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Housing Benefit (Under-25s)

Volume 553: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2012

I am grateful to have been chosen to lead this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.

I want to say first that although I understand that the Government have not yet adopted the policy in question, the mere suggestion that the Prime Minister proposes to cut housing benefit to those aged under 25 has raised great concern nationally. I have received—for which I am grateful—briefings from several relevant organisations, including the Prince’s Trust, Places for People, Crisis, Shelter and the National Housing Federation, organisations that help and support the most vulnerable young people aged under 25. I intend to draw heavily on their evidence in the debate.

We all know that cuts are necessary to balance the country’s books, but the burden of paying for them must, as we all know and believe, fall on the shoulders of those most able to pay. That does not include those who are just starting out in life, or young people who, through no fault of their own, have no family support to help them into adulthood and towards independence. Nationally, the policy would affect more than 380,000 households. The cuts would save £1.8 billion, but cutting housing benefit to under-25s is a false economy, as I shall demonstrate.

I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the country. About a third of my constituents are under the age of 24, and there is an explosion in the number of 20-year-olds moving into the constituency. Nationally, last year, a third of those accepted by their council as homeless were aged 16—that is very young— to 24. Of those, 10,000 said that the reason they lost their previous home was that their parents would not or could not house them. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s approach seems to ignore the reality of family breakdown? It is a reality for many young people in my constituency.

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will refer to those statistics. Unless we have been through the same situation as those young people, none of us can imagine it, and I wonder how it will affect their future.

Of those aged under 25 who claim housing benefit, 17% are in work, but, as the Prince’s Trust has pointed out, they need that benefit to close the gap between their earnings and accommodation costs. Many young people earn only low rates of pay, and the national minimum wage for 16 to 17-year-olds is only £3.68 an hour; it is £4.98 an hour for those aged 18 to 20. Young people on apprenticeships earn only £2.60 an hour. The Low Pay Commission has found that young people are disproportionately likely to be paid the minimum wage for their age: 13% of young people aged between 18 and 20 are on the minimum wage of £4.98 an hour. Most young people who claim housing benefit are not in work, but young people all want to work. In a recent survey by the Prince’s Trust, young people who had previously been unemployed were asked how many jobs they had applied for, and the most common response was that they had made more than 100 applications.

The Government say that they want young people to take up their apprentice schemes, but apprenticeship wages are low, at £2.60 an hour. If the Government take housing benefit from those young people—particularly the most vulnerable, whom we want to get into apprenticeships—it will be yet another barrier to their future in work. The Prince’s Trust has also pointed out that young people who want to strike out on their own in business, and take up the trust’s enterprise programme, are often lone parents who claim housing benefit. They need housing benefit to supplement their incomes until their business is profitable enough to allow them enough salary to cover accommodation costs. Why should those young people be denied opportunity because they cannot afford a roof over their head, while the very rich get huge tax breaks from the Government?

The Government have said that some young people will be exempted from the cuts, but how will those exemptions be worked out, and who will be eligible? I hope that the Minister will tell us.

The issue will be one of the biggest in my constituency, and I perceive great difficulties, come next year. Is the hon. Lady aware that there have been discussions with the Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly about changes that may help the system to work? Perhaps the changes proposed for Northern Ireland could be brought across to the rest of the United Kingdom. We are not getting everything we want for Northern Ireland, but I understand that we are getting some helpful concessions. Would the hon. Lady want to suggest that the Government might discuss that with her, and that they might enable the changes to be made UK-wide?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and hope that the Minister will have listened to what he said.

Many young people live with their parents, because that is the only way they can manage work; they simply cannot live in a home of their own. The consequences for young people who cannot live with their parents are serious. Crisis has found that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said, one third of those accepted as homeless by their councils were under 25, and 10,000 had lost their home because their parents could not or would not house them. What will happen to those young people if housing benefit is cut?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I have a concern about the night shelter in my constituency, which receives a third of its funding directly through housing benefit. The hon. Lady mentioned exemptions, and representatives have raised with me the question whether the shelter would be supported exempt accommodation under the new rules. Has the hon. Lady considered that point? Perhaps the Minister would respond to it.

That is a concern of several agencies and organisations that are in the same boat. I hope that the Minister will say something about it.

Half the young people who receive housing benefit have children. Moreover, 28,000 young people receiving housing benefit are sick or disabled. How would the Minister expect those people to cope without any housing benefit at all? While places such as St Mungo’s provide accommodation to more than 17,000 people every night and help thousands more who are sleeping rough or are at risk of homelessness, we can only wonder what it would be like if those who rely on housing benefit were to lose it and no longer have that safety net. How would those figures be magnified?

I am pleased to say that in my constituency, there is a scheme called Maritime Court, which is run by Places for People as an individual support project. It is a customer-led service that offers support and guidance. Everyone using the scheme is encouraged to discuss their needs, and appropriate information is provided to assist them to make informed decisions. They get advice and support on issues such as life skills, benefits, budgeting, employment and education, with the ultimate aim of developing life skills to enable independent living within the community. The service offers a low to medium level of housing-related support. It has 24-hour staffing all year round. Young people get support for up to two years, living in accommodation there until such time that they are able to move into accommodation in the community. As has been mentioned, such projects are concerned about proposals for the future.

The issue of affordable housing is one that Barnardo’s, Save the Children and many other organisations are raising. Does the hon. Lady feel that the Government need to address the issues of affordable housing and of housing that is suitable within the housing benefit range?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a particularly important point—one that we come back to time and again. When we see the low wages for apprentices and many young people, how else can they afford a home, with or without housing benefit?

I want to give a couple of examples to show how young people’s lives need to and can be turned around, and why housing benefit is crucial; obviously, I will use supplemented names. The following case study is from Maritime Court. A young woman, Sue, went into the project when she was 17, with a number of support needs. She had been re-homed and resided in one of Depaul UK’s lodgings within a family home environment, because she had been asked to leave her parents’ house. She had some skills but no experience of living on her own or managing a tenancy. She had led a chaotic lifestyle, as a lot of young people do, which was compounded because her mother had moved around, having had a lot of debt and rent arrears. Her parents had separated, and she had an awkward relationship with her mother. She was often left to fend for herself and her young sister from an early age. She received no family support when she was at home with her mother, so she was a young person on her own. She had also suffered domestic abuse from family members and friends, so she was a vulnerable young person. The support that she needed was with money management, how to develop relationships and tackling offending behaviour. She also had mental health and communication problems, to say but a few.

During Sue’s time with the scheme, the massive support she received enabled her to overcome many of her problems, and she became a mature person, who was able to deal with difficult situations. She has moved on through Maritime Court and has been able to work with North Tyneside council and get into independent living. The case study explains how the staff worked through issues with her and provided support. She has now moved on—she is starting a placement and is looking forward to training for a new career. That would not have happened had it not been for Maritime Court and for housing benefit.

Another referral that was made to Maritime Court was from North Tyneside council’s men’s direct access unit. Lee, as I will call him, had mild learning difficulties and cerebral palsy. He engaged well with staff from day one, but he seemed to rely on staff for company. He would often go out and have a good drink, but he was never aggressive. Staff realised that he was a very vulnerable person because the only way he could have friends was by allowing people into his flat in Maritime Court. He lived on the ground floor, so the staff moved him upstairs, which helped to solve some of his problems.

Lee was on a lot of benefit because of his disabilities, but he would often come back with no money once he had got paid, because people were taking advantage of him. The people at Maritime Court took over the management of his money and helped him with his benefit. He started to turn his life around. Eventually, staff found him a place in South Shields, which is across the river, in an area near where his girlfriend lives. With all the support he had, he was able to set up in Dock street in South Shields, and he is still doing extremely well there.

I could go on, but I cannot give more examples in the time allotted. What I want to put to the Minister is that, should the proposals go ahead, as I and others have said, thousands of young people who are now able to enjoy a roof over their head will be made homeless.

One concern in my constituency and nationally is the number of under-25s who themselves are parents. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that it would be helpful if the Minister clarified the Government’s current thinking on those young people.

As I have asked, and as my hon. Friend has pointed out, what will become of those young parents and their children? What will become of the organisations that enable young people, such as the ones I have talked about in Maritime Court, to have an independent life, with housing benefit as a crutch until they are able to stand on their own two feet? The system will be complicated. How will exemptions be worked through? I hope that the proposal never becomes policy, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure all of us present who, on behalf of probably many other people and many of our colleagues, feel that such a move would be wrong and would simply condemn many young people to a life of misery.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) not only on securing the debate, but on presenting her case so passionately. May I also say how pleased I am to see the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) in his place? He has taken a keen interest in the issue, and I will refer to him again towards the end of my remarks.

The hon. Lady said that the idea is something that the Government might effect, but the fact that something was said at a Conservative party conference does not mean that it becomes coalition policy. At the moment, it certainly is not. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) will know that both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have said that, were such a move to become reality, vulnerable groups, particularly those in care, will be protected.

I say to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that the Government are willing to seek what advice they can from Northern Ireland. We will certainly look forward to any comments that he can forward to us. On the important issue of affordable housing, he is absolutely right that one of the key things we have to do is increase its availability. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington knows only too well, when the Labour Government were in office, we saw a reduction of some 421,000 social homes.

The Government intend to ensure that we move forward with the provision of affordable housing by committing to provide 170,000 affordable houses by 2015.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned night shelters. Clearly, as that is not a Government policy, I cannot comment on who would or would not be affected by that, because I currently have no details and such details may not be forthcoming.

The hon. Member for North Tyneside raises an important issue, and I recognise that young people face difficult circumstances. The effects of what is, after all, the worst recession in a generation continue to cause hardship for households across the country. That is why homelessness and housing support remain a key priority for me, my Department and the Government as a whole, but we need to keep the issue in perspective. As a result of the work of local authorities, their partners and the Government, and of the investment we are making, homelessness is half the average rate that it reached under the previous Administration. The homelessness rate remains lower today than in 28 of the past 30 years. Of course, I recognise that that is no comfort to those currently dealing with the trauma of homelessness, and we are determined to take every opportunity to move forward. That is why the Government are providing support through investment, reform and leadership.

The homelessness prevention grant was protected in the spending review, and we are investing £400 million in homelessness prevention over the four-year period. We recognise that continuing financial pressures have made it hard for many people, which is why we provided an additional £70 million last year to address homelessness. That included a £20 million homelessness transition fund and a further £18.5 million for the first ever single homelessness prevention fund.

Additionally, the Government are providing £390 million to help families in difficult situations adjust to changes in the welfare system. I recognise what the hon. Lady said about troubled families, and she will be aware of the Government’s successful work to address that issue.

In addition to the funding, we are reforming the system. The Localism Act 2011 gives local authorities more freedom to move people quickly out of expensive temporary accommodation and into suitable settled homes, thereby reducing costs on councils and housing waiting lists. That power allows local authorities to use good quality accommodation in the private rented sector so that households are not left sitting in expensive and inappropriate temporary accommodation while they wait for social housing.

The Government take homelessness seriously, and we have established a ministerial working group on homelessness that brings together eight Departments to address the complex causes, which include not only housing, but, just as importantly, health, work and training. The group provides the leadership we need to address homelessness.

The group produced its first report, “Vision to end rough sleeping”, in July 2010. Since then, we have made significant progress and provided £20 million through the homelessness transition fund to help roll out, for example, the Mayor of London’s “no second night out” approach. We announced the most recent tranche of grants for the fund in August 2012 with a further £3.6 million to 21 homelessness charities. Five areas, including 51 local authorities, have now introduced “no second night out”: Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Kent and Northamptonshire.

We have committed to a new rough sleeping helpline that will ensure that anyone who is concerned for someone sleeping rough can contact the right service to get them help. StreetLink, as it is to be called, will be in place by Christmas 2012, and the website is already live.

Preventing youth homelessness was a key part of the ministerial working group on homelessness’s second report, “Making every contact count”, which we published in August. The report considered how to address the complex underlying causes of homelessness, how to prevent homelessness at an earlier stage and how to deliver integrated services. It focused on youth homelessness and set out an innovative approach to addressing that important issue.

The Government are providing investment, reform and leadership, but we are also calling on local agencies across the country to respond with innovation and passion. England has one of the strongest safety nets in the world for families with children and for vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. Sixteen and 17-year-olds, care leavers under the age of 21 and people over 21 who are vulnerable as a result of being in care are priority groups and, as such, should they find themselves without a roof over their head, they will be housed by local authorities.

Local authorities already know that it is in nobody’s interest for things to get that far. Preventing homelessness, through supporting young people to resolve issues at home—the hon. Lady raised that point—and stay with their families, must remain a priority.

My Department continues to work with the Department for Education to support local authority homelessness and children’s services to prevent homelessness and to address its effects on young people. We have funded youth homelessness charity St Basils to support local authorities and their partners in that work. Thanks to the work of young people’s homelessness charities such as St Basils, Centrepoint and Depaul—and others mentioned by the hon. Lady—and to the work of local authorities, it is now very rare for young people under 18 to end up on our streets.

Many people experiencing homelessness have had a range of negative experiences in their childhood or youth. We accept that young people are a key risk group—35% of those accepted by local authorities as homeless in 2011-12 were under 25. As the hon. Lady rightly said, family breakdown is a prime cause of youth homelessness. Young people with experience of care are particularly vulnerable, with 16% of rough sleepers surveyed by a recent study having experienced care at some point during their childhood.

Supporting vulnerable young people to make a successful transition to adulthood helps them avoid long-term benefit dependency and expensive interventions by specialist health services, social care, the criminal justice system and, of course, homelessness services. Homelessness is a stigmatising experience for a young person, and an integrated approach to preventing that is needed.

I am pleased to hear about all those programmes and about the investment the Government are making. What commitment is there to keeping housing benefit for those young people under 25? Once they have benefited from all the support, not being able to work may stop those in rented accommodation being able to pay the full rent. What assurance is there that that cushion will remain for as long as people need it so they can live in a home of their own?

The hon. Lady tempts me to predict what announcements will be made in due course, which I cannot possibly do. I cannot give her an assurance one way or the other. All I can do is tell her that that is not currently the Government’s policy. We will both have to wait to see what emerges.

The hon. Lady will be aware that, as a country, we are facing a very difficult financial crisis, and we have to address that. Unless we get the economy straight and create the growth that we desperately need to get people back into work, problems will continue to multiply. That will continue to be our first priority.

We have about two seconds remaining, but I will give way if the hon. Lady wants the last word.

As I said at the beginning, cannot that burden be put on the very rich, rather than on these areas?

The hon. Lady is well aware of the Deputy Prime Minister’s statements on the importance of ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders make the greatest contribution.

I end by saying to the hon. Lady that we have worked with charities to develop a pathway to try to ensure that we provide the necessary support. I hope that she will listen to her colleague, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, who on 13 December is organising a huge event in Parliament on youth homelessness. He is to be congratulated on organising that event, and I hope we will be able to continue the debate on that occasion.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising this important issue, which the Government take seriously and are doing an enormous amount of work to address.

Sitting suspended.