• UPDATE: A very nice chap from the Department for Work and Pensions has rung up to say this is something they’re very aware of, and are running various projects and conversing with various relevant bodies to try to ensure that vulnerable people aren’t forced to hold their own money in situations where it would do more harm than good. Here’s the statement from the DWP:
We expect the majority of social housing claimants to take responsibility for paying their rent direct, in the same way as claimants living in the private rented sector do. However, some claimants could be made an exception to the Universal Credit rules whilst they learn to manage their finances better.
Which is all very promising.
This isn’t my usual area, and I’ve got to be very careful, because it’s not something I know much about: the changes to the benefit system are hugely controversial, and complex, and it would be idiotic to pretend that they’re all bad or all good. And I want to make it clear that I’m not arguing in knee-jerk Lefty fashion against welfare reform. It’s vital that work pays more than welfare.
That disclaimer out of the way, there is one specific and apparently minor policy change that friends of mine who work in homelessness charities have criticised bitterly. Under Iain Duncan Smith’s “Universal Credit” reforms, rent support will have to be paid to the tenant, and cannot be given directly to the landlord, even if the tenant asks for it to be.
That might not sound like a big deal, but if you’re a heroin addict or a compulsive gambler or an alcoholic, it might be. Sufferers of those conditions who ask that large sums of money not be left in their hands clearly have insight into their condition, and do not trust their own ability to resist temptation. They’re doing a very sensible thing, not putting themselves in the way of temptation, yet the reforms look as though they will force them back into an unequal struggle with their addictions.
This isn’t a hypothetical. The charity workers I’ve spoken to have several stories about concerned service users struggling with addiction who say they don’t trust their willpower if they are given hundreds of pounds a month in cash. The homelessness charity St Mungo’s is also worried – they have said that:
Claimants who live in supported accommodation should have the housing element of Universal Credit paid directly to the landlord, in order to protect their housing, and for their own personal safety. Having large monthly sums paid directly into personal accounts could be too much for some people unused to budgeting, and perhaps tackling alcohol or drug issues, with non-payment of rent putting their accommodation at risk.
The concern is that people could be evicted, entirely fairly, because their rent doesn’t make it to their landlords. Yes, you could say that’s the tenant’s own fault, but lots of us know that we can’t trust our willpower in the moment, so we avoid putting ourselves in the position that we’d have to. That’s why some people don’t keep, say, chocolates or booze at home: it’s the direct equivalent of Odysseus tying himself to the mast, taking the decision-making out of your unreliable future self’s hands. It’s a very sensible thing to do .
Again: I’m not arguing against the universal credit policy or saying that we don’t need to reform our welfare system urgently. But I am suggesting that this one, apparently minor, detail of the reforms is dangerous and could do more harm than good. Let tenants who don’t trust their willpower take their willpower out of the equation, and pay the money direct to landlords.