30. Mar, 2018

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youth obligationThanks to Joe Halewood for the screenshot

A little background on the “Youth Obligation”.

The 'national living wage' (which is actually an inadequate rise in the minimum wage) was one of the centrepieces of the Osborne budget back in 2015 – which does not apply to those people under 25. Osborne exhorted young people to “earn or learn” in a budget speech that also cut their entitlement to receiving benefits and student grants, prompting serious complaints that young people had been unfairly targeted.  

The policy to end automatic entitlement for the housing element of Universal Credit was announced by David Cameron and Osborne in 2014 and was introduced last April. Housing and homeless organisations warned last year that it will cause grave hardship and force cash-strapped councils to meet higher costs for emergency accommodation. The plans of a review, and potential for a government u-turn on the housing element payment for young people were actually announced last year.

The controversial policy has now been dropped to “reassure young people” they will "receive the help with housing costs that they need."

McVey said: “The change I am announcing today means that young people on benefits will be assured that if they secure a tenancy, they will have support towards their housing costs in the normal way.”

Matt Hancock released details of 'radical plans' in August 2015 "to end long-term youth unemployment and decades of welfare dependency." He "pledged that the cross-government Earn or Learn Taskforce he chairs will create a ‘no excuses’ culture to support youth employment. " 

However, we know by now that 'targeted support' is a euphemism for draconian welfare conditionality and sanctions. Of course the Conservatives' ideas were not original. They were imported from the neoliberal Tony Abbott led coalition government in Australia, who announced their 'earn or learn' programme back in 2014. Like our own Conservative government, the neoliberal Abbott administration framed welfare as a "trap", claiming the existence of a 'culture of dependency', a radical New Right myth extended from the likes of Charles Murray, which has been thoroughly debunked over the last few decades.

To sustain an ideological commitment to 'small state' antiwelfarism, neoliberal welfare narratives are reduced to a language about creating 'incentives' and discipline as opposed the traditional established narratives that portray a safety net provision to support people in meeting their basic survival needs (food, fuel and shelter). 

The traditional justification for paying citizens social security in order to ensure they can meet their fundamental needs has been ludicrously turned on its head and presented as a 'malfunction' of welfare - it 'creates poverty' instead of alleviating it - by neoliberals.

In addition, welfare dependency arguments are based on a number of false assumptions and prejudices, because of the 'small state' ideological commitments of neoliberals.  There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Poor Law Amendment act of the 1830s, of political capitalist bullies trying to use welfare to 'improve' the poor. F Conservatives and some of the economic liberals (as opposed to social liberals) the 'problem' with welfare is presented in a moralistic way - it systemises "perverse incentives", it rewards "immoral behaviour". The goal of welfare reform is therefore justified as discipline, instilling the "right attitude" and behavioural change.

The “Youth Obligation” is simply an extension of that approach.

'Reservations' have been expressed about the Youth Obligation’s mandatory requirement that young jobseekers apply for a training opportunity or work placement after six months of claiming support. 

The Youth Obligation programme, in areas where full universal credit is running, requires claimants aged between 18 and 21 to undergo 'intensive job-support training, including work experience, skills workshops, mentoring, help with job applications and interviews, and training in maths, English and IT.'

Those young people still unemployed after six months are given compulsory vocational training and work experience in a sector with a high number of vacancies or encouraged to take up a traineeship.

The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to seek the views of vulnerable young people, as well as training providers and charitable organisations who work with them, to further explore the possible implications of the Youth Obligation for the most disadvantaged young people.

Young people surveyed, who had experience of unemployment and/or were living in supported accommodation, consistently stressed that they would only be encouraged to engage in a training opportunity or work placement if it was linked to their career aspirations, or if it did not present other barriers such as being too far to travel or not providing sufficient pay. If Jobcentre Plus were unable to provide access to high-quality opportunities they could see value in, many felt that they would simply disengage and stop claiming benefit.

Previous research has shown how homeless young people find it difficult to meet the conditionality terms of their benefit claim, and are disproportionately affected by benefit sanctions compared to the wider claimant population.

However, it is inexcusable that the state considers it is justified in withdrawing financial support that is meant to ensure people can meet their basic living requirements, if young people, living in a wide range of circumstances, cannot meet the inflexible, behaviourist conditionality requirements, including those of the work fare scheme.  

The 'U-turn' on housing costs for young people

 The UK government has announced today that it will amend social security regulations so that all 18 to 21-year-olds will be entitled to claim support for housing costs within the scope of Universal Credit provision. The announcement has been timed for the upcoming local elections in May.

The government says its 'rethink' is in line with their Homelessness Reduction aims, which comes into force next month, 'reiterating its commitment to eradicate rough sleeping by 2027'.

Young people will also be given “comprehensive and intensive work-focussed support”, whether they are ‘learning’ or ‘earning’, as part of the ‘Youth Obligation’. Young people will need to sign up to this commitment to be eligible for housing support.

Work and Pensions Secretary of State, Esther McVey, said: "We want every young person to have the confidence to strive to fulfil their ambitions.

“For those young people who are vulnerable or face extra barriers, Universal Credit provides them with intensive, personalised support to move into employment, training or work experience; so no young person is left behind as they could be under the old benefits system.

“As we rollout Universal Credit, we have always been clear we will make any necessary changes along the way. This announcement today will reassure all young people that housing support is in place if they need it.”.

Denise Hatton, Chief Executive for YMCA England & Wales, said: “YMCA welcomes today’s announcement by the Government but we have long argued that the policy was flawed from the outlet and would not deliver what the Government said it would.

“Our 2015 research showed that scrapping housing benefit for young people wouldn’t drive them to ‘earn or learn’ as the majority would find it impossible to find training and employment without having a stable and safe home.

“By removing automatic entitlement to housing support, the Government took away a vital safety net from some of the country’s most vulnerable young people, who have no choice but to rely on it during their times of crisis and need.

“Reinstating housing benefit allows thousands of young people across the country to get the helping hand their need and support them to get their lives back on track.”

Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Labour welcomes this major U-turn and the fact that the Government have enacted another policy from our popular manifesto.

“However, housing support has been frozen until 2020 and young people still face major problems in finding affordable housing.

“The sight of young people sleeping on our streets has become all too common under this Conservative Government. Behind the homelessness figures, there are many young adults having to sofa surf or remain living with their parents.

“Labour will invest in genuinely affordable housing, regulate the private rented sector and ensure that all young people have a secure home.”

SNP’s Social Justice spokesperson Neil Gray said: “This major u turn from the Tories shows they have finally realised that penalising young people – as they had done until now – is simply callous and could only lead to a rise in homelessness for young people.

“Any change of policy in the shambolic and damaging roll out of UC is welcome – but we need to see detail from the DWP on what they mean by saying young people will need to sign up to a ‘youth obligation‘ before accessing this much needed benefit – how that will work.

“We also need clarification on whether or not these changes will be linked in any way with sanctions. Our young people need support into work and into homes and not to be penalised as they start their life by having vital financial support removed from them.

“The SNP Scottish Government has always mitigated this callous policy and provided support to under 21s through the Scottish Welfare Fund, and the social security bill ensured this support would be in legislation – at an estimated cost of up to £6.5 million by 2020.

“It is shameful that it’s taken the UK Government till now before realising this policy was just wrong from the start.

“The Tories think they make any cuts in welfare and get away with it – £4bn in annual cuts to Scotland by the end of the decade. now they have u-turned on this, they can reverse all these cuts and realise people need a helping hand up not pushed into poverty.”

As Joe Halewood scathingly points out, the amount of housing costs payable under Universal Credit to young people is likely to be limited to the shared accommodation rate (SAR) for 18 – 21 year olds in social housing. There are limited exemptions from SAR, but some only apply to people of certain ages. The outcome of these changes to young people's housing support is that the majority of single young people aged under 35 who are unable to work, looking for work or on a low income will be living in houses that have multiple occupation. 

Today's announcement neglected to include the information that the reduced rate of housing benefit - called SAR - will also apply to social housing tenants for the first time. During the Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015, Osborne announced an intention to restrict the level of Housing Benefit, or the housing element of Universal Credit, claimed by tenants in social housing (council and housing association 'stock') to the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate. LHA rates currently apply to most Housing Benefit claimants living in the private rented sector and entitlement is related to household size. A delay in applying the LHA caps and an extension to all Universal Credit claimants was announced during the Autumn Statement 2016. 

There will be no exemption for Housing Benefit claimants of non-working age living in the private rented sector from a reduction in entitlement if they are living in a property that is larger than they need, too.

Housing Benefit restrictions based on the size of the property occupied have applied to tenants in the private rented sector since 1989. However further changes to legislation were made in 2011, which restricted the number of rooms permitted per child under the age of 18 if they were same sex, and under 16 if they weren't. Children under those ages are expected to share a bedroom. 

Therefore, once the measure is introduced to the social sector in 2019, it raises the
possibility of some pensioners who are under-occupying their homes, experiencing a
shortfall in their Housing Benefit entitlement. This has led to the suggestion that the
measure amounts to a ‘new bedroom tax.’ The measure will affect new tenancies
entered into after 2016, so it appears that some measure of protection will apply to
under-occupying pensioner households with existing tenancies at April 2016. In addition,
it will only affect claimants whose rent is higher than the appropriate LHA rate. 

However, the Conservatives' planned move to apply LHA rates to Housing Benefit claimants living in the social rented sector means that the SAR will also apply to council and housing association tenants under the age of 35 from April 2019 if they are in receipt of Universal Credit, or if their tenancy began or was renewed after April 2016 and they are not living in supported accommodation. (Source: House of Commons Library research briefing, 13 November 2017).

This is probably the caveat that Esther McVey was referring to in her dissembling use of the vague phrase "in the normal way". 

Crisis and other charities campaigned against the SAR, saying that the modest single room rate would exclude people from housing and increase the risk of homelessness for people in the under-35 age group. (The definition of 'young person' was also changed by the government, from under 25  to under 35).

Charities were also concerned that there was not enough accommodation to cater for people under the age of 35 who would require rooms in shared accommodation. There were also concerns that people would be pushed into unsuitable housing or into sharing accommodation inappropriately.

However, in January government statistics revealed it would not make the savings ministers had originally thought because most young people claiming housing costs fell within the exemptions that were published alongside the legislation. This indicates that young people claim housing costs because they need to, rather than just because of a 'lifestyle choice.'

David Orr, chief executive at the National Housing Federation, said: “It’s very good news the government are restoring housing benefit to 18-21 year olds.

“This benefit cut has been creating great confusion over whether young people were eligible for these vital funds. Housing associations have told us that as a result they have seen more young, vulnerable people sleeping rough, or forced to depend on unscrupulous private landlords and dangerous accommodation. This was a policy that made no sense and today’s decision is a positive sign they are listening on welfare reform.”

However, any support provided under Universal Credit is precarious, and constantly under the threat of the extended sanction regime, which includes punitive financial penalties and the withdrawal of lifeline support to people in work but on low pay or working part-time hours. Even if young people manage to navigate the series of ordeals built into the rigid and old school behaviourist conditionality of the Youth Obligation, there are further ordeals awaiting, even if they find work.

Young people are very likely to be low earners who require additional Universal Credit support to meet living costs, and because the 'national living wage' is paid only to those aged 25 and over, this simply adds to the problems experienced by this social group. The government welfare cuts were never about "making work pay". They were about dismantling our social security system, a cut at a time.

There is still a long way to go before we may celebrate such a small concession on the part of a government that has demonstrated over and over just how much it despises our vital social security safety net.

This announcement bears a striking resemblance to the so-called u-turn on tax credits, in that the government's 'concession' is simply a deception.

Image result for housing benefit claim


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