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Alice Ashworth @ashworthalice Senior Policy Officer

Vulnerable young people must be protected from benefit cuts

New research commissioned by Crisis finds that Government proposals to withdraw housing support from young people are likely to put some at significant risk of homelessness– while resulting in only very small financial savings to the Treasury.

The study, carried out by Sheffield Hallam University, recalls the Conservative commitment ‘to stop most young people from claiming Housing Benefit’. It is ‘not fair,’ their election manifesto claimed, ‘that taxpayers should have to pay for 18-21 year olds on Jobseeker’s Allowance to claim Housing Benefit in order to leave home’. These assertions, the authors argue, assume that young people make a conscious choice to live off the state rather than get a job or remain in the family home while they seek work.

But the report goes on to show that only a tiny fraction (two per cent) of young people claim Housing Benefit. And of those that do, many neither leave home by choice nor have loving families to return to.

The report uses powerful case studies to illustrate this. These include Andy, who escaped an abusive home environment at 16, and claimed Housing Benefit while he lived in a series of temporary, and finally more stable, forms of accommodation. Zoe also relied on Housing Benefit intermittently in her late teens, once her strained relationship with her mother caused her to live with other family members, then move onto a homeless hostel and eventually into a housing association flat.

These case studies illustrate the challenge the Government has set itself in stating its clear intention to protect the most vulnerable from these proposals. Vulnerability, the report argues, is dynamic and influenced by many factors. People’s lives are messy, complex and very difficult to reduce to a neat tick-box on a form. An exemptions system that tries to keep track of frequent changes in circumstances will consequently be both difficult to administer and expensive to sustain.

Surely, though, if the Government is serious about reducing benefit spending, the costs of this vital exemptions system will be off-set by the savings?

Well, not exactly.

And here we come to the crux of the matter– that despite the Government’s rhetoric about this measure delivering fairness to the taxpayer, it’s unlikely to deliver substantial savings at all (just £74 million in the first three years). Nor is it going to stop most young people from claiming Housing Benefit– only one in eight young claimants will be affected. The report concludes that these proposals are far more concerned with sending a message to young people about their housing choices and lifestyles.

Whatever their justification, the reality is that the Government is pressing ahead with these proposals. That’s why Crisis has worked with politicians to table amendments to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill (as we said we would). These seek to explore exactly who will be protected. We’ve set out who we think should be exempt– including young people currently or previously homeless– and how an exemptions system might work in practice.

Of course no exemptions system is perfect and we’re still concerned some young people may fall through the cracks. But we’re determined to ensure the Government’s protections are as good as they can be.

We’ll be looking out for further opportunities to influence this policy, including as the Welfare Reform and Work Bill progresses to the House of Lords. We’ll be seeking to make sure that this measure doesn’t hinder the most vulnerable from contributing meaningfully to society.