David Cameron is reported as having said during an interview that those under 25 should have their entitlement to housing benefit removed. There are a couple of other objectionable things in the interview that the Prime Minister gave to the Mail on Sunday. However, I want to focus on this issue of housing benefit right now.
Blanket policies like this are never good. There are so many different types of “under 25s” who claim housing benefit and it is worthwhile remembering that. Some of the people who fall into that category would be those who grew up in the care system. They were in the care system for a reason and many are unlikely to have parents who they can go and live with. Is it right or fair that they cannot get help with the cost of keeping a roof over their head? What about those who are under 25 and out of work through no fault of their own (e.g. redundancy)? They might have a partner and children of their own. All of these situations would need to be covered by Cameron’s “special case exemptions.”
25 is not young, by 25 a lot of people will have been to university and possibly started careers hundreds of miles away from their parents. David Cameron is arguing that the current benefits system is sending out strange messages, but his plans also seem to be sending out strange messages. He wants people of unemployment benefits (a laudable aim), which for many (particularly those under 25) might mean looking for jobs right around the country and re-locating. However, he wants to remove all under 25s from housing benefit so even if they manage to get a job away from home they would be unable to get some form of housing benefit to help them keep a roof over their head. Not everyone has rich parents that could help fill a deficit in earnings to cover basic essentials such as rent, electricity and food. Yes, there are some under 25s who are claiming unemployment benefit and housing benefit with no intention of ever trying to get off benefits. However, that is no reason to take a big axe to an entire section of the population and welfare benefits. Focussed and targeted measures at those who fall into the category of having no intention of ever working is what is required.
Taking an axe to housing benefit for all, but a few exceptional cases, under 25s is likely to create more problems than it solves. Some families could continue to have their adult children living with them, but others just really couldn’t. Some parents live in houses that are just too small to accommodate their adult child, their partner and children! Imagine 5 adults and a couple of children squeezed into a 3 or 4 bedroom semi-detached house; it’s just not going to work.
I am in no way a fan of people claiming benefits when they really do not want to. However, the Prime Ministers welfare reform packages are not returning the system to what it should be: the safety net for when things go wrong. Instead he’s using it to punish decent people who have fallen on hard times. Those who are on benefits long-term and have no intention of getting off them find ways round the system as it is and they’ll only do the same under Mr Cameron’s proposals. The advertised savings the policy will produce will shrink, if not disappear totally, as people find ways of getting round it and the increased need for enforcement and detection activities.
Ministers of the Crown and government departments are listed in Schedule 19 of the Equality Act 2010; this means that the fall within the public sector equality duty to be found at s.149 of the 2010 Act. Subsection (1), paragraph (b) provides the Ministers and government departments must have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it. Age is a protected characteristic and can refer to bands of ages (e.g. “under 25” and “over 25”). I would have to question whether such a blanket policy would meet the Government’s public sector equality duty. What would the impact of such a policy be? Would the impact be proportionate? I doubt very much that the impact would be proportionate and the Prime Minister will have to think very carefully about exactly how this policy would work in practice. It wouldn’t be good for the Government of the day to be found to be failing in its public sector equality duty by the courts.
If this is, as suggested, a policy for a future Conservative government then Mr Cameron might well have shot himself in the foot. People in growing numbers appear to be disliking his constant attacks on those suffering financial hardship, his constant lumping together of those on benefits because they have fallen upon hard times and those who are on benefits because they see it as their entitlement, his constant attacks against essential public services. They way in which his government is privatising everything from the NHS to the Police is not, I suspect, going to go down well with the electorate at the next election in 2015.
The Prime Minister’s desire to reform welfare is a laudable one, there are issues with the welfare system that do need to be addressed and we do need to get people back into work. However, to get people back into work you need to do two things. First, you need to ensure that the economy is not failing and that there are actually jobs for people to get. Second, you need to address the root causes of long-term unemployment and not just start lobbing off bits of the welfare system which will make a “saving”.