In the absence of a proper statement as to what the ConDem government’s housing policy is, we are left to pick up jigsaw pieces and try to make a coherent picture out of them.
Lord Freud of Benefit Reform, speaking to the work and pensions select committee, seems to have let one particular cat out of the bag.
Flying in the face of expert opinion and echoing what David Cameron said on the subject, he argued that the housing benefit reforms would not cause additional homelessness or a need for additional temporary accommodation. But then, in rather contradictory terms, he argued that it would be very valuable to change the definition of homelessness. The statutory definition is not as it should be, he complained, because it is more than not having a roof over your head.
If this is a signal that the government is working on a change in the statutory definition, which has been broadly the same since landmark private member’s legislation in 1977, promoted by a Liberal, then yet more of the most dire forecasts of the housing world will come true. Freud complains that housing experts are stirring up fears and frightening people, but the pattern at the moment is that, when the worst fears are expressed, they are condemned as scaremongering by Ministers one day only to be confirmed as policy the next.
As we have noted before, the homelessness legislation is indeed a barrier to the government’s plans to cut housing benefit support, because local authorities will have to take responsibility for some of those displaced. So the next obvious step is to change the homelessness legislation to enable the HB cuts to be delivered without so many knock-on effects. In effect, many more people will become homeless under the existing definition, but will not be regarded as homeless by a new definition. So there is no additional homelessness. Clever trick, but a trick nonetheless.
There is a large constituency in this country that believes that the homelessness safety net, imperfect though it is, is one of the core pillars of the welfare state, not just a nice add-on that we can no longer afford. Out there in the real world there are countless voluntary organisations, faith groups, and concerned citizens who work with homeless people daily and know the real story. Many regard the manner in which we treat homeless people as a benchmark of our civilisation. When mobilised, they can be a huge political force, and if I was the coalition government, I wouldn’t want to upset them.