Housing benefit cuts: vulnerable people could face homelessness

The Citizens Advice Bureau warns:

If the cuts go ahead, it will only be possible to backdate housing benefit claims by three months instead of the current one year ‘with good cause’. Similar proposals were ditched in 2000 following widespread protests and a highly critical report from Parliament’s own Social Security Advisory Committee.

The charity says the proposed cuts are completely at odds with government efforts to prevent homelessness and the cost-cutting measure will actually be a much greater strain on the public purse, since most of those receiving housing benefit are council or housing association tenants and these bodies are likely to see their bad debt rise and council tax take reduce as a result of the change. The costs of homelessness will also vastly exceed the value of any savings made from cutting benefit backdating.

Citizens Advice warns that being able to backdate housing benefit up to 12 months is vital to prevent eviction and homelessness by enabling tenants to pay off rent arrears which are often caused in the first place by problems with a housing benefit claim. Because claimants must show ‘good cause’ for not having made their claim earlier, backdating is targeted only on the most vulnerable claimants who most need personal support to help them cope, for example those with serious mental health problems.

Being able to backdate benefit for up to a year is also a valuable tool in increasing housing benefit take up, which official estimates put at only 50% for people in work who are eligible. It ensures that people get money they were always entitled to, but whose vulnerability prevented them making a claim earlier.

Recent CAB cases include:

A CAB in the south west reported a client who has been pursuing backdated housing benefit for a two month period when he failed to complete his housing benefit application because he was sectioned and hospitalised. The CAB has been helping the client with his claim but he has repeatedly lost contact and had to start again. As a result the whole process has taken well over three months. When the client is well he is fully capable of managing his own affairs. However more severe periods seem to occur without warning and he often loses contact with family at these times.

A CAB client in her sixties living in Surrey was struggling to cope since her husband had died suddenly over a year earlier. This led to mental health problems which resulted in her failing to complete HB review forms or to claim pension credit despite efforts by her local authority landlord to help. She was therefore living on approximately £47 per week retirement pension and was eventually evicted from her home for rent arrears. At this point she was referred to the CAB by the local authority. The bureau adviser realised that she was entitled to a considerable amount of backdated housing benefit, and persuaded the landlord to agree to let her return to the property if the arrears were cleared before they re-let it. The bureau helped her successfully claim seven months backdated housing benefit, council tax benefit and pension credit, which completely cleared her rent arrears and court costs. She was then granted a new tenancy with a clear rent record.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive David Harker said:

“These cuts are a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is a harsh and heartless policy which will make some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society pay the price with their homes. Backdating is a key tool in delivering the government’s agenda to prevent homelessness and as such is highly cost effective. Any saving to the housing benefit budget is likely to be far outweighed by the much greater costs of homelessness.

“The government listened and accepted that these cuts were wrong after first proposing them back in 2000. They withdrew them then and it is still not too late to listen and withdraw them again. We would urge them to see sense now and recognise that backdating is an absolutely vital tool in preventing homelessness.”

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