She is bright and lively with a sense of humour, despite the difficulties she has faced in life. She works part-time in a shop, is studying to be a social worker, bringing up a teenage son and helping to care for an elderly father. Now she is facing the prospect of losing her home, and with it her hard-won sense of stability. This distant relative of mine is one of many affected by the government’s programme of draconian cuts to housing benefit.
She grew up amidst the bustle, the roar of football crowds, the varying sights and smells of a diverse borough in a large metropolis. As a young adult, fleeing domestic violence, devastated and terrified, she moved home several times, before returning to a familiar part of the town, where she gradually put her life together again and became a mother.
She was on the council waiting list but following a discussion with the council and on their advice she agreed to go into private rented housing, into a home which she was assured would be secure. For her son, too, this was an opportunity to settle at school and make friends in the neighbourhood. But in London property prices were rocketing, as ordinary residents competed for accommodation with the super-rich, who could afford several homes and have cash left over for a yacht, and prosperous companies.
Landlords could charge high rents for even the most cramped and grubby flats. Affordable housing for sale or rent was no longer a government priority, and many Londoners who were not yet on the property ladder (including low-paid workers) became reliant on housing benefit.
Amidst an economic crisis caused, in large part, by the recklessness of some in the finance sector and the failure of the state to regulate them properly, many lost their jobs or went part-time. Housing benefit costs rose, while huge amounts of public funding were swallowed up. A Telegraph headline in October 2009 proclaimed, “Banking crisis has cost UK taxpayers more than a quarter of GDP”. Expensive wars devoured yet more of the nation’s resources.
Successive governments have set out to limit housing and other benefits to the poorest in society, trying to win over the public largely by making out that recipients are not contributing to society and living in luxury at taxpayers’ expense. In reality, many people on housing benefit are – or have until recently been – in paid work, disabled or carers.
Critics of the policies pointed out that large numbers of people would be forced out of certain areas. In October 2010, as the Coalition planned to impose even harsher restrictions than its Labour predecessors, the Tory Mayor of London warned that the cap on housing benefit would involve "Kosovo-style social cleansing" of the capital, though under pressure he backed down to some extent. "I'll emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together,” he had declared. Yet ministers were intent on pushing through their reforms.
A Welfare Reform Bill, containing various measures affecting families on housing benefit and sick or disabled people, is working its way through Parliament. She and her son are preparing to lose their home, and be forced out of the neighbourhood, where they live. Like many survivors of violence, she is prone to depression, and is trying not to let this take over her life and further affect her son’s future. But it is hard. She is not sure where they will end up, and how much of what she has painstakingly knitted together will unravel.
Various specialist organisations have published research on the impact of the changes to housing benefit. In July 2011, in preparation for debate on the Bill in the House of Lords in September, the National Housing Federation warned that “the Welfare Reform Bill cuts great holes in the safety net of millions of people up and down the country. If it passes through the Lords unamended, many of the most vulnerable people in our society will face serious hardship.”
On 11 September 2011, the Observer quoted the chief executive of the Children’s Society, Bob Reitemeier, who explained that there would be a huge "human and social cost" if the reforms went ahead. By this organisation’s estimate, 200,000 children would have their lives affected and sizeable numbers would lose their homes.
"There are some main concerns: one is that the children will be made homeless, possibly 80,000 children, which would be a significant change to their lives,” he explained.
"Secondly, what we think could happen is that those children already in poverty, below 60 per cent of the median income line, will fall into severe poverty, less than 40 per cent of the median income."
The long-term costs to society of disruption to health and education are hard to calculate. There will also be immediate costs.
For instance, as a Disability Benefits Consortium briefing highlighted, “The proposed new size criteria in the social housing sector are estimated to affect 670,000 working age people living in the social housing sector and reduce their income by on average £13 per week. By 2020 the Government anticipates that 760,000 will be affected by this proposal” of whom 450,000 (66 per cent) will be disabled people. There are “around 100,000 properties adapted specifically to suit the needs of the individual living in them, which would be affected by the new rules, meaning that should they have to move, new adaptations would have to be paid for.”
In addition, where carers are forced to reduce their assistance to sick and disabled friends and relatives, and grandparents to cut down on childcare to their grandchildren. Even in purely economic terms, housing benefit cuts may cost more than they save.
The facts and figures may seem overwhelming. But each person affected has their own story.
Especially in areas where affordable housing is scarce, many of us – even if not about to be displaced ourselves – have friends or relatives who are about to lose their homes, with all that this involves. There are others too, of all faiths and none, who care about the impact on those who have already been damaged by life, and on our society as a whole, if these measures are pushed through. Action is needed to limit the harm done.
* See Ekklesia's detailed report: 'Betraying disabled people and welfare', by Karen McAndrew. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14675 
© Savi Hensman works in the care and equalities sector. A widely-published commentator on social and religious affairs, she is an Ekklesia associate.