Housing benefit freeze still driving tenants from their homes, despite Universal Credit reforms

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Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University

The controversial roll out of Universal Credit has been stalled. Under pressure from across the political spectrum, work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd has unveiled a “fresh approach”. Among the new measures, Rudd has announced that the government will launch a digital platform, which promises to streamline housing benefit payments to landlords, in cases where the tenant is having difficulty paying rent.

Though it sounds technical, there is much at stake: landlords wait much longer to receive such payments from the government under Universal Credit than they did under the previous system, which was administered by local authorities. And while they wait, tenants can slide further into arrears, leaving them prone to eviction – and possibly, homelessness.

If successful, the platform could benefit landlords, as well as tenants facing the prospect of eviction when they fall into rent arrears. Yet evidence suggests that the new platform cannot plaster over the deeper issues around housing affordability, which are causing benefits claimants to lose their homes.

Rising rent arrears

Research I conducted for the Residential Landlords Association showed that over the past three years, more and more landlords have reported tenants on Universal Credit going into rent arrears. In 2016, 27% of landlords said their tenants on Universal Credit had gone into arrears. By 2018, this had more than doubled to 61% of landlords.

Before Universal Credit, housing benefit could be paid directly to landlords without delay, at the discretion of local authorities. But now, landlords must wait until a tenant has been in arrears for two months before they can apply to receive the housing benefit directly from the government to cover unpaid rent.

On average, it takes 9.3 weeks for landlords to receive the first payment. By that time, the tenant could owe up to four months worth of rent. At this point, the tenant is at significant risk of losing their home, as landlords can lawfully evict tenants with two months of rent arrears. This was borne out in our research: 77% of landlords in my study reported that the main reason for evicting tenants on Universal Credit was unpaid rent.

If the government’s new platform makes it quicker for landlords to receive a direct payment, it could reduce rent arrears, help to sustain tenancies and ultimately reduce homelessness. But our research also showed that there was a significant increase in rent arrears for tenants who claimed housing benefit, but were not on Universal Credit. This tells us that the roll out of Universal Credit isn’t the only thing which is causing hardship for private tenants.

Five year freeze

These problems can be traced back to 2013, when the government reformed how the housing benefit is calculated. Previously, each claimaint’s entitlement was worked out using Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, based on private market rents in the claimant’s local area.

But from 2013, the government capped how much the LHA rate could rise – first in line with inflation, and then to 1% each year. In 2016, Chancellor George Osborne froze LHA rates for four years. In effect, this means that the housing benefit has not kept up with rising rents for five years.

Recent research from Manchester Metropolitan University found that the LHA rates were a major factor in the increase in homelessness. Researchers found that tenants on benefits were more likely to lose their tenancy, and then have difficulties finding an affordable home to rent, due to the gap between housing benefit and the rent.

Can’t make ends meet. Shutterstock.

Analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has found that 90% of LHA rates across the country did not cover the cheapest rents and that some families face a shortfall of hundreds of pounds a month.

This is extremely worrying, especially as the latest figures from the government show that there are 1.2m housing benefit claimants in the private rented sector. And statistics from the latest English Housing Survey show that 81% of claimants report that their benefits only cover part of their rent.

This means that nearly 1m low-income renters are now struggling with housing affordability, and being forced to make hard decisions about how they make up the shortfall created by the government’s housing benefit freeze.

Relieving the pressure

The “fresh approach” to Universal Credit may go some way to relieve pressure on households, by making it easier for landlords to claim rent directly from the government. But it will not address the underlying affordability issues caused by the benefit freeze.

Rudd has said that the benefit freeze should not continue past 2020 – but serious questions remain. For example, if the freeze is lifted, will the LHA rates be increased to current market rent levels? The CIH estimates that this would cost the government nearly £1.2 billion in housing benefit payments, placing further pressure on the Treasury.

Building more social housing – with rents linked to tenants’ income, rather than rising property and land values – would directly address the lack of affordable housing for society’s most vulnerable. A cross-party report from housing charity Shelter recently called for the government to build 3.1m new social homes by 2040 to this end, costing £214bn over 20 years.

One thing is certainly clear: without action to improve housing affordability and end the benefit freeze, the hardship faced by renting families, those just about managing, is likely to get worse.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Sex prescriptions’ may not be the answer but we must respect disabled people’s right to a sexual life

Disabled people have sexual needs. Darius Mcvay, CC BY-SA

Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

Sex for disabled people is an important aspect of their lives, as it is for most people. But there remains a taboo around sex and disabled people. Discrimination and marginalisation means disabled people often spend their lives denied the opportunity to explore their sexual identities. Consequently, the Green Party in Germany recently proposed “sex prescriptions” for the disabled and the seriously ill, which would allow people to claim back the costs of paying for sex as they might do the cost of a medicine.

Prostitution has been legal in Germany since 2002. Under the proposal, people need only to prove that they have a medical need and cannot pay to visit sex workers themselves. In the Netherlands, it is also possible to claim back the cost of sexual services on medical grounds. But it’s not for everyone – however comprehensive Britain’s NHS, it’s hard to imagine a law allowing the same in the UK.

The Sunday Telegraph reported in 2010 that money earmarked for disabled people was spent on “exotic holidays, internet dating subscriptions and adventure breaks, as well as visits to sex workers and lap dancing clubs”. These payments appear to have been ad-hoc arrangements by individual local authorities rather than a national policy, and using taxpayer money in this way has been controversial.

However, it isn’t illegal for a disabled person to spend their benefits on sex in the UK. Benefits such as Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and the Disability living allowance (DLA) exist to cover the extra costs of disability such as “personal care and transport”. How it is spent is up to the recipient.

Research conducted by the TLC Trust, an organisation that provides peer support and a dating club for disabled people, found that most local authorities do not have a policy on the use of sex workers by disabled people. So whether any particular local authority will condone payments for sex workers using money paid by them is a postcode lottery.

It is well documented that people with disabilities in the UK are losing their benefits to government funding cuts and changes in assessment criteria for benefits such as PIP – payments that are crucial for offering disabled people a life that is more than merely survival.

Alongside the marginalisation and discrimination that people living with a disability face every day, any discussion of sex is still a taboo subject. But that has begun to change – and organisations such as the TLC Trust and SHADA helping to change the public’s perception of disabled people’s sexuality and to connect disabled people with sex workers who can help them. But the issue of whether benefits are used to pay for these services remains.

Disability rights

Discussions about sex and sexuality for people with disabilities have previously been ignored, because the fight against discrimination has tended to focus on the rights of disabled people to work through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and 2005, or discrimination in the workplace under the Equality Act 2010.

Despite the intimate rights of people with disabilities being a central part of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to “provide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable healthcare and programmes as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health”, for the most part this doesn’t happen.

Sex and society

Sexual imagery dominates our daily lives, on film, television, through advertising and on the internet. The media is filled with images of perfect bodies and cultural rules concerning how or when you should date someone, what type of sex people enjoy, and all the rest. But the culturally dominant view of able-bodied, heterosexual lives does not align itself with the experiences, thoughts and perceptions of people with disabilities, or those with different sexual identities.

Those who identify as LGBTI and who are also disabled may experience additional stigma stemming from their disability and sexual identity, making it even more difficult for them to develop meaningful sexual relationships. So, for some, it may be necessary to engage with sex workers – and if you’re free to spend your benefits where you please, why not?

The German Green Party is unlikely to be in a position to take forward their legislative proposal, but it raises valid points about a controversial issue relating to whether there should be restrictions on how benefits are used, and the enduring taboo around sex and disabled people. It doesn’t seem conceivable that a British political party would ever make such a suggestion. But whether disabled or not, we all have sexual needs – and if we are truly to strive to end the discrimination disabled people face, part of that is to understand and support their right to a sexual life.

The Conversation

Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.