coalition Consequences: forcing children to move home isn’t fair – and won’t save a penny of public money

The penny has finally dropped for the Liberal Democrats: the Government’s changes to welfare benefits will do little or nothing to reduce public spending overall, will unfairly demonise the poor and jobless, and will prompt a mass exodus of poorer people from many parts of London to poorer districts – and in many cases out of the capital entirely.

So says former children’s Minister Sarah Teather (the Lib Dem MP for Brent Central)  in an interview in today’s Observer, belatedly echoing concerns that many community organisations, trade unions and housing and family charities – and the Labour Party – have been raising for many months.

The  Benefit Cap’s forced relocation of households has been predicted to be the biggest upheaval for Londoners since the Blitz. If so, then those Liberal Democrat politicians who voted for the Benefit Cap are a little like Air Raid wardens telling people hearing the siren that they are now  locked out of the Air Raid shelter, but that they really regret having padlocked it closed and thrown away the key, and wish they could now unpick the lock.

The benefits cap is said to be generally popular – after all, £500 a week works out as £26,000 a year, which is roughly the national average household income, so why should people out of work ever receive more than that? The problem with that analysis is that housing and living costs, as everyone knows, vary greatly by region. A national benefit cap may have less of an impact in the North, but in London it will have devastating consequences, as Shelter has documented. And in most cases, much of the £26,000 “given” to some families is not given to them at all, but goes straight to their landlords in Housing Benefit.

Some may argue that the poor or jobless should not be subsidised to live in areas of London which those on average incomes cannot afford to live in without benefits (Many districts in London, including parts of Blackheath, fall into this category). The  problems with this argument are manifold.

The first big problem is that the Benefits cap could create huge swathes of London – not just the centre but many suburbs as well – where no family could afford to live unless they are lucky enough to have a council or housing association tenancy (the Government is also proposing that these tenants should also see their secure tenancies threatened, and their rents made liable to increase, but that is another story).

This will create  ghettoes of rich and poor, with well-heeled districts becoming no-go areas for the working poor (as well as the jobless), and other, poorer districts where the population will be increasingly dominated by those on benefits. This does not make for successful communities, and does not even help economic productivity  as poorer people will have to commute longer distances to work. Rather than tackle the root problem – the lack of affordable housing in many parts of London – the policy attacks the victims of this housing crisis.

The second argument against the Benefits cap, which the Tories have not considered and which Liberal Democrat politicians are only belatedly realising, is its cruel human impact. The Benefits cap will not just apply to new applicants for welfare assistance, wanting to move to a new home in more expensive parts of London; it will also be phased in for existing claimants. In many cases, these people will have to move to a new home many miles away, and their children forced to move schools and leave behind friendship groups, neighbours and friends.

Of course  any MP or councillor will by now be fully aware of the impact of the cuts: families that have not already been hit have been warned to brace themselves next April, when the £500 a week benefits cap starts, and are now contacting their MPs and councillors in droves.

I was contacted by two such families in the last week alone. Both cases involve families living in private rented accommodation, and they both highlight how the current Government’s policies are doing nothing to help people living in that sector.

Both cases involve families living in Blackheath Westcombe ward, and to respect their confidentiality I have not given their names and also left out details which might make them identifiable. Both families are headed by a single parent, who for reasons beyond their control (in one case, bereavement) find themselves without a partner who can work more to earn more money. Neither of them are scroungers,  workshy or irresponsible – and neither of them have sought dependency on benefits  or want to remain on them any longer than necessary.

In the first case, a single mother who came to see me at my surgery yesterday told me she has been told that from next April Housing Benefit will no longer cover all her rent. From April 2013, she will have to start paying £90 a week extra to stay in the three bedroom house, rented from a private landlord, she lives in with her three children, aged between one and eight. Her middle child, aged four, is in Reception Year at school but suffers from ill health and often has to be picked up at short notice as a result. His mother wants to return to work in a year or so, once her youngest child starts at nursery, but has been told that she can only be assisted with childcare costs for one child, not two or three.

With the best will in the world, she cannot return to work for the foreseeable future – and many would argue she is already doing the most important work imaginable, bringing up three children on her own as best she can. I cannot see how forcing such a family to move to another part of London, or even out of the capital, is fair or just.

The second case involves another single parent, also renting a three bedroom house in Blackheath Westcombe ward. Her landlord lives out of the country and the managing agent they have appointed has a poor record at carrying out repairs on the property despite many requests – but neither the landlord nor the agent has reduced the rent to compensate for the poor living conditions the tenants have to live in.

The roof is leaky, and the boiler at the house is 18 years old and regularly breaks down. Two of her children, aged eight and sixteen, are often ill and have been told the symptoms indicate that they may have suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. Their mother has her own health problems and has only been able to work intermittently in recent months.

Rather than force such landlords to deal with such problems, or help to deliver more affordable homes, the Government’s reforms may resolve such problems in the most brutal way possible – by forcing the family to move to another rented home many miles away, and have to run the gauntlet of another landlord.

If these tenants have to relocate, their landlords will have little difficulty in finding new tenants who can afford the rent and do not need to claim housing benefit. There will be little saving to the public purse, as the difference between affordability and debt is often only a few dozen pounds each week (the savings arising from the benefit cap are predicted to be just £51 million across England over three years – a tiny fraction of one percent of annual Government spending  and less than the £120 million “emergency pot” the Government has pledged to help assist difficult cases).

In the meantime, more public money  will be spent- the cost of moving children from one school to another, often many miles way, and in some cases the cost of assessing whether households are homeless and need emergency housing. Not to mention the hassle and upset of a family with children having to move to a new home, often many miles away from their current one.

All in all, it seems likely that the Benefit cap won’t save a penny of public money overall – but will only force parents and their children to have to move home. Hardly fair, just, or efficient.

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2 Responses to Coalition Consequences: forcing children to move home isn’t fair – and won’t save a penny of public money

  1. Pingback: Coalition Consequences: Benefits Cap hits those in private rented accommodation hardest | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

  2. Pingback: All is forgiven, planners: you are now needed more than ever | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

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