John Harris

Journalist & Author

The housing benefits cap means a wretched life for thousands in B&Bs | John Harris

Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform will leave families already on the lowest housing rung with nowhere to go

Not for the first time, Iain Duncan Smith is in trouble. The arrival next year of universal credit, whereby most current benefits will be folded into one unified regime, is causing no end of worry, focused on just about all its elements – from its insistence on internet access to the introduction of a single payment per household (which will effectively transfer benefits from women to men, roll back one of the modern welfare state’s inbuilt principles, and threaten a rise in domestic violence). He survived the reshuffle, but he may yet go under in the midst of a project that has so far raised concerns among no less than 70 organisations.

Even before his revolution has decisively arrived, news stories highlight the increasingly nightmarish predicament of thousands of ordinary people: think, for example, of the huge growth in food banks, or the creation of a Save the Children programme to help British families. But no matter: whenever Tories want to indicate that they pay no heed to the bleeding hearts of any Lib Dems, they continue to yelp about the need for more “welfare cuts”. (Do not forget: George Osborne has floated another £10bn off the benefits budget, opposed by both the Tories’ coalition partners and even IDS himself.) To be blunt, this is a war on the poor largely waged by the very rich, and shame on the Labour party and the wider Labour movement for not making nearly enough noise about it.

One statistic makes all coalition claims of a meaningful social conscience look risible. Figures published by the National Housing Federation show that, between 2011 and 2012, the number of homeless families forced to live in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation increased by 44%. Between January and March last year there were 2,750 families making do with life at its most threadbare and impossible; over the same period this year, the number rose to 3,960.

Homelessness as a whole has risen by 26% over the last three years. Around 50,000 households – which includes families, couples and individuals – are classed as living in temporary accommodation. A blighted minority are in B&B; the majority have houses or flats leased by councils or housing associations, usually from private landlords – who can capitalise on the intersection of market forces and dire need to charge high prices. In most cases, housing benefit caps do not apply here – but the current rules are due to expire, and housing charities expect the worst. In any case, spokespeople at the Department for Work and Pensions say that temporary accommodation is all but certain to fall under the across-the-board benefits cap in April 2013 that will precede universal credit, which is likely to swell the numbers in B&Bs yet further.

B&B accommodation is the very lowest tier of the social housing hierarchy – beyond it lies life on the streets. The last government introduced a regime that restricted councils’ use of this practice, and was creditably successful. But against the backdrop of our housing shortage, unemployment and the other effects of austerity have done their work, with problems higher up the housing hierarchy – repossessions, rent defaults – pushing people into homelessness.

There is a new problem too: the caps on housing benefit that hit new applicants in April 2011, and have applied to existing claimants since January. As has been well documented, all this is disproportionately a London problem, evidenced by the people at its wretched heart: those identified in officialspeak as families with dependent children and/or a pregnant woman who, in breach of government guidelines, have been in B&Bs for longer than six weeks. The stats contain spikes in predictable boroughs: Brent, Barking and Dagenham, Westminster, Tower Hamlets.

For the details of what this actually involves, read Living In Limbo, a landmark report by Shelter published eight years ago, which describes realities little changed since then. Rooms are cramped and often damp. Bathrooms are frequently unsanitary. People regularly pushed from one temporary redoubt to another are often left depressed and unstable. It is standard practice for families to be shut out of their accommodation during working hours, meaning that children must somehow kill time elsewhere. There is usually no provision of an evening meal: if you’re lucky, you make do with takeaways.

Now comes very bad news indeed. To “complement” universal credit, as of next April, all benefits payable to all families will be capped at £500 a week, and it looks like this limit will apply to housing benefit paid for temporary accommodation. But what to do when its price so often exceeds that figure? In Newham, for example, the council puts the cost of temporary accommodation at a minimum of £525 a week.

When I phoned the DWP, a spokesman said he was “90% certain” that temporary accommodation will indeed fall under the cap – and a subsequent email went most of the way to confirming that it would, claiming that “the benefit cap is necessary to restore fairness to the benefits system”, and that “councils will have access to £120m to help people who may need extra support, including those in temporary accommodation”.

One senior staffer at a housing charity says this “support” amounts to a tiny fraction of the money the government will suck out of the housing benefit system. The DWP seems happy to take this on the chin: “It’s not about taking one apple away and putting another in its place,” a spokesman said. But if temporary accommodation is put beyond people’s reach, the number of families in B&B will skyrocket. And all this before universal credit arrives, spreading not just uncertainty and the prospect of hacked-back household incomes, but the likelihood of people falling out of the benefits system altogether.

Please: no more talk from this government about aspiration and opportunity, the imperative to help those at the very bottom, or Britain somehow becoming the most family-friendly society in Europe. When you hear anything like that (and, with conference season looming, there is going to be a lot of it), picture a disorientated child, trying to do her homework amid the clattering noise of a McDonald’s, and dreading the evening’s return to what passes for home – a cramped and smelly room, with anxious shouts ricocheting around the corridors – until morning once again arrives, and with it the daily lockout.

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