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Housing Benefits (18 to 21-year-olds)

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 7 March 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister if she will make a statement on the impact on homelessness of the Government’s plans to remove automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds.

From 1 April, automatic entitlement to housing costs will be removed for some 18 to 21-year-olds. This is a Conservative manifesto commitment and it was formally announced as a Government measure in summer Budget 2015.

This policy removes a perverse incentive for young adults to leave the family home and pass the cost on to the taxpayer. This is about stopping young people slipping straight into a life on benefits, and it brings parity with young people who are in work but who may not be able to leave the family home, while an unemployed young person can do so.

We have always been clear that this policy will have a comprehensive set of exemptions, to make sure that the most vulnerable continue to have the housing support that they need, so the policy will affect only those who have no barriers to work and who are unable to return safely to their parental home. In addition, there is a time-limited exemption for those who have recently been in work. The policy will apply only to those in universal credit full service areas who make new claims or whose earnings drop below the in-work threshold after that date.

The policy will be implemented at the same time as the new youth obligation, an intensive package of labour market support for young people from day one of their claim. With new support available under the youth obligation, more young adults will move into work, significantly improving their current living standards and future prospects.

My urgent question—this concern is shared by Members on both sides of the House—was: what assessment has been done of the impact of the cuts on homelessness? With respect to the Minister, she has made a statement but she could have given a one-word answer, which is “none”. No impact assessment was published with the regulations on Friday. Why not? How many young people will now be denied all help with housing benefit? There are 1,741 18 to 21-year-olds in the Minister’s county of Hampshire claiming housing benefit. How many of them will still get help next month, and how many will get nothing?

The Minister may not have done an assessment, but the charities that work day in, day out to help the homeless in all our constituencies have done so. Centrepoint says that 9,000 young people will be put at risk of homelessness. Shelter says that

“there is no way this isn’t going to lead to an increase in rough sleeping.”

Crisis, which drafted the very important Homelessness Reduction Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), says that the policy “runs entirely counter” to the aims of that Bill, and that it

“could spell disaster for the many vulnerable young people rightly entitled to help.”

Surely the Minister does not think that those charities are wrong. If she knows they are right, surely the Government are not going to go ahead with these cruel and counterproductive cuts.

Members on both sides of the House have deeply held concerns about the rapidly rising level of homelessness in our country. Will the Minister accept that none of the arguments that she has made today or previously really stack up? She says that this is about levelling the playing field, but these young people, who are old enough to marry, work, pay taxes and fight for our country, will now be denied the same right as other British adults to basic help with housing costs.

Ministers have said that the exemptions will protect the vulnerable, but the National Landlords Association declares:

“Never mind the nuances, all landlords will hear is that 18-21 year olds are no longer entitled to housing benefit…they just won’t consider them as a tenant.”

Ministers have said that this will save money, but once the knock-on costs to other services are taken into account the saving will fall to only £3.3 million.

The Minister talked about the manifesto; it contained a commitment to remove the “automatic” entitlement. Claimants already have to pass multiple checks and tests, so there really is nothing automatic about young people getting housing benefit. Will the Minister recognise that the Government have the opportunity in tomorrow’s Budget to reverse this counterproductive policy? Will she leave the House this afternoon and tell the Chancellor that if he does so, he will have the fullest support not just from Opposition Members but, I suspect, from Members across the House?

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of those across the country—he specifically mentioned Hampshire—who are already in receipt of housing benefit. They will have transitional protections and will not be affected. So when he asks how many in the county of Hampshire will have their housing benefit withdrawn, the answer is none, the same as for every county. He also raised the case of those who are serving in the armed forces, of taxpayers and of couples who have children. If he looked at the list of exemptions that was published on Friday, he would see that those are all included.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the light of all the exemptions, we are actually talking not about the children, but about the responsibilities of the parents? Are we not seeing here a reassertion, rightly, of the responsibilities of parents for unemployed young people under the age of 21?

My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. This is about encouraging family responsibility. It is about enabling and helping young people who have the choice to remain at home to stay there. For those who cannot stay at home, a very significant exemption is written in; those for whom it is inappropriate to stay in the family home will be exempted from this policy.

Yesterday, SNP MPs joined others to try to annul this ludicrous legislation. The Government seem to be working on the incorrect assumption that young people can simply stay at home, when parents have no obligation to house their adult children. The SNP has consistently opposed the withdrawal of housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds, but under the current powers of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government cannot reverse the cut or provide an exemption for Scotland. Does the Minister agree that it is simply ridiculous that young people should suffer purely because the Government are obsessed with imposing austerity? Can she tell us how many young people will be affected who do not qualify for an exemption? Does she think that an unemployed young adult is more likely to get a job if they have a stable address, or if they are living in a hostel or sleeping on the streets? Will the UK Government exempt Scottish young people from the impact of the regulations and allow the Scottish Government to provide the housing support on their behalf?

The Scottish Government already have a wide range of powers that would enable them to alleviate the proposed changes. Our Government are committed to working with the Scottish Government on a whole range of issues in the DWP portfolio, to make sure that they have the power and the strength to implement those powers.

My hon. Friend is right to mention young people who are in work. Anybody who is working 16 hours a week or more at the national minimum wage equivalent will be exempt.

I think we should call this what it is: a nasty, vindictive policy that will make injustice worse, from a Government who said that they would tackle burning injustice. Will the Minister now answer the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) asked? No impact assessment has been published for the measure—inexplicably, in my view. Will she tell the House what advice she has received from her officials about the impact on homelessness of this proposal?

The Department has, of course, met all its requirements under the public sector equality duty. Equality assessment information has been received and shared with the Social Security Advisory Committee, which chose not to consult on this.

Young people in their first jobs cannot afford their own accommodation, so they share with other young people or they stay at home. Why should it be different for people who are out of work?

My right hon. Friend makes exactly the point that underpins this policy. We want young people in work and young people out of work to be making the same choices about where they are going to live.

I think that anyone listening to this urgent question would, frankly, be appalled by the responses that we have had thus far from the Minister. She has not answered any of the questions that were rightly asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). Will she tell us why the equality impact assessment has not been published and when she will bring it forward, so that we can all see exactly the rationale behind this ridiculous policy?

I think I have answered that. The Department has engaged extensively at ministerial and official level with stakeholders. We announced this measure in the summer Budget. There is no duty on us to share the impact assessment with the House, but we did share it with the Social Security Advisory Committee.

My hon. Friend makes a really important point about care leavers. Absolutely, they are exempt from this policy.

One of the exemptions in the regulations where housing benefit can still be paid is if

“in the opinion of the Secretary of State it is inappropriate for the renter to live with each of their parents”.

Does the Secretary of State assume that this exemption will automatically apply where the parents refuse to have their child living with them?

Absolutely. That is a point. A very important exemption is included, so where that is inappropriate—where a parent cannot or will not accommodate their child—such people will be exempt from the policy.

The key point is that nipping the dependency culture in the bud at the earliest opportunity is very important, because once it takes hold it can be very damaging to the interests of those concerned. I must say one thing, however: young people may well think this is fair, but when we do this and protect every single penny going to pensioners, including the winter fuel allowance for millionaires in mortgage-free mansions just because they are over 65, they can be forgiven for thinking that we are not playing fairly by everybody. That would be my observation.

We are trying to play fairly by young people who are in work but have to make the decision that they simply cannot afford to leave the family home and stay living with their parents.

Will the Minister explain the rationale for denying young adults access to housing and support, while providing it for older adults? On the face of it, and from the Minister’s comments so far, it appears to be nothing other than the demonisation of young people.

This is not about the demonisation of young people; it is about encouraging young people to make sensible and rational choices about where they are going to live, whether or not they are in work.

As a parent of two children between 18 and 21, I would be appalled if I felt that they had left home to live a life on housing benefits while they still have a bed in my house. Will the Minister confirm that support will be made available for those who are vulnerable or have complex needs?

I thank my hon. Friend for that, and absolutely yes. Those who cannot live with their parents and those in receipt of the main disability benefits will be exempt from this policy.

Further to the question from the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), will the Minister confirm what I believe she said earlier, which is that the only thing necessary for a young person to demonstrate before being entitled to the housing element of universal credit is that their parent has said that they cannot live at home?

Yes, and I think I have made that very clear. If it is inappropriate for a young person to live at home with their parents, they will be exempt from this policy.

The YMCA tells me that, from April, it may not be able to house young people with the most complex needs, those with addictions and mental health conditions, those who may not be able to learn or earn, and those who cannot or will not stay at home or, indeed, access temporary accommodation. In relation to supported housing for vulnerable people, which is at stake, will the Minister clarify the scope of the exemption in regulation 4B(e), and defer the application of the impact on those at most risk of homelessness until we know the outcome of the supported housing review?

The YMCA has been involved in the consultation process. As I believe I said at an event downstairs last night, it is always a trusted adviser that provides excellent advice and information. Absolutely: those with complex needs and mental health conditions will be exempt from this policy.

Will the Minister tell me whether she has made any assessment of the impact of these changes on excellent small charities, such as Doorstep in my constituency, that help young people who find themselves unable to continue to live at home?

I have received a great deal of information from and had roundtables with a number of providers and charities, including some of the smaller ones. We have been very clear: those for whom it is inappropriate to live at home will be exempt from this policy.

The principal reason why young people become homeless is a relationship breakdown with their family. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that decisions will be taken by the Secretary of State, not by local decision makers who may discriminate against young people when they cannot live with their family?

I commend my hon. Friend for his excellent work on the Homelessness Reduction Bill. Absolutely: it is a question of young people informing a work coach, somebody in the local authority or a trusted medical professional of their inability to live at home because their relationship with their parent has broken down, and in those cases they will receive the exemption.

Given that the Minister has conceded that there is an impact assessment—she said that she has not published it because she does not need to—and in view of the concern that exists, would she care to think again and publish the impact assessment?

We looked very carefully, under the public sector equality duty, at the impact this policy would have and we have shared that information with the Social Security Advisory Committee. I am under no obligation to publish it.

Will the Minister explain how the policy will apply to young people on apprenticeships, who may be earning below the national living wage?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point in apprenticeship week. Absolutely: apprentices will be exempt from this policy.

Last Thursday, as part of the work I am doing on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) on homelessness in Greater Manchester, I went around the streets of the city centre of Manchester and was shocked to see the risk that young people face from the dealing of psychoactive substances and the threat that they face from violence. Does the hon. Lady not understand that this will force significantly more young people in our country into rough sleeping and make them increasingly vulnerable? Is this not the personification of the return of the nasty party?

The hon. Gentleman makes the assumption that this will increase homelessness. In fact, we expect there to be behavioural change and that young people will, where they can, stay living with their parents. Where they cannot stay living with their parents, they will be exempt from this policy.

At a time when the public is increasingly fed up with politicians who do not do what they say they will do at election time, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on the audacity of sticking to a Conservative manifesto commitment? Will she confirm that youth unemployment actually continues to fall and that, week by week, more and more young people have the security and dignity of taking a wage back home?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that there are 197,000 more young people in work than there were in 2010. He is right: this policy was a manifesto commitment and it was in the summer Budget of 2015, and we are delivering on that commitment.

The vast majority of my young constituents who need to access housing benefit are doing so in the private rented sector, which means that they already face crippling costs and great insecurity. Why can the Minister not see that, across the board for young people, this policy simply makes precarious situations more precarious, stigmatises young people and is nothing short of a kick in the teeth? Why are the Government ignoring the overwhelming evidence from those who work with young people showing that this policy will make homelessness worse, and why will she not drop it?

As the hon. Lady will have heard, we have put in place a long list of exemptions to protect those who are most vulnerable and to enable those who need the support to continue to receive it. She makes the really important point that we are there to support the most vulnerable and also to ensure that there is an even playing field between those in work and those who are not. One of the most straightforward ways in which to be exempt from this policy is to be working for 16 hours or more a week.

Like the Minister, I am a great supporter of the YMCA. Will she confirm what impact the measures will have on all these young people, who benefit in so many amazing ways from organisations such as the YMCA?

The YMCA is among the best and leading training providers in the country, and it is also a significant housing provider. We are determined to work with such stakeholders to make sure that young people who are exempt from the policy receive that exemption and are still supported to make sure they are in training, so that they can move into the work they need.

My constituency has full service before most other constituencies. The Highland Council’s temporary homeless accommodation framework is £175 a week. Before universal credit, my constituent Gavin was awarded £168 a week, leaving £7 extra to find from other entitlements. Now, it is £60, meaning £115 extra, which is much more than he gets, even before he pays for his food, light, heat or anything else. How is that fair?

The hon. Gentleman did not say how old his constituent is. It is really important that we are focusing support on those who need it most. When it comes to young people, we are obliging them to make the same sort of choices that his constituents who are in work for 16 hours or more a week are making.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government are doing everything possible to prepare young people for the world of work, so that fewer young people are at risk of falling into a life on benefits?

The Government are bringing forward the youth obligation in April, which is about making sure that young people who are not in work are undertaking the appropriate training or apprenticeship they need to put them in the best position to move into work.

May I return to the definition of “inappropriate to return”? Would that include a case that I have heard about: a young man who was kicked out by his stepfather for being gay, but was told he could return home if he denied his sexuality?

Yes. We have been very clear about that. If a young person would find it impossible and inappropriate to return home, they would receive the exemption. The situation outlined by the hon. Lady is absolutely one that we have considered.

Drilling down into the exemptions, who will make the decisions about cases such as the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue)? Similar exemptions exist for victims of domestic violence to access legal aid—they need a letter from a doctor or from a specialist agency—but 37% of women still report that they are not able to access legal aid. How does the Minister propose that the policy will work, how much will it cost and how much will it save?

The anticipation is that the policy will save in the region of £105 million over the period of this Parliament. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that victims of domestic violence are exempt from the policy. We recognise the impact on young women who have been victims of domestic violence and the importance of supporting them.

The young people the Minister describes bear no resemblance to the young people I used to work with at the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, many of whom had experienced horrendous physical, mental and emotional abuse, which meant that they understandably no longer had a relationship with their families. How does she expect those young people to prove that they cannot return home? They cannot simply pick up the phone to their parents, and they should not be forced to recount to a stranger again and again the stories of what had happened to them. What will the Minister do to make sure that young people are not subjected to reliving the horrendous abuse that they have already suffered?

Those who have reported abuse to a stakeholder or a trusted professional will be exempt from the policy. It is our intention to ensure that we establish a long list of stakeholders who can take on that reporting. It should, of course, be the case that they should only have to report it once.

Yet again, for ideological reasons the Tories have identified a problem that does not really exist. Less than 1% of 18 to 21-year-olds claim jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit at the same time. We have heard that the policy will only save £105 million if it actually works as planned. Will the Minister tell me one non-Government stakeholder that agrees that it will help young people into long-term, stable work?

We put the policy in our manifesto for the 2015 election and included it in the summer Budget 2015. We have been really clear that it is about providing fairness for those who are in work as well as those who are out of work, and ensuring that young people have the same decisions to make about the affordability of their housing.

There has been a war on young people by this Government for seven years, and this is the most shameful policy they have brought forward affecting the most vulnerable. Not to produce an impact statement is an absolutely disgrace. The Minister talks about getting people back into work, so let us talk about what the Government have done for young people’s wages. An apprentice wage is £3.50 an hour. How on earth can that person get to work if they are denied the assistance they need for housing and they cannot work near their home?

As I said earlier in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), apprentices will be exempt.

I have come across many reasons that 18 to 21-year-olds have left home, but I have never seen claiming housing benefit as an incentive. Given the long list of exemptions, would it not just be easier for the Minister to scrap the policy altogether?

The Minister talks about an even playing field. If she is so confident that the policy is fair, why will she not publish the impact assessment? What does she have to hide?

There is absolutely nothing to hide. I have considered my public sector equality duty carefully. As I said, the assessment was shared with the Social Security Advisory Committee, which chose not to consult on this.

I would like to help the Minister. She is almost there. She said that this policy will save £105 million. We can work out how many people will be affected when we leave the Chamber, but will she confirm whether it is in the region of 10,000? Is the figure higher or lower than that?

The policy is expected to affect 5,000 young people in the first year, and 10,000 a year in steady state.

Given that the number of people rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010, does the Minister think that the policy, which singles out young adults, will make that shameful statistic better or worse?

As I have said repeatedly, we have put in place a long list of exemptions precisely to prevent homelessness. Those who are unable to return to the family home will be exempt from the policy, so we do not expect it to increase homelessness.

The lack of a published impact assessment is simply scandalous. Will the Minister tell us the measured impact on a vulnerable young person who has had to leave home because of difficulties or abuse, and who is now being asked to prove that abuse just so they can get the housing support they need to live away from their family?