Back in 1996, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown personally led Labour’s opposition to the Single Room Rent restriction on Housing Benefit introduced by John Major’s Government. They may not have scrapped the SRR for under-25s after entering office a year later, but they did at least decide against implementing the planned extension to those aged between 25 and 34 years old.
What then should we make of Labour’s muted response to Unison’s excellent new report on the impact of the Coalition Government’s extension of the Shared Accommodation Rate (SAR) to those in the older age bracket?
This report shows that all the inequities of the SAR for those under-25 years-old have now been extended to those under-35. Based on research commissioned by DWP itself from the Centre for Economic & Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, it notes that the number of claimants aged between 25-34 fell by 13 per cent between the date of the SAR’s introduction (January 2012) and August 2013, and that the largest decreases were in London – 39 per cent in London Centre. This echoes the challenges Z2K’s own private rented sector access scheme has had in finding rooms in shared homes at or below the local SAR.
In its own response to this research back in July, DWP simply ignored those findings, which ran contrary to its own belief. In contrast, Unison concludes that the extension of the SAR is leading to “reduced, unsafe and poor quality shared housing options, debt and increased homelessness” and boldly calls for it to be reversed. At the same time, it warns against the kind of further cuts to Housing Benefit for those under-25 floated by both the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband in speeches in recent months.
DWP’s impact assessment for the extension of the SAR estimates that it would deliver around £200 million in savings. However, as homelessness charity, Crisis, has made clear, that estimate takes no account of indirect costs of the policy. Crisis has also conducted research of its own, which indicates that the reason so few rooms are available and affordable to those whose Housing Benefit is restricted to the SAR is because the Valuation Office Agency is basing its estimate of the 30 percentile on shared accommodation at the bottom end of the market, which artificially lowers it.
No-one expects Labour’s Shadow DWP Team to immediately agree to Unison’s call – especially when Ed Balls is talking about further cuts in public expenditure himself. But given Blair and Brown’s position back in 1996, you would expect the least Shadow Ministers today would do is agree to Unison’s request for a full review of the operation of the SAR, with a view to widening the exemption for vulnerable groups. It really isn’t good enough for them to respond to a detailed report about how the SAR leaves many thousands of young people homeless, by going on about Labour’s promise to scrap the Bedroom Tax. In this context, that pledge is irrelevant.
If I was a Unison member, I would be wondering if I was getting value for money from the political levy on my subs.