Blog: Election 2017: what we’re asking for on… welfare

Sam Lister
Sam Lister

As the build up to next month’s general election continues, CIH policy and practice officer Sam Lister takes a closer look at what we’re asking for on welfare policy – one of our key election priorities.

For some time now we’ve been saying that the government should take a very close look at welfare policy and the upcoming election is an ideal opportunity for all parties to do exactly that.

A number of policies seriously undermine efforts that are being made to tackle the housing crisis and demonstrate the lack of a wider strategy.

The lower benefit cap is one such policy.

New figures demonstrate the scale of the impact of the decision to lower the benefit cap to £20,000 outside of London and £23,000 in London – nearly 200,000 children from the lowest income families have seen their parents’ income fall since the cap was lowered.

Designed initially to even the scales between families on benefits and working families, this policy is doing anything but. In fact it is costing some of society’s most vulnerable people very dearly. And six out of seven households affected are either exempt from seeking work because they have a child under five or are recognised by the government as unfit to work.

Families affected now have to find weekly shortfalls between the help they get with housing costs and their rent of more than £100 in some cases. That is quite simply not sustainable.

The decision to lower the benefit cap will only serve to put housing even further out of reach for thousands of families and risk worsening a growing homelessness problem. We are urging all parties to commit to reversing this policy.

Another policy which we are urging the government to look at is the local housing allowance cap (LHA).

The government still plans to cap all housing benefit, including for supported housing, at LHA levels from 2019.

The uncertainty that the decision has created has already caused some supported housing providers to put the brakes on developing this crucial form of housing – this is a real cause for concern for the many vulnerable people who benefit from it at a time when need is increasing.

In a joint report the Communities and Local Government Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee have urged the government to drop this policy and we want to see a commitment from all parties to preserve housing that plays such an important role in protecting and enhancing the lives of our most vulnerable people.

Something which has not received as much attention but is just as worrying, is the application of the LHA cap to general needs social housing tenants.

Our research last year showed that this could hit many thousands of council tenants by as much as £25 a week.

Of course there’s every reason to believe that this will be a problem for housing association tenants as well, given that their rents are typically higher.

The impact of the LHA cap would perhaps not be so severe if the rates were updated to reflect actual rents.

LHA is intended to allow private tenants who get help with their housing costs to access the cheapest 30 per cent of the market. But the reality is it is doing anything but that in some areas.

We recently looked at LHA rates for under 35s and found that, in some areas, it doesn’t even cover five per cent of the market.

It’s no mystery how we have got to this point. The mechanism for LHA to be updated to reflect changes in the market has gradually been eroded and then frozen for four years from April 2016. Affordable housing is becoming more and more difficult to find – for all kinds of household.

We want parties to commit to axing the LHA freeze and updating the rates so that they better reflect the reality of the private rental market.

Next month’s election is a chance for all parties to take a pragmatic look at policies which will solve our housing crisis.

We are urging them to think very carefully about the interaction between welfare policies and housing policy to ensure the two are not operating at crossed purposes.

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