Update: public meeting on fire-safety, Benefit Cap news, and campaign issues

First off, here’s news of a public meeting to address some of the issues arising from the fire at Grenfell Tower. The meeting “Housing, Fire-safety and Grenfell” is hosted by Leeds Central Constituency Labour Party in conjunction with Leeds Trades Council, and speakers will include Hilary Benn MP and Dave Williams of the Fire Brigade Union. It’s at 7.30 on Friday August 25th at the Spinning Wheel, Admiral Street, just off Dewsbury Road. Everyone is welcome to come along and ask questions and give their opinions on anything from technical issues affecting fire-safety in high-rise flats to wider issues around funding, accountability or whatever.
The Facebook event for the meeting is at https://www.facebook.com/events/1958556877715461/
If you can help us with some door-knocking and leafleting to publicise the event please meet us tomorrow (Saturday19th August) at 11am outside Little London Community Centre, or at 3pm outside the Spinning Wheel (I know it’s short notice, but you never know. You can call us on the number below if you want to know more).
 
Secondly, here’s a summary of what we know so far concerning the impacts of the Benefit Cap in Leeds.
As of 24th July (the date the figures were supplied to us) the current number of housing benefit claims in Leeds where an apply benefit cap instruction has been received from the DWP is 1,117.  The  number of housing benefit claims with weekly reduction is as follows:

£0.01 to £25.00 is 184,

£25.01 to £50.00 is 262,

£50.01 to £75.00 is 277,

£75.01 to £100 is 203,

£100.01 to £125 is 107,

£125.01 to £150 is 44,

£150.01 to £175 is 17,

£175.01 to £200 is 23. 

The number of single parents with child/children under 2 years where an apply benefit cap instruction has been received from the DWP is 230. NB this is especially important because these are households which – in terms of out-of-work benefits – are supposed to be excused from seeking work, and where the parent cannot get a free or subsidised childcare place to enable them to undertake waged work. The High Court has declared the policy discriminatory for single parents of under-2s, but the DWP is appealing that decision and in the meantime has told Housing Benefit departments they must continue to apply the Cap to these families.

 

We do also know that many people affected by this will be on ESA (WRAG group), or will be people who have illnesses or disabilities making it hard for them to do or seek paid work, but who have been refused ESA and forced onto JSA. We must fight this vicious and indefensible cut and get it abolished altogether – but in the meantime here are a couple of tips:

 

 
First, apply for DHP (Discretionary Housing Payment), and if you don’t succeed, apply again (you can’t appeal as such, but if you disagree with the initial decision you can get it reviewed). Most affected claimants will have been told about this by benefits officers, but there will be some who have slipped through the net.
 
The general guidance for decision-makers is that Benefit Capped households should pay the first £50 of the shortfall themselves, before topping up from DHP. However, it is clear that it will be impossible for many households to pay this, and the rule can be waived for a period of time (or the amount you have to contribute reduced) if you can demonstrate “extreme financial hardship”. 
 
Of course everyone affected by the Cap is in extreme financial hardship by definition, but there may be households where additional arguments can be made. For example, if you are a small family (say one parent, two children) and your shortfall is less than £50, you may still get DHP because your income from other benefits is very small. If you are affected by the “no tax-credits for third and subsequent children” rule you are obviously in exceptional hardship and should not have to pay the first £50. And if you have costs related to a disability or illness (for example, you need to go swimming regularly to help manage back pain; or you have to take taxis because you have restricted ability to walk or use buses) then state this in your application and get evidence where possible.
 
Note that DLA and PIP are not taken into account when working out household income for DHP purposes. This is not relevant to Benefit Capped claimants (people on DLA or PIP are exempt from the Cap), but it is relevant if you are applying for DHP for other reasons, eg bedroom tax or needing an advance payment for a private let.
 
DHP is there to prevent homelessness, so if you are at risk of eviction due to Benefit Cap arrears, you must stress this when you apply for DHP – and also make sure your landlord knows you are applying and ask for time to do so.
 
Finally, if you are affected by the Benefit Cap or other cuts to Housing Benefits, Hands Off Our Homes wants to know! This can help us in our campaigning, so do drop us a line or call us. We will treat any information confidentially unless you tell us otherwise.
 
Our final item is about government policy, Labour policy and the outlook for council housing  (optional reading!)        
 
                                                                        
In a nutshell, under a Tory government the outlook for social housing is grim indeed. The policy of requiring councils to sell off their “higher-value” homes to pay for the subsidy on the right-to-buy for housing association tenants is still in the pipeline, and this will apply to any new housing made available at social rents. That means that where private developers include units at social or “affordable” rents (ie up to 80% of market rent) within a development these units are likely to be sold off as soon as the original tenant moves out. “Affordable” housing obligations can now be met through shared ownership and through building for sale at publicly-subsidised prices, so need not include homes for rent at all! Councils have very little ability to build new council houses themselves due to legal restrictions on borrowing, massive loss of rent revenue due to both the compulsory 1% year-on-year rent cuts and to the uncollectable arrears caused by benefit cuts, and also because of the huge payments councils are forced to make to central government under the “debt settlement” imposed when “self-financing” was introduced (for more explanation of this see https://keepourcouncilhomes.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/why-labour-should-write-off-the-fictional-council-housing-debt/
 
The Labour manifesto promises the lifting of the borrowing cap, and further investment in social housing from a special fund intended to “upgrade the economy”. In theory this should enable councils to build homes according to local need. However, partly for the reasons stated above, it is very unlikely that these measures will be sufficient to provide the amount of social housing needed, and certainly not the 100,000 new “genuinely affordable” homes a year which has been promised. In fact, that promise has now been diluted to 100,000 a year by the end of a term in government; and the new homes are to include “affordable” homes for sale and for part ownership, as well as homes for “affordable” and social rent. And there are issues to do with who will actually be providing these homes: eg will underfunded councils still be in the position of having to set up private business vehicles to provide housing (much or most of which would not be for social rents but for market and “affordable” rents and perhaps also for sale)?  And will housing associations be incentivised to move even further towards business plans based on building for sale or for market rents?
 
So, whilst Labour’s plans are still far better than what we have currently under the Tories, we still have a lot of work to do to win a clear commitment from Labour to housing for everyone who needs it, at genuine council rents, in secure tenancies, and with adequate resources for upkeep and proper management. In other words, homes for human need, not for corporate profit!
 
Likewise, Labour’s policy on benefits is immeasurably better than the Tories’ – scrapping sanctions, abolishing the Work Capability Assessment, scrapping the Bedroom Tax and reinstating Housing Benefit for under-22s will all make a huge difference to the lives of those struggling under the burden of these vile policies. But again, there is more to do. For example, we need to win a clear commitment from Labour to abolish the Benefit Cap – and more than that, to properly come out against the horrendous scapegoating of claimants which has become the unquestioned norm in many quarters. And with the Tories weakened and discredited, there is real hope that we can turn around public opinion on these issues and get some really worthwhile wins!
 
Please join us – we meet every third Wednesday of the month at the UNISON offices on Woodhouse Lane – or contact us for more info.
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