By now most people will have heard something about the new welfare regime due to kick in next year. The range of the welfare bill is so vast that it almost defies summary. The implications for the whole of the working class are very profound. To the unwary the welfare changes are of little importance because they think it will not impact on them, after all they are in steady employment. Yet the changes will impact on the whole of the working class. First of all steady employment cannot be guaranteed in the long-run recessionary economic cycle that we are certainly in and second because most workers have family circles especially parents and children that will be severely impacted. It should be stated at once that the number of unemployed in receipt of welfare benefits are in fact the minority, just over 60% of those in receipt of significant welfare benefits are in fact not unemployed.
Let’s pick out just one item that has gone largely unrecognised, changes to housing benefit and let’s be specific about it. In the north of Ireland there are currently 63,000 people registered as unemployed, however there are a lot more, 161,634 homes to be exact, in receipt of essential housing benefit, in fact 67,500 out of a total of 90,000 of Housing Executive households get the benefit, another 23,600 with Housing Associations and then another 70,000 renting in the private sector. In additions there are another 34,800 on the social need waiting list, 20,000 classified as emergency need. It is a reasonable assumption to make that most on that list would be in receipt of housing benefit if they could find a place to live.
Life is about to get a lot more difficult for many of those in receipt of housing benefit. For a start if you are single and under 35 you will only be allowed enough benefit to cover the cost of only one bedroom in a shared property. Where are you going to go to find this prized one bedroom? Certainly not to the Housing Executive with its ever growing waiting list and reducing building programme, down to less than 2,000 planned properties. What then of the private rented sector? Here rents are rising due to the mortgage crash – people who in the recent past could expect to get a mortgage are now no longer able get one.
The typical rent on a small house starts at about £600 per month, fine for some who have only just missed out on the mortgage bonanza but not for the poor benefit claimant who is facing a £400 cap which can only get progressively worse in relation to non-benefit tenants, the likely outcome being private landlords refusing to rent to the poor and a steady increase in homelessness.
Let’s move on now to the bedroom tax or as the government calls it, the over occupancy charge. From April next year those in receipt of Housing Benefit will have to pay a charge of 14% relative to the cost of rent for the audacity of having too much living space i.e. having an extra bedroom and others a stiffer 25% charge for having two extra rooms. You see the new welfare orthodoxy says that the working class have way too much spare capacity in their council homes. So from April 2012 only one bedroom in a council property will be covered by housing benefit per person or per couple. If you have anything extra you will have to pay for it out of your universal credit. You see the new regime has moved on from merely targeting single people for penalty, it now reaches right into the working class family itself. If the person or couple have children the following rules will be applied.
A child aged 15 or under will be expected to share a single bedroom with another child of the same sex.
A child aged 9 and under will be expected to share with another child regardless of their sex.
You will be deemed to be over occupying your home if for example you are a single parent family living in a three bedroom council house with two teenage sons below the age of 15, or if you are a couple without children living in a two bedroom council flat, or again you will be deemed to be over occupying if you are a couple who have to sleep in separate bedrooms due to disability or sickness needs, or again you are a divorced or separated parent living in a two or three bedroom property who needs the rooms for children who only stay at weekends and holiday periods. There are just too numerous variations on this simple over occupancy theme to cover here. The above is just a sample.
How many people in the north of Ireland are to be classified by the Daily Mail mind-set as ‘wicked over occupiers?’ We don’t yet know; when Lord Freud was asked in the House of Commons about the likely outcome for the UK as a whole he confessed that the family friendly ConDem government had not bothered to commission any proper research. It has been left to charities to come up with some statistics; Shelter reckons there are probably about 800,000 miscreants in GB. In respect of the north of Ireland all the housing charities think that the region will be affected the most, the minimal estimate I have seen is 7,000, but a web site in sympathy with the measure put it as high as two thirds of the current social housing tenants.
How much you pay will depend on your situation. The average council rent is approx. £72 per week, meaning an over occupier stands to lose at least £10 and maybe £18 from their living expenditure. To take one pertinent example, the current job seeker who is under 25 receives just £56.25 per week to live on; those over 25 receive £71. How many of those facing the over occupation charge will be able afford to keep the roof over their heads? Some will try and succeed, others will fail and will sooner or later be up for eviction. But for those scrimpers and savers who manage to make the payments there is a looming threat to their existence; the impending bedroom charge is not a final instalment, rather it is only a first instalment.
Just a year ago it was only the under 25s who were forced into one bedroom accommodation in the private sector, this has already changed to the over 35s. The Prime Minister is on record as saying that nobody has a social right to a home financed by the taxpayer, having a council home is a privilege he says not a right; he also says that he wants to dispense with what remains of social housing.
George Osborne recently proclaimed that he wants another £10 billion worth of cuts on welfare spending. In other words it won’t be very long before the charge is increased and more fall prey to the eviction notice. By the way, the small number of people who know about the new charges think that those who may fall into the classification scheme will be offered an alternative home if they can’t pay the charge, they are mistaken; there is no legal obligation on the housing authority to offer you something more suitable, this may be because these homes don’t actually exist.
What then has been the reaction of the local politicians who say they oppose the new reforms? Answer – bluff and evasion? Well they have passed the welfare bill, so far without amendment, the so called concessions they are championing are entirely procedural. Are they preparing to drop the over occupancy charges? No sign of it. They play the evasion game by not talking about the housing benefit part of the welfare reform bill, hoping that nobody of any importance will notice it. It is to be revealed to the unsuspecting working class voter, Cilla Black style surprise! Surprise!
Come April next year people will suddenly find out about it and it will be too late for them to turn to the local politicians for some sort of protection. The politics of this whole affair needs to be discussed now. Why are the Tories attacking the living conditions of the working class in the home and not just in the workplace? They will not even save any money on housing benefit at least in the first instalment. It makes no macroeconomic sense and looks more like a very nasty political stoke of class divide and rule than an attempt to solve the chronic housing crisis. Perhaps they believe that it will destroy what little remains of working class social solidarity. We know that GB has a horrendous housing crisis, those who are desperate to find a home will now be ‘educated’ by the pernicious right wing press to blame those wicked over occupiers for their unfortunate condition.
One of the splendid ironies of the impending social disaster is that the seniors of both nationalists political parties swear that they were indeed the very the people who fashioned the civil rights movement that began life as a protest and even a disobedience campaign against the Orange States’ grossly unfair housing policy. If things are programmed by Stormont to follow the requisite course set by the Welfare Bill they will have to oversee a new set of grievances in respect of housing policy of even graver consequence than went before.
Untold numbers of working class people will not be able to meet the new rent charges out of living expenditure. Not being able to find alternative smaller homes when the eviction notices start to fly; they will inevitably opt to refuse to pack up and leave their existing homes. The nationalist politicians sitting in Stormont will have to persuade them that it is a bad idea to ‘squat’ in a house that they believed falsely was theirs by right. They will have to tell them that the incomes of the hard pressed British ‘middle class’ taxpayer must take precedence over their own voters social need. They will have to appeal ever more to sectarian instincts rather than to definite social progress to keep the party vote in place. Long live the nationalist political class! Long live the unionist political class! Long live the new dispensation!