In the Summer Budget last year, the then-Chancellor announced the government’s plans to withdraw automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18-21 year olds. Since then we heard next to nothing further about what this would actually involve in practice. Until now, when we learnt that the withdrawal of housing benefit for 18-21 year olds will only apply to geographical areas that had already received the full Universal Credit rollout. There are a huge number of issues with this, but let’s look at it using the two classic questions that should be asked when it comes to good policy making. What do you wish to achieve in theory, and what will the consequences be in practice?
Let’s ask the question about what the government wants to achieve first. The most obvious answer would be that it’s a further attempt to reduce the welfare bill, but only 2% of all housing benefit claimants, 108,000 out of 4.9 million, fall into the 18-21 age range. Taking into account potential exemptions (those in work, those with dependents, and those deemed “vulnerable”) it’s estimated that only 13,700 18-21 year olds will be affected. Even by the Treasury’s own forecasts the measure will save £95 million over three years, less than 0.5% of the annual spend on housing benefit for working age claimants. Another answer may be that the government is seeking to incentivise young people to “earn or learn”, but the evidence also suggests that the vast majority are not claiming housing benefit as a lifestyle choice. Indeed, it is more likely that most do not have the option of going home to live with parents, and rely on housing benefit for a roof over their heads while they seek jobs, education or training. The impact of the withdrawal of this lifeline is likely to be profound and, by increasing homelessness and instability amongst vulnerable young people, will have effects which are contrary to the stated intentions of introducing the policy in the first place.
Secondly, what are the implications of withdrawing housing benefit? Questions of both fairness and practicality have to be taken into account here. How can the government justify simultaneously withdrawing both young people’s access to benefits and, through exclusion from the National Living Wage and cuts to further education, the support that would help them on the road to self-sufficiency? Where is the fairness in two otherwise identical young people receiving very different support because one lives in a Universal Credit area and the other doesn’t? What are the chances that the savings from a withdrawal of housing benefit will be wiped out by the costs of increased homelessness among young people with nowhere to go? Going even further, why does the withdrawal of housing benefit to young people need to be tied up with Universal Credit rollout in the first place? If you’re committed to withdrawing housing benefit from young people, surely it would be easier and fairer to do it independently of Universal Credit, or wait until Universal Credit is rolled out nationally before adding yet another wrinkle to a programme that is already monstrously, near-unmanageably complex?
A gap between theory and practice when it comes to policy-making doesn’t always mean that the policy is doomed. A policy that is sound in theory but flawed in the execution, or well executed but poorly thought out can be recovered if you’re willing to admit that mistakes were made and change things accordingly. However in all my years in politics I have never seen a policy that was lacking in both theory and execution achieve anything other than utter failure. I don’t expect these plans to withdraw housing benefit for young people to succeed where all those others have crashed and burned. For the sake of our vulnerable young people, who will bear the real-life consequences of such woolly-headed thinking, I call on the government to think again on this issue.