Iain Duncan Smith is wobbling so fast on welfare reforms that it’s becoming near impossible to keep up. Even whilst I was writing this piece passing on the warning from Women’s Aid about refuge closures, IDS and Lord Fraud were already spinning out of control in front of a Parliamentary Committee. Whilst there has been no formal announcement from the DWP, it seems that some changes may be made to the proposed new rules for Housing Benefits.
For many years vital services such as women’s refuges or homeless hostels have depended on high Housing Benefit payments to cover staff costs. Next year the housing benefit caps, already introduced for private tenants, will be extended to all forms of housing. Another benefit cap, £500 a week, is to be introduced for families, no matter how many children they have or what form of housing they live in.
These brutal cuts will destroy the refuge network for people fleeing domestic violence where rents can be as high as £600 a week for the most basic accommodation.
IDS and Lord Fraud were questioned about the problem at this week’s meeting of the Select Committee for Work and Pensions, the parliamentary group responsible for scrutinising the switch to the new Universal Credit benefits regime. Apparently they are ‘looking into it’. Lord Fraud suggested that supported housing may be taken out of Universal Credit altogether with payments made direct to hostels and refuges. This seemed a shock to Iain Duncan Smith who said that the Discretionary Housing Fund may make up the shortfalls in rent. It seems that the two posh boys are for turning, just unfortunately not in the same direction.
One thing they both seemed to agree on was a move towards to localised system of funding for supported housing. With Housing Benefit about to be taken out of local council’s control it appears the DWP intend to reform it, and then reform it back again just for shits and giggles. Whatever happens will almost certainly mean cuts.
There appears to be no change to one of the main areas of concern for those fleeing domestic violence or those who provide support for them. Despite the Government today acknowledging that financial coercion can be considered a form of domestic abuse, plans to make all benefit payments to a single family member will go ahead.
There are wobbles on direct payments which mean that housing payments will no longer be sent straight to social landlords but instead land in the bank account of even the most vulnerable tenants. Once again however there is no real details, merely some mumbles that some people may be taken out of this regime. How these people will be identified by the faceless computer based system which underpins the new ‘digital by default’ benefit system has not been explained.
It’s clear that Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Fraud are making it up as they go along. If they weren’t being paid billions of our money you might almost feel sorry for the poor bastards designing the new labyrinthine computer system which Universal Credit will depend on. Almost everyday Iain Duncan Smith moves the goal posts or adds new layers of complexity to the project which is already running behind schedule and over budget.
What is truly terrifying is that these problems are only just occurring to to the out of touch millionaires at the DWP. Almost any housing or social worker could have warned them about the problems which will face refuges and homeless hostels when Universal Credit goes ahead. Iain Duncan Smith has spent years plotting welfare reform yet even now he doesn’t seem to have any understanding of how the system he’s reforming actually works.
The latest fudge suggests that there might be three rates of the Housing Element of Universal Credit. This will mean one rate for mainstream housing, one for temporary accommodation, which Lord Fraud suggested might be £40 a week more, and one for supported housing such as hostels and refuges. Who decides which is which and how is still unclear. This mess will be further confused by the fact that not all claimants will be subject to the benefit cap, although the vast majority will, whilst housing support rates will be different depending on how old the claimant is.
Meanwhile Housing Benefit is to be taken out of local authority control, except when it isn’t and rent payments will always be made direct to claimants themselves, except when they won’t. This is Iain Duncan Smith’s idea of simplifying welfare.
The hapless Work and Pension Secretary has made much of the terrible complexity of the benefits system as if it were some kind of socialist plot designed to confuse him. As his hare-brained welfare reforms grow ever closer he is starting to understand exactly why that complexity developed.
With no clear proposals in place the axe still hangs heavy over every women’s refuge, homeless hostel or other supported housing project in the UK. At very best a new funding regime might be introduced, which will almost certainly mean cuts. The Discretionary Housing Fund, which was intended to cover the shortfall already being experienced in Housing Benefit payments, is nowhere near enough to accommodate paying for hostel rents as well. And George Osborne doesn’t look like he’s sending the DWP more money any time soon.
Universal Credit is fast collapsing into a tragic farce. Yet Iain Duncan Smith will carry on regardless whilst Lord Fraud seems to think it’s all some big game. They are playing with the very survival of those who depend on the scant social protection provided to those who’s lives have run into the most horrific difficulties. Abused children, victims of domestic violence and homeless families will be the first in line to suffer at the hands of Iain Duncan Smith’s bodged experiment at the DWP.