The Chancellor's plan to cap housing benefit for people in supported housing will wreak havoc in the lives of many vulnerable people. As the Shadow Minister for Mental Health I have had a large number of individuals and organisations get in touch with me about how these changes will impact on them. These are people with mental health problems who live in supported housing, and need some help to live in the community, but are not so ill that they need to be in an NHS environment. Supported housing gives them some freedom and independence, but at the same time offers a network of support, advice and expertise when they need it.
Ministers plan to set a new cap on housing benefit for social tenants, equivalent to the local housing allowance rate for private rented tenants. Housing Associations are clear that they cannot provide supported living for drastically lower rates. This will hammer those who currently live in supported housing, and will end up costing the NHS and councils even more. According to the National Housing Federation, there is already a shortfall of 15,600 places in supported housing for people who would benefit from it. This gap will increase under Government proposals, leaving even more people with mental illness in unsuitable accommodation.
Plus Dane is one of a number of Housing Associations which run supported accommodation. They have reported that if the cap is applied there will be an average annual shortfall of £2,100 per supported housing unit which would almost certainly result in them having no option but to close schemes.
They are not alone. Recently I visited the Shaw Street Project to meet some of the people at risk from Ministers' proposals. This is a supported living scheme in a new, modern building in Liverpool, run by Riverside Housing Association. It provides supported living for up to 20 vulnerable adults, many with mental health problems, in self-contained flats.
The Shaw Street project provide advice on getting a job, paying bills and cooking skills. All their tenants have been homeless. Most have had a tenancy break down and would struggle to live fully independently in the private rented sector, but appreciate the combination of independence and support.
If financial support was removed from the tenants at this project and others like it, it would have an immediate and detrimental impact on their well-being. Health professionals working to support tenants in supported housing have said they would expect to see an increase in self-neglect, self-harm and people in crisis.
The harsh reality is that people with depression, anxiety, phobias, bipolar disorder, and a range of other mental health conditions will be forced into the private rented sector, or worse, onto the streets. For many of these vulnerable people, the complexity of maintaining a tenancy exacerbates their mental illness. Most landlords and lettings agencies have little or no training or experience of dealing with tenants with mental health problems. The result is a combustible combination, which can only end in problems for both tenants and landlords.
Yesterday Labour brought a debate in parliament, led by my colleagues John Healey and Owen Smith, to call on the Government to exempt supported housing from their plans. Ministers admitted the mess they have made of plans for supported housing and agreed to look again at the impact their changes will have. But ultimately they offered nothing more than warm words. They failed to acknowledge decisions are being made now which will halt or scrap development of new supported housing, and preparations to wind up existing provision are due to start within weeks.
Ministers must now urgently review how their cap on local housing allowance will work in practice. We need to understand the true impact on vulnerable people with mental illness, especially young people. In particular, we need to estimate the cost to the taxpayer if people with mental illness are forced out of their supported accommodation and see their conditions made worse. This cost will land on already hard-pressed mental health and social care budgets.
People with mental illness need advice, support and professional care. As I know from conversations at the Shaw Street project, for those living independently, a little extra support can make a huge difference to their lives. We have seen some excellent progress in specialist centres. All of that is now at risk. Once again, ministers' desire to cut back budgets will hammer vulnerable people, and end up costing us all more down the line.