What I want to see in the parties’ manifestos

The political parties are yet to publish their manifestos for the June general election. I have three simple requests to all parties for policies to be included in those manifestos:

  1. Make a commitment to building council houses, in massive numbers, as an investment for current and future generations. Abolish the Right to Buy so that these homes remain in public ownership in order that they continue, in perpetuity, to meet housing need, and not investment opportunities.
  2. Make an unequivocal commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of the 2017-2022 parliament. In a country as wealthy as the United Kingdom, it is an outrage that people are living on the streets, and their presence should shame those in a position to end rough sleeping.
  3. Put an end to benefit cuts. More than half of all voters think that benefit cuts have gone too far, according to an Ipsos Mori poll published on Thursday. Denying 18 to 21 year olds the right to claim benefit support to help towards their rents will drive young people into homelessness, into crime, and into sex work. What politician wants that as part of their legacy?

11,000 18 to 21 year olds lose the right to claim housing benefit

Since Monday, those under 21 have lost the automatic right to claim housing benefit when making new claims.  It is estimated that 1,000 will be affected this year and up to 11,000 by 2020/21.

The government expects to save £105m with the cut through the life of this parliament, with set-up costs of £5m and running costs estimated at between £0.5m and £1m per year.

I have previously referred to research by Heriott Watt University that calculated that once exceptions and costs incurred on other public services were taken into account, the policy could save just £3.3 million a year.  If just 140 young people end up on the streets, the additional cost to other services (ambulance service, NHS, housing departments, police, etc.) then this measure will actually be a drain on public finances!

In Wednesday’s Argus (5th April 2017), I was quoted as saying: “Desperate times for young people will see them return to unsafe family situations, turn to crime and prostitution, and end up sleeping rough.

“For most 18 to 21-year-olds life is a big adventure but for those on the streets it can turn into the worst of all nightmares. They have hopes and aspirations but if you are on the streets it is a day to day struggle for survival.”

This policy makes no sense in economic on humanitarian grounds.

Housing and Hastings: The benefit cap

(This is the third in five posts regarding housing in Hastings based on a briefing paper prepared by my colleague Sue Hennell. On Monday I wrote about Universal credit and how the six week wait for the first payment was causing problems for people trying to get accommodation in the private rented sector.  Yesterday I wrote about difficulties in accessing housing in the private rented sector.)

BHT’s Hastings Advice Centre has seen clients where possession is being sought by landlords due to rent arrears, but the underlying cause has been the benefit cap.

The benefit cap was reduced in autumn 2016 to £20,000 for couples with or without children and lone parents, and £13,400 for single people. Any reduction to benefits over this amount is taken from their local housing allowance or housing costs via Universal Credit.

The only ways to increase a client’s income is for them to be in one of the groups that are exempt from the benefit cap or for them to be in work over 16 hours. Sometimes this is not possible and this means that any housing is not affordable for this client.

If the landlord was a social landlord and they brought possession proceedings in the county court, the court would have no option but to grant possession if the client had no means to cover the rent plus an amount off the arrears each week.

Having said all of the above, Hastings Housing Access Project still managed to assist eleven single clients to access accommodation within the private rented sector from the 1st of September 2016 to the 31st January 2017.

Since the 1st of April 2016 BHT Hastings Advice has seen 230 clients in private rented accommodation where they have been served with notice to leave their property.

I repeat the question I often ask, where are people going to live if there is not enough social housing, if the private rented sector is inaccessible, and now if those in housing can no longer afford to live there.

If you are facing eviction, get advice as early as possible from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are contact details for the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings

DWP to make the sanction regime less harsh. Now we must ensure people can get support, advice and representation.

I welcome the decision from the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith, that claimants will be given two weeks before their benefits are sanctioned. This decision is a response to criticism from a parliamentary committee that the sanctions regime is too harsh.

Figures from the DWP showed that 58% of people seeking to overturn sanctions were successful – up from 20% before 2010.  That shows, amongst other things, that the DWP is probably not implementing its own system properly.

While welcoming this decision, I believe that it doesn’t go far enough.  Many people who are sanctioned are those who struggle with basic skills (literacy, numeracy, or digital exclusion). They need support from specialist advice agencies, many of whom have seen reductions in legal aid and their ability to represent individuals who struggle with the system.

Other advice services are on the verge of closure because of the reduction or loss of funding from their local authorities.

Rights are only as good as the ability of an individual to enforce them.  Having seen close up an example of someone making a claim, it appears that the welfare system could have been designed to confuse and frustrate.

Making the sanction regime less harsh is a start. Now the government must ensure people can get support, advice and representation

Celebrating joint work in Hastings with CA1066, HARC and BHT Sussex

The Hastings and St Leonard’s Advice and Community Hub is home to

This week it celebrated being open for 1,000 days and marked the occasion by holding an event that was attended by the Leader of Hastings Borough Council, Cllr Jeremy Birch, Chief Inspector Paul Phelps, local councillors from Hastings, and other organisations as well as staff and board members from each of the organisations.

The organisations work together to provide a one stop shop for people with advice needs.

Since the Hub opened in March 2011 it has welcomed 15,000 visitors from Hastings and the Rother area who are looking for advice on a range of issues such as housing, welfare and debt.

In these 1,000 days, services at the Hub:

  • have prevented homelessness or housing conditions improved for 974 people,
  • have helped clients with over £16,500,000 of debt problems,
  • have represented 1,086 clients at benefit appeals with a 95% success rate, and
  • have helped over 500 people gain at least one personal learning goal such as learning to read or write.

My colleague Jo Wilson, who is the BHT Hastings Advice Manager, told the local paper: “Our housing advice and court duty services have prevented homelessness in almost 1,000 cases in the 1,000 days we have been at the Hub. The annual cost to the state of each homeless person is £25,000 which means our efforts have saved in excess of £25,000,000.

“We have calculated that over the 1,000 days that we have been open at the Hub, all three organisations have a joint value of over £50,000,000 through savings to the state, increased incomes for clients, the management of debt and attracting funding into the local economy.”

Cllr Jeremy Birch, Leader of Hastings Borough Council, spoke at the celebrations and said: “The Hub is the first combined advice hub in the country bringing together housing and benefits advice and general advice all together in the same building, a real benefit for local people. The council is really pleased to support this innovative approach and to provide significant grant assistance. We congratulate the Hub on its first 1,000 days and look forward to many more.”

The Advice and Community Hub is open Monday to Friday from 9.00am to 4.30pm. Drop in to get some advice or call 01424 721458.

The shocking decline in access to social welfare law following a decade of cuts

We are in the middle of party political conference season. I find it very depressing to hear politicians in all parties trying to out do others in how tough they are and will be on benefits. I am all for initiatives that will create jobs and prepare people for work, but this is often trumped by what sometimes feels as callous disregard for the human cost of their rhetoric.

Does it matter that Joe Bloggs has to wait over 6 months for his benefits, or that Mrs Bloggs has to fight to show that she is not ‘fit for work’ whilst undergoing chemotherapy, or that Miss Bloggs loses her job unfairly and can’t get support to challenge this. I guess it doesn’t to a lot of people. The ‘benefit / scrounger’ rhetoric has made us a less caring, more callous society.

It is often a different matter when it is someone we know who is affected, not least if it is someone in our own family. One sign of a civilised society is equality before the law, but the trend of eroding access to and the funding of legal aid has been ongoing for well over a decade under successive governments.

The UK government’s latest statistics on activity in the legal aid system for England and Wales shows the most recent decline in the number of people being helped in various areas of social welfare law, often the most vulnerable in society:

Community Care
2011/2012    6,216
2012/2013    4,977
2013/2014    3,280

Debt
2011/2012    102,065
2012/2013      76,788
2013/2014        2,434

Employment
2011/2012    18,870
2012/2013    15,153
2013/2014             6

Housing
2011/2012    101,908
2012/2013      85,161
2013/2014      47,101

Welfare Benefits
2011/2012    102,919
2012/2013      82,538
2013/2014           137

At BHT we used to do all the above areas of law except employment. We currently retain a contract to provide housing advice and representation, although the number of matters (similar to a case) we can take on has been massively reduced. For example, in Brighton, the number of New Matter Starts was reduced in 2013 from 1,450 to 590 at the very time the service is needed more than ever.

It is, after all, a false economy, with people in temporary accommodation now at a five year high. It makes no sense that measures aimed at preventing homelessness are being reduced while more and more will need to be spent on dealing with the consequences – not just temporary accommodation, extra demand on health and mental health services, disruption to schooling, family breakdown, etc. In Hastings mortgage possessions are up by a third on this time last year.

My colleagues at our advice centres in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings are good at what they do. They still prevent homelessness; they used to be able to get landlords to make good any repairs that were needed. Now they have to wait until there is a serious risk to health or safety.

I previously posted that there have been underspends in the legal aid budget – the only area where the Legal Aid Agency overspent was in their own internal administration! There is room for a life line within the current budget, to either increase matter starts, or be a little more relaxed in the nature of cases we can take on, for example, allowing us to do primary welfare benefit work to reduce homelessness.

In Eastbourne and Hastings last year we used 100% of our matters, but we had more clients than matters. For a start the government could give more ‘matters’. If there’s not the need then they won’t be used, but if there is a genuine need (which there is) then, given the underspend, they can still be delivered within the budget set.

£86 million underspend on legal aid for housing; £20 million overspend on administration!

Earlier this week I posted something about the slow death of legal aid. Since then it has come to light that the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) is under-spending on its budget for legal aid, thereby limiting the help people can get who are facing eviction.

The underspend on housing help was £86 million from a total underspend of £117 million.

The Legal Action Group, on its website, reports: “The figures published last month in the LAA’s annual report and accompanying statistical information show that the number of initial help and advice cases, know as legal help cases, was down by 50% for the year April 2013 to March 2014. In social welfare law the number of legal help cases was down by a staggering 80%. This can be mainly attributable to the cuts in scope introduced by the LASPO Act in April last year. Employment, benefits and debt cases were cut by 100% and there were also big cuts to legal aid for housing and immigration cases.”

The LAA managed to overspend on one area – its own administrative budget, spending £106 million, £20 million more than it budgeted for!

Yesterday I received the following from a BHT colleague. She wrote:

“I can’t tell you how angry it makes me when I hear about pots of money that have been assigned to assist people are then left unspent when there are so many people missing out on the very things that the money was put in place for. (I won’t tell you the language I use when I read that the only overspend the LAA made was on admin). We could have seen above our allocated matters.

“But LAA are not the only ones, the Discretionary East Sussex Support Scheme (which was put in place after the loss of crisis loans and community care grants) underspend by almost £250k and is looking to underspend by the same amount this year. I understand that some of the arguments have been that they may be able to keep this money and use it after March 2015, but there is no guarantee on this as the Government could ask for it back – just like DHP underspend – and it isn’t demonstrating the actual needs in East Sussex, especially Hastings where most of the money that was spent came to.

“I understand about putting money away for a rainy day, that’s how I was brought up to save money for those emergency moments. But why can’t people see that its pouring with rain right now, and there doesn’t appear to be any rainbow on the horizon with a pot of gold at the bottom of it.

“People, children missing meals, going hungry, being cold in winter, facing the utter distress of not being able to pay the rent or mortgage and possibly losing their home, people waiting over 4 months for benefit claims to which they are entitled to be processed, not having specialist advice to challenge when the DWP get it wrong (and we know how often they get it wrong!), not to mention family law etc. etc. and whilst this is happening in front of us all there are pots of underspent money just sat there.”

I agree with my colleague. This is not about party policy. It is about the bureaucracy of the State not working, something that undermines governments of all colours.