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Alice Ashworth @ashworthalice Senior Policy Officer

A word on what’s missing from the Welfare Reform and Work Bill

Since the Chancellor’s budget earlier this month, here at Crisis we’ve been worrying about some of the drastic cuts to housing benefit that were announced.  In this blog I outline our concerns that some of the most worrying measures won’t even be properly debated in Parliament.

Before Parliament closed down for its summer break last week, there was just time for the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. Ever since we heard about the Bill, we’ve been gearing up to try and influence the debate about some of the key reforms planned by the new Government. We were prepared for this to be tough. But on closer inspection this will be much harder than we first thought– because the measures we’re most concerned about aren’t even included in the Bill. This doesn’t mean they’re not going ahead, but rather that they’ll be laid in regulations, meaning MPs will have no opportunity to properly debate the issue and raise their concerns.

One of the proposals announced in the budget that is of most concern– and which doesn’t appear in the Bill– relates to housing support for young people. From 2017, 18 to 21 year olds on Universal Credit won’t be entitled to support for their housing costs. On the face of it, this is a disaster for young people. Thousands of young people rely on housing benefit to keep them from life on the streets or to save them from having to return to violent and destructive family homes.

The Chancellor did however make clear that young people will be protected if they are vulnerable, if they can’t live with their parents or if they’ve been working for the previous six months. This is welcome. But as always, the devil will be in the detail. As outlined by Crisis in a blog for Inside Housing, it’s vital these protections adequately cover those difficult cases where young people are at risk of homelessness but find this difficult to prove. That’s why we’ll be keeping a close eye on this to make sure young people can continue to access housing benefit when they really need it.

We’re also worried about the freeze to Local Housing Allowance (housing benefit for private tenants). This was included in the budget, as part of a freeze to most working age benefits for the next four years, but not in the Bill since the Government already has the power to do this via regulations. A freeze might sound innocuous enough but make no mistake– this is a real terms cut. The IFS has estimated that this equates to a 4.8% cut across all working age benefits but the cut will be felt much more deeply in parts of the country where rents are rising steeply.

The link between Local Housing Allowance rates and local rents was already broken in the last parliament. As a result the gap is widening between actual rents and the amount of housing benefit people can claim– one in ten Local Housing Allowance rates are already at least 5 per cent lower than the cheapest third of properties. Over time this cut is set to erode the value of housing benefit for private tenants. Without accompanying measures to tackle spiralling rents in some areas, it’s a catastrophic failure to think long-term about how people on low incomes will afford to keep a roof over their head.

There are of course other areas of concern that did make it into the Bill– the lower benefit cap is likely to significantly affect single people for the first time and many sick and disabled people will be hit by the reduction in their out-of-work benefits. We’ll blog on these measures more fully as the Bill makes its way through Parliament, and we’ll be raising our concerns with members of the Bill Committee and other MPs. At the same time we’ll be encouraging politicians to take the opportunity while this Bill is being scrutinised to debate those measures that didn’t make it in. Do please raise these issues with your own MP– it may well be their only chance to get the issues debated.