Benny On Benefits

A first-hand look at the benefits system in the UK

Month: February, 2015


Probably the most important form of assistance the state offers to those in need is the provision of housing. Even in a market where rents are not inflated far above any sensible norm (like the one in Britain today), rent is likely to be the largest part of one’s cost of living. However, it can also be the most expensive social benefit to provide, for the same reason. Social housing in the UK is a mess, a cluster of absurdities, inefficiencies and Catch-22s, but I’m going to try and make sense of it for you anyway.

Lets start with council housing. Once upon a time, every district council had numerous residential properties, wholly owned by the local government, which  poorer members of the community could rent at an affordable rate, and without fear of summary eviction. Nowadays, most of those properties have been sold-off, either to the tenants themselves (at well below market rate, and with the council forbidden to reinvest the money in new council housing) or to for-profit developers, and not replaced. In most areas, the shortest waiting time for a one-bedroom council flat is several years. Although lots of new homes are being built, almost none of them are social or affordable housing. While laws do exist requiring developers to make a portion of each new development affordable, they are as full of loopholes as a Swiss cheese, so the requirements are routinely ignored.

Thanks to this shortage, there are a number of tricks employed by councils to keep people from even getting on the waiting list at all. The main one is the “local connection.” In theory, this exists to prevent people (‘cos we are all such wicked scroungers) from applying for a cheap council house in an expensive area, and thus escaping their own poverty-stricken ghetto. But in practice, it is just used as one more way to protect council budgets. For instance, did you know that if you are actually homeless, you cannot apply for a council flat? To apply for council housing, you must have an address within the local area. The only people allowed to apply for a home are those who already have one. If you are actually homeless, you have to go through a whole other procedure, which I’ll come to shortly.

Each council can make up its own definition for “local connection”, and it’s entirely possible to have no local connection anywhere.  If you’ve moved between a few nearby boroughs (say, in a major city where there are many local councils), but not spent more than a year or two in any single one, you are probably held to have no connection to any of them: a common definition of “local connection” is for you to have lived in the area continuously for the last three years.

So, council housing is probably out: even if you do qualify for the list, you’ll need to wait years. What about a private landlord? The state will give you housing benefit to cover your rent, won’t it? Well, yes-and-no. Firstly, no private landlord will accept you as a tenant if you receive housing benefit – you can only use it if you already have a tenancy, and you can’t actually apply for housing benefit unless you already have a tenancy agreement or “proof of obligation to pay rent.” Besides, housing benefit doesn’t cover your deposit or advance rent, and if you could afford those, you probably wouldn’t need housing benefit anyway. Secondly, housing benefit doesn’t actually cover market rent. Each area sets a maximum amount of housing benefit (“Local Housing Allowance”) which is supposedly equal to the average market rent, but is usually actually significantly lower. And if you should happen to be a single adult under the age of 35, they base the cap not on a one-bedroom flat, but on a room in a shared residence.* And don’t forget all the other byzantine regulations like the bedroom tax and benefits cap.

In any event, to qualify for housing benefit at all, you usually first have to be in receipt of some central government benefit, which as I have discussed previously, is no mean achievement. If you should lose your DWP benefits (your jobseekers allowance, for instance) which it is very easy to do, the local council will be informed, and they will assume (since you are still alive) that you must have something to live off, and therefore don’t need housing benefit anymore. You must immediately provide some proof of this income, and demonstrate that it is still not high enough for you to pay your rent. If you have no income, you are pretty screwed, since you can’t provide evidence of something that doesn’t exist (so as I’ve said before, if you go to a food bank, you need to get some documentary evidence of this fact – maybe a selfie of you holding a can of beans in a church.)

So, you can’t get a council flat, you can get a private flat,  you are basically out on the streets, or in imminent danger of being out on the streets. What do you do? You make a “homelessness application” to your local council, who will do everything they can to deny it. Your first problem is that you must provide “proof of homelessness.” In practice, this needs to be a court-ordered eviction notice or bailiff’s warrant. A mere Notice To Quit from your landlord is insufficient – if you received one of these, and were foolish enough to actually vacate the property as requested, you will be classed as “voluntarily homeless” and as such not eligible for assistance. No, if your landlord wants you out, you must dig in your heels and stay until they turn up to serve you with an actual court order, which you absolutely must not lose (say, when the bailiffs are dumping your possessions on the street.) Oh, and don’t bother going to your council for assistance before things have to to that stage – they will most likely dismiss you and tell you to come back when you’ve had a visit from the bailiffs. If you do find yourself homeless and without documentary evidence of this fact, the quickest way to get assistance is to sleep rough and get noticed by a council social worker. If you can find what route they take with their clipboards of a night, and arrange to be there in a sleeping bag, for at least two nights running, you’ve a good chance of getting into emergency housing. On the other hand, if you aren’t actually street homeless, but just sleeping on a different person’s floor every night, you are likely to be a lower priority, and will likely be told to keep doing that as long as you can.

I haven’t mentioned the most pernicious aspect of making an application for homelessness assistance. You are only eligible for such assistance if you are more likely to be adversely affected by being homeless than an “ordinary homeless person.” This test (called the Pereira Test) is, as you might imagine, not terribly well-defined, and is a great way for councils to reduce demand on their housing services. If you are just going to be made the normal amount of ill, cold, and miserable by living on the streets, you won’t get any help. If you don’t have (or can’t prove you have) some medical or other condition that makes you especially vulnerable (“in priority need”), then your council can refuse to assist you. That’s assuming they aren’t one (like the London Borough of Westminster) which uses laws against vagrancy to just sweep all the rough sleepers into a neighboring poorer parish.

If you are homeless, or threatened with homelessness, I urge you to contact Shelter (England & Wales) or Shelter (Scotland) who can offer you free and impartial advice (freephone 0808 800 4444)



* There is a useful loophole which allows you to get more than the “Local Housing Allowance” – if you can manage to get a flat from a Registered Social Landlord such as a housing association or resident’s co-operative, then it doesn’t apply, and they’ll pay your whole rent. Of course, the waiting lists for those properties are just as long as for a council flat.


Compulsory Treatment

Back in July, the Conservatives mooted a plan to strip the mentally ill  of their ESA benefits if they refuse to undergo treatment. More recently, they’ve talked about doing the same to those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and the clinically obese. I’m going to talk mainly about why the former proposal is a terrible idea, but much of the same applies to the latter.

I should start by pointing out that these aren’t yet official policies, and so details on how they might be implemented are sketchy, assuming they even do get implemented. That means I’ll have to second-guess the government, and to a certain extent I’ll be railing against a possible worst-case-scenario which might or might not bear any relation to reality. However, I believe that even by the most favorable interpretation, these proposals are just another attack on David Cameron’s arch-enemies, the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

The right of a patient to refuse treatment is a fundamental feature of medical ethics. Any doctor or nurse knows that it is wrong for them to attempt to treat a patient without their informed consent (except in certain emergency situations) and it is definitely wrong to treat them after they have made an informed decision not to consent. It should clearly follow that it is unethical for the government to coerce someone into treatment they would not otherwise choose to undergo. The proposals as stated, that claimants could lose their entitlement to benefits if they do not consent to treatment, are prima facie unethical.

But why would someone not want to be treated, unless they were a malingerer? Surely these people must want to get better? Well, that rather depends on  the nature of the patient, their illness, and the proposed treatment. Lots of patients have serious objections to particular treatments: sometimes because of well-founded doubts about safety or efficacy (for instance, recent meta-analysis of SSRIs have shown they may well be ineffective treatment for depression), sometimes because of a general distrust of certain medical practices, and sometimes from sheer clinical paranoia or medical phobia. Are these patients to be denied their right to refuse certain medical interventions? Will they be allowed second opinions or alternative treatment options?

There are a great many possible treatments for disorders like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Some involve medication, some therapy, some lifestyle changes – usually a combination of all of these. What works for one patient may not work for another. Usually, there is a long and difficult process of trial-and-error before there is any improvement, and this can be frustrating for the patient: many find it too difficult and cease to engage with treatment. This isn’t helped by the fact that therapy is expensive and mental health provision on the NHS is woefully lacking, with long waiting lists to see a therapist, and relatively little patient choice. I’ve heard it said (by a therapist) that there are as many types of therapy as there are therapists. While some of them are frankly bunk, a lot of this profusion is down to the fact that different approaches work better for different patients and different illnesses. Furthermore, successful therapy often depends on building a rapport between therapist and patient, and sometimes this just isn’t possible – the patient needs to see several different people before finding someone they can have a productive therapeutic relationship with.

Bearing all this in mind, what happens if a patient doesn’t like the first treatment option they are given? What if an atheist alcoholic objects to the religiously based and scientifically unsound (but free to the taxpayer) approach of Alcoholics Anonymous? What if an anxiety sufferer turns down a prescription for Xanax? What if someone with depression doesn’t get along with their therapist, or thinks Freudian psychoanalytic psychotherapy isn’t doing them any good? What if they miss a couple of appointments because they are too depressed to attend, and thus lose their place to the next person on the waiting list? What if someone sincerely believes that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, homeopathy is a better treatment for their bipolar disorder than lithium carbonate, or a paranoid schizophrenic believes that they are the victim of a medical conspiracy? As I stated earlier, I can only speculate on what will happen in these circumstances. However, given what I already know about the DWPs tendency to use any possible excuse to deny or cut-off benefits payments, I’d bet heavily on the answer to all of the above being “they lose their ESA benefit.” Because at the root, these proposals are not about helping people in need, they are about saving money, and shifting the blame for our economic woes from the haves to the have-nots, just like all of this government’s welfare policies.