Social insecurity

The Prime Minister has reiterated the government’s intention to
legislate to withhold housing benefit from antisocial claimants. In
a speech to the Labour Party conference on 1 October 2002 Tony
Blair said: “Parents of truants who refuse to co-operate with the
school will be fined or lose benefit. Antisocial tenants and their
antisocial landlords who make money out of abusing housing benefit,
while making life hell for the community, should lose their right
to it.”

Populist measures, such as imprisoning or fining the parents of
truants or removing child benefit or housing benefit, might cause
more problems than they solve. Looked at dispassionately, there are
several concerns about the impact such an approach would have on
impoverished families and, consequently, social services

These counter-arguments are based on both moral and practical
grounds. First, we have to ask whether it is right for a whole
family possibly to lose their home in such circumstances. Second,
and perhaps more tellingly, there are serious doubts as to whether
such measures would work.

For example, what would be the impact of withholding housing
benefit? It could lead eventually to eviction if the sanction was
applied for long enough. But surely “innocent” tenants want a quick
solution to the problems caused by antisocial neighbours, not the
lengthy process that leads to eviction? This is not an argument for
supporting rapid evictions for anti-social tenants, but it
illustrates how relatively ineffective withholding housing benefit
would be in practice. It would also make it impossible for an
evicted tenant to find alternative accommodation, even in the
private sector, as removal of housing benefit would make them
“untouchable” for almost all landlords.

On the other hand, if a tenant responds to the sanction by amending
their behaviour within three to four weeks, all that would be
achieved is an additional three to four weeks’ arrears. They will
probably never be able to clear these but it will often stop them
ever getting a transfer to more suitable accommodation or simply
seeking a fresh start elsewhere.

The punishment also bears little relationship to what may be
causing the anti-social behaviour. If a parent is unable to control
their 14-year-old son, will removing their child benefit or the
family’s housing benefit have a deterrent effect when other
sanctions have already failed?

And what if it is the benefit authorities who are responsible for
“antisocial behaviour” – who punishes them and how?

In a recent column (“Appeal for Speed”, page 44, 1 August), I
criticised the performance of The Appeals Service (TAS) over how it
is coping with its new responsibility for administering housing
benefit appeals. This provoked a wounded response from TAS in a
letter to Community Care saying I had been unfair and that the
service was getting better not worse. I accept that the average
time (in weeks) from receipt of a TAS1 to the first hearing for
housing benefit and council tax benefit was better in April-June
2002 than in the previous quarter; but who will be punished for the
fact that they are still taking five to seven weeks longer to clear
appeals than they were a year previously? How antisocial is

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council.
He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a
question to be answered please write to him c/o Community

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