To Let. Double room in shared house. All mod cons; including washing machine, fitted kitchen and garden. 5 minutes walk to the Central Line. £600 per calendar month. No pets. No Universal Credit.”
This ad is just one of of many similar displayed inside the window of my local newsagent in East Acton, west London. It is reminiscent of ads that used to read “No dogs, No DSS” as though dogs and benefit claimants were one and the same thing.
Leaving aside the fact that the vast majority of new Universal Benefit claims – that now include Housing Benefit – in London are made by families with at least one working member, this veto on the “wrong sort of tenant” remains one of the most blatant, and perfectly legal, forms of discrimation against some of the most vulnerable people in society. And together with the disatrous introduction of Universal credit is responsible for the largest surge in homelessness for twenty years.
There are two reasons private landlords are reluctant to let homes to benefit claimants. The first, is that many landlords – we have no way of knowing just how many – are loathe to pay the income tax that becomes liable the moment they engage with their local authority. This is a scandalous form of tax evasion that requires stringent investigation, together with harsh penalties that could mean losing their right to be a landlord in the first place, or even forced foreclosures in order to settle any outstanding tax bills. Their properties could then be added to local social housing stock, as should any properties previously deemed unfit for human habitation. I don’t believe anything Mrs May, a proven liar, says, but this would be one way for the PM to demonstrate she is serious about increasing the number of affordable homes to rent.
But the most urgent problem facing both landlords and tenants is the goverment’s cruel and callous determination to roll-out Universal Credit regardless of the horrific consequences that have left many claimants unable to feed themselves, or their children, let alone pay the rent.
The average wait between submitting a claim for Universal Credit and receiving a payment (in arrears) is six weeks. Delays of up to three months are not uncommon. Money can be advanced during this period but is given as an interest free loan, repayable once a claim has finally been processed. This means of course that recipients are already in debt before they receive any money. Meanwhile rent arrears have fallen over a cliff edge from which there is often no way back for tenants.
In the six years following the Tories return to power in 2010 there was a 130 per cent rise in the number of rough sleepers. Officially. Housing charity Crisis claims this is a “significant underestimate”, and a particularly shocking discussion on Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC News show last week confirmed a number of councils are even buying rough sleepers one-way tickets out of their area, ostensibly to “reconnect” the homeless with their home towns, although more than one recipient had a ticket bought for him to a town he had never previously set foot in!
Fifty percent of council tenants in receipt of Universal Credit are at least a month in arrears, compared to just 10 per cent of tenants receiving Housing Benefit under the old system. The figures for tenants in private rented accomodation are considerably higher and likely to get worse, unless the government drops its idealogically driven persecution of the poor. The benefits system has long been an intractable mess, designed not only to punish but to dissuade all but the most needy from pursuing a claim in the first place. First there is the humiliating means testing, where every aspect of a claimants life is opened to the kind of scrutiny that no one should be subjected to, then there are the interminable delays while complaints and appeals are dealt with (even getting through to someone on the telephone can reportedly take up to ten attempts each invoving up-to a 45 minute wait, a long call to pay for if you only have access to a mobile phone) followed by a lengthy delay in receiving the money you are entitled to. Frankly, by the this time anyone still in the game deserves what little they receive by dint of their own perseverance! I’m reminded of an anecdote in Oona King’s excellent diaries, in which she recalls that only the very poorest in society know their own National Insurance number, such is the frequency with which they are asked to recite it!
This misery is compounded for many low-income working familes due to a stipulation that prevents them from claiming Universal Credit and Tax Credits at the same time. What’s given with one hand…
The effects of Universal Credit have been immediate, and horrific. Indeed we are heading for one of the greatest social calamities of recent times, the full effects of which remain some way down the tracks, and yet government remains unmoved. Secretary of state for work and pensions David Gauke insists that Universal Credit is “transforming lives”. Well, yes, but who wants their life transformed from “just about managing” into one of hunger and homelessness? I usually save my column about the ever present issue of homelessness for Christmas time; it seems apposite. But if you’re poor, under Mrs May’s government, it’s destined to be “always Winter and never Christmas”.