GOVERNMENT proposals to pay housing benefit directly to claimants could lead to vulnerable Irish people being evicted and cause increased levels of homelessness and destitution, charities around the country are warning.
Leaders of several Irish welfare organisations told The Irish Post that the Government’s upcoming reform risks dramatically worsening the mental and physical health of their clients.
Paying housing benefit directly to recipients living in social housing, rather than their landlords, is a major limb of the Government’s plans for Universal Credit, the radical overhaul of the welfare system that will see the several small benefits people currently receive rolled into a single payment.
But last week it was revealed that rent arrears have soared by as much as 50 per cent in the six areas where the direct payment of housing benefit is being trialled. Housing officers at the London Borough of Southwark, one area where the measure is being trialed, predicted a £14million loss if the reform was extended to all its tenants.
All six of the Irish welfare charities contacted by The Irish Post said this revelation confirms their fears about the potentially devastating effects of the changes.
Jim O’Connor, the chief executive of Luton-based homelessness charity NOAH Enterprise, described the housing benefit reform as “a recipe for seriously worsening the already poor quality of life endured by those who are unable to manage their lives independently”.
The Government claims that paying housing benefit directly to tenants will help them to take responsibility for their lives and acquire essential budgeting skills required to pay rent from their wages when they enter the workforce.
But Mr O’Connor disputed that claim, saying: “NOAH works closely with people living in chaos through addiction, mental ill-health and other causes of chronic exclusion, to better manage their finances and their lives, but it is a long, time-consuming process.
“It cannot be affected by the equivalent of pushing someone who cannot swim into the deep end of the pool.”
If the plans rolled out nationwide this autumn do not account fully for the needs of people like NOAH’s clients, Mr O’Connor warned, the most vulnerable will use the money to fuel addictions, causing them to fall behind in rent payments and be evicted.
The Donegal man added that an upsurge in homelessness could lead to increased criminal activity and more drug-and-alcohol-related deaths – implications that carry a large price tag for local authorities.
Reinforcing Mr O’Connor’s point, Cricklewood Homeless Concern’s Director of Community Services, John Doocey, said: “If Housing Benefit payments are to be paid directly to the client this could have the disastrous effect of undoing all the positive work that has been carried out through a client’s transition from homelessness, through our services and then onto private rented accommodation.”
He added: “Even with tenancy support and the best will in the world, it is unrealistic to expect clients with complex support needs to meet this expectation. Inevitably clients with alcohol or drug problems do not consider rent as their budget priority and clients with mental ill health or learning difficulties very often do not have the necessary budget skills to maintain their tenancy.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), which is responsible for introducing Universal Credit, told The Irish Post that one purpose of trialing direct payment to social housing tenants was to learn lessons about how to protect those who cannot be reasonably expected to manage their finances independently.
“Universal Credit is a switch from treating everyone as being incapable (of managing their finances) to assuming that most people can, but there does need to be protection in place,” he said. “It is very obvious that it makes no sense to give someone who cannot manage money, for whatever reason, money to pay their rent and expect them to do it happily.”
The protection put in place is likely to mirror the system that operates in the private housing sector. Housing benefit is paid directly to a landlord for the minority of private sector tenants who activate certain “triggers”, such as falling into arrears, and those who are vulnerable in some way.
But last November, MPs from the Commons Work and Pensions Committee voiced their concerns about how vulnerable people will cope with the changes. Like Mr O’Connor, they warned that people could fall into hardship before support can be provided because the support measures put in place might be difficult to access and slow to identify those who need protection.
The committee recommended that the DWP allows those whose housing benefit is paid directly to landlords to continue with this arrangement, if they choose, for a transitional period. The MPs also said that the DWP should push back its timescale for introducing Universal Credit if adequate provisions for vulnerable individuals cannot be drawn up quickly enough.
The DWP spokesperson said that the Department does not intend to implement these suggestions.
Welfare charities say they will remain anxious about the reform until the DWP is explicit about how it will protect vulnerable people.
Jeff Moore from the London Irish Centre said that vulnerable Irish communities, specifically Travellers and Survivors of abuse in Ireland’s industrial schools, could be acutely impacted by the measure. “Our concern is that if people from these groups go to Jobcentre Plus, the people they speak to will not know about their particular needs,” he said.
Mr Moore also warned that the reform could put serious strain on advice services, scores of which have closed in recent years, adding: “Another concern we have is that once the changes to housing benefit are put in place, they will be hard to change.”
John Delahunty, Innisfree Housing Association’s chief executive, told The Irish Post he fears his organisation will collect less rent from its tenants once the DWP rolls out the reform fully.
“For some of the vulnerable people we work with, the changes could lead to a greater risk that they aren’t able to maintain their tenancy because of problems with payment,” he said. “This would have a negative effect on them achieving new stability in their lives.”
Innisfree’s 500 London properties house families, elders and vulnerable single people, and 60 per cent of its tenants are Irish.
Mr Delahunty acknowledged that the reform could help some to develop budgeting skills, but doubted the DWP’s claim that only a small minority of people will need protection. He added: “The reality for many of our residents is that they are still working towards being prepared for work and so this wouldn’t be an advantage to them.”
Instead, he suggested that the DWP takes a more long-term view by funding financial literacy sessions that could ease people into the Universal Credit system.
Sarah McBride, the Housing Team Leader at Leeds Irish Health & Homes, said the reform will cause “a great deal of anxiety” to the users of her organisation’s services.
“If the Government is hoping the new changes will promote independence, I feel they are sadly wrong,” she said. “Most vulnerable adults with support needs will struggle to budget, and my concern would be what the impact of these changes will be on someone’s mental health and overall wellbeing.”