361 words from Government which could actually reduce homelessness
Throughout the 21 years I have worked in homelessness, a continual problem has been clients’ Housing Benefit being stopped as a result of something going wrong with their benefit claim. This often leads to rent arrears, overpayments and large amounts of debt which people have no realistic chance of repaying.
In 2013, we documented the startling increase in benefit sanctions against people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance while living in homelessness services. We found that in many cases these sanctions led to rent arrears.
- 69% of homelessness agencies surveyed said clients being sanctioned led to housing benefit problems.
- 60% of homelessness agencies surveyed said clients being sanctioned led to increased rent arrears.
- 53% of homelessness agencies surveyed had experienced difficulties resettling clients as a result of sanctions to clients.
- 49% of homelessness agencies surveyed were issuing more evictions or notices to quit as a result of sanctions to clients.
However, we have clarification from Government at last that someone’s Housing Benefit claim should not be affected by their Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance being sanctioned.
I realise you might be shaking your head at this point if this doesn’t reflect your experience, but please keep reading.
The Oakley Review
Following our research, we worked with partner agencies including St Mungo’s Broadway, Crisis and Drugscope to lobby the Government. Last year, Matt Oakley undertook a review into sanctions for the Department for Work and Pensions (our submission to the review was featured on the front-page of the Guardian), which led to the publication of The Oakley Review. It made the following points:
“One area of concern that came up repeatedly through the Review was the impact that adverse sanction decisions had on the receipt of Housing Benefit. Sanctions considered under the remit of this Review should not impact on Housing Benefit, however, the Review team heard of instances where Local Authorities ended a claim for Housing Benefit after a sanction had been applied.”
The review recommended that the Department for Work and Pensions “should work with Local Authorities to improve the coordination of their approach to delivering Housing Benefit for claimants who have been sanctioned.”
We have looked at this issue, with colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions, to assess the extent and exact nature of the problem. It is still a mystery as to why so many Housing Benefit claims are affected when they should not be. Perhaps some can be traced back to the difference between disallowances and sanctions, but even that cannot explain it all.
An explanation – and some long awaited clarification
To have a live Jobseeker’s Allowance claim a person needs to be “available for and actively seeking work”. If they have not meet this requirement, they essentially have no Jobseeker’s Allowance claim for the period concerned. The claim is closed. This is called a disallowance. At this point the Department for Work and Pensions will let the Housing Benefit team know that the person is no longer claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. The client might still be eligible for Housing Benefit as a nil income claimant but they will have to inform the local authority of a change of circumstances. They will also have to make a fresh claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance. This can get confusing because once they reclaim Jobseeker’s Allowance they will then face a sanction. I have tried to give you an overview of the complexities of disallowances vs sanctions in this short paper.
Finally, last Wednesday the Department for Work and Pensions did something which we hope will help bring this long term problem to an end. They produced an Urgent Bulletin for all local authorities which said (among other things) the following:
“When a sanction is applied entitlement to benefits will continue but will not be payable for a fixed period of time. Claimants who are receiving passported HB should continue to do so without interruption when a sanction is applied … no action should be taken on the HB claim as a result of a sanction. Effectively the sanction notifications can be ignored / completed with no action”
We hope that these 361 words from the Government will have a big impact, and that many people will no longer have their Housing Benefit stopped incorrectly.
If local authorities act on it as they should, it really could help thousands of people avoid unnecessary homelessness.
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Paul is our policy manager with particular responsibility for a number of areas including welfare and migration.