Plans to ban under-25s from claiming housing benefit have caused considerable concern. Shelter and 12 other charities wrote an open letter (£) to the Times this week warning of a rise in homelessness if this essential safety net is removed from younger adults.
Briefings from No 10 and the Treasury have tried to soften criticisms by suggesting that "vulnerable" claimants would be exempt and still able to access support. However, this is unworkable in practice without leaving many deserving young adults to fall through the net.
Existing benefit rules tell us what exemptions mean in DWP language. Some groups such as care leavers and certain disabled people are protected from current restrictions. But such rules are drawn very narrowly and apply to extremely specific groups of people. For example, people who are severely disabled are not subject to the shared accommodation rate so they are not forced to share flats if they rent privately. However, many people with health conditions that mean shared housing is still inappropriate or even detrimental are not exempt, because they are not classed as sufficiently ill or disabled.
Some groups we might think worthy of exemptions are easy to identify, for instance orphans. Others will be impossible to define in a way that can work within the rigidness of DWP decision making. How will the young gay man thrown out by a homophobic father evidence this to his local housing benefit officer? Will his parents be expected to confirm that yes, they are homophobic, and no, their son is not welcome any more? Should a sexually abused 19 year old who is terrified of her step-father be made to 'prove' the abuse as a condition of getting out?
Housing benefit officers do already make a number of complex and sensitive decisions, particularly when claimants have fled domestic violence. But the government wants to strip out much of this complexity with the introduction of Universal Credit. By 2015, most benefit claims will be made online, with a call centre in Warrington providing the personal touch for back-up. I have very little confidence that a rigid, one-size-fits-all benefit system could adequately identify the very people who would be worst affected by a ban on housing benefit for under 25s.
The ban has been floated as one way to help the Chancellor find an additional £10 billion in savings. As a blanket ban, removing housing benefit from all under 25s would save approximately £1.8 billion a year. But if all households judged to be in Priority Need under homelessness legislation were exempted then this would be more than halved.
The prime minister has acknowledged that many young adults are frustrated by their inability to move out. But he doesn't seem to have asked whether the minority of young adults who claim housing benefit might have good reasons for doing so. For many it will be the impossibility of remaining with their parents - not 'negative signals' in the benefit system. A blanket ban on support for young adults would leave thousands at risk of homelessness - while any truly compassionate list of exemptions would be so broad as to make the policy redundant. Ministers should ditch this unworkable proposal now.
Follow Kate Webb on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shelter