Sunak’s cost of living crisis measures will barely leaven the dough
The cost of living crisis has befallen us at the worst possible moment. Almost 30 torrid months of a global pandemic – and the economic and social restraints required to tackle it – left households struggling to cope financially long before the price of energy, food, oil and other essential goods began to soar. Now many are sinking into destitution.
Among the poorest communities, hard data tracks this process. A survey of housing associations recently found the number of their social tenants claiming universal credit to help with rents increased by 83 per cent between June 2019 and September 2020: more than a quarter (28 per cent) of tenancies are supported by what used to be called housing benefit. Of those tenants, 60 per cent have now fallen behind with payments. The average amount owed by a household on benefits in rent arrears is £609 – that’s more than six weeks rent for the average home.
£400 in the pockets of the well-insulated middle class will shore up the Conservative vote
Why am I mentioning this now? Because the plight of social tenants on universal credit is a fair indicator of the truth of the old saying that the devil’s in the detail. Some of that devilishness will soon be unearthed in the detail of Rishi Sunak’s cost of living support payments.
In late May, the chancellor responded to a crescendo of voices calling for urgent help by announcing a one-off payment for all households of £400, to offset the sharp rise in energy costs. That payment will be credited by the government to the energy accounts of anyone who pays by direct debit or cash, and applied to meters or distributed as vouchers for anyone using prepayment meters. But those struggling hardest with rising costs will be granted an extra £250, a bonus available only to those claiming means-tested benefits. That payment will be distributed directly into recipients’ bank accounts along with their benefits.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, the government ought to know. It should remember the chequered history of its own flagship benefits overhaul. Before the introduction of universal credit, housing benefit used to be paid directly to the landlord without the tenant having to play any role in making sure they paid their rent. A core purpose of the reform was to make benefit payments feel more like taking home a salary, easing the transition into work, and encouraging personal financial responsibility. A laudable aim and one that has on balance been successful. But it hasn’t come without its stumbling blocks – and the primary one was, and is, unpaid rent.
When universal credit was first tested in pilot areas, default on rent was so high that a short circuit had to be built into the system. Now a landlord can demand to be paid directly by the government if a tenant on universal credit builds up eight weeks of rental arrears; in reality, landlords are encouraged not to wait eight weeks at all but instead ask councils to consider granting the right to direct payment as soon as a default occurs.
At that time, the unthinking discussion in Westminster swung into the territory of “feckless benefit claimants”, throwing up the old Victorian values of deserving and undeserving poor. We’re about to see the same thing play out all over again, because Sunak and his party have apparently learned nothing from universal credit about the visceral realities of living in poverty.