‘For I was hungry, and you did not feed me...whatever you did not do for those of the least among you, you did not do for me’
One of the most powerful moments of the play ‘Entitled’ by Macha Productions was a line from the Bible, which speaks directly to the degradation of the benefit sanctions regime (link). Given how political representatives here so often point to the Bible as justification to deny rights (i.e. equal marriage and women’s right to choose) the duplicity struck home with the audience. While ‘welfare reform’ is new, PPR campaigners are clear that benefits claimants in the north have been had their payments sanctions for years now, with 1,000s of sanctions a month. When the new measures are implemented, the situation is going to get worse.
In this context, it is all the more alarming that government’s new homelessness strategy ‘Ending Homelessness Together’ makes no real plan for how it will deal with the devastating incoming cuts to welfare.
There are many issues with the strategy, including a failure to equality screen, the retention of restrictive ‘homelessness tests’ that the rest of the UK are moving away from in varying degrees, and a failure to include targets. These are explored at length in PPR’s submission to the consultation which can be found here.
However it is the failure to consider the impact of welfare reform which is the most striking.
The New Policy Institute notes that with “almost 400,000 people live in poverty in Northern Ireland” making it one of the poorest parts of the UK. Therefore, even with the various mitigation measures, we can expect the effects of welfare reform to hit here as hard (if not worse) than in Britain. Welfare reform consists of a raft of measures that will cut the amounts of benefits that people are on and introduce more tests and more grounds on which to remove benefits. One element, Universal Credit, will leave already struggling lone parent families worse off by £2,380. The impact of welfare reform is an equality issue: it disproportionately affects women and ethnic minorities, and considering the higher rate in the north of people claiming disability benefits (as a post-conflict society). The NIHE itself notes that where welfare reform has already been brought in, two thirds of Local Authorities in England saw an increase in homelessness, with a study noting that welfare reform is the main cause of homelessness in England.
Yet, this strategy sidesteps the issues. For example, it does not deal with the negative effects the ‘Bedroom Tax’ is going to have, only citing that it is postponed till 2020. This is short-sighted, especially considering this strategy runs till 2022. Additionally, while some mitigation measures run till early 2020, others will last as little as 12 months. Already social housing landlords in Britain are stating that they will ‘assess’ the ability of tenants affected by the benefit camp to pay rents, and will not be offering tenancies to many. These moves are in the context of stagnant social housing build which is far outstripped by waiting list figures , and the private rental sector which is largely unregulated (though we note and welcome some limited proposals).
Sanctions will have the knock on effect of Housing Benefit being stopped, brining families into arrears, making people homeless, and affecting their ability to enter hostels (which require you to be able to have access to Housing Benefit). For EU nationals, rough sleeping is now grounds for a forced deportation out of the UK. While hostels and NIHE potentially have discretion here to help tenants, the very nature of the process leaves people at risk of rough sleeping, especially the most vulnerable and those least able to navigate and increasingly complex system. Finally, the strategy itself cites research which would support the claim that welfare reform is a false economy, because the research shows how “failing to prevent homelessness costs the public purse thousands of pounds more per individual than would timely interventions”.
And yet there is no plan in this or previous strategies to address the outcomes. The People’s Proposal - a plan to ensure due process and impact assessment in the sanctions regime – has not been adopted. And with the incoming measures, the current situation will be made exponentially worse. The present strategy of better ‘advice’ is not enough– advice services have not prevented homelessness among many tenants in Britain who lost large amounts or all of their benefits. The logic of ‘sound financial decisions’ does not apply in case of welfare caps, sanctions and bedroom taxes. People cannot save something from nothing.
As Erin, a lone parent being sanctioned in ‘Entitled’ says, "It's gonna take more than a prayer to help me."