There’s a long and infamous history to it. Thatcher changed the definition of ‘unemployed’ 28 times in order to shrink the unemployment figures. ‘Disability’ as an acess route to incapacity benefit is being radically reconfigured in order to pressure hundreds of thousands of people into work. Every ‘poverty’ definition that gave embarrassing results has been rejected as inappropriate or unrepresentative without any more appropriate or more representative definition, whether absolute or relative, being accepted. Now Lord Freud, former New Labour special adviser and now Tory Minister, has argued yesterday that the definition of ‘homelessness’ must be changed. What a surprise – just as the massive housing benefit cuts start to bite.
Freud indicated that the current statutory definition of homelessness, established in 1986 by a hard-line Right-wing government, now needs to be watered down further. He hinted that overcrowding and the risk of homelessness should be dropped from the definition, in order that government (or their local authority agents) would not have to take any responsibility if private tenants are forced out of their present accommodation because they can’t pay the rent when their housing benefit is chopped back. If or when this definitional switch is implemented, a quarter of a million people now living in overcrowded Council or Housing Association properties would be left high and dry, as would 160,000 in the privately rented sector.
Freud then deployed another evasive device. He claimed the government’s plans for housing benefit cuts wouldn’t produce any ‘significant’ increase in homelessness, or rise in temporary accommodation, because landlords would lower their rents. However, a Shelter-commissioned study by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research has found that whilst 23% of landlords may be willing to reduce their rents, 77% will not do so and will evict if the rent is not paid in full. It also found that 42% of landlords (amounting to over 100,000 landlords) plan to scale back their letting. Homelessness is looming for tens of thousands of families – no wonder the government by a simple change of definition wishes to wash their hands of the consequences.
He also rejected the idea that the poor would be forced to exit from city centres, and anyway 70% of private tenants he said had only been in their homes for 3 years or less. Is that then an adequate reason why they can now be turfed out with impunity?
What is really awful about this ministerial clap-trap is the way it’s reminiscent of the Poor Law in dividing the comfortable majority from the undeserving poor. Three-quarters of the population who are owner-occupiers have paid no schedule A tax on their homes since 1963 and pay no CGT on the rise in property values due to housing scarcity. The bottom quarter who will never have the income or security to get on the house ownership ladder are now in many cases to be forced out of such inadequate homes as they have and left to sink without any public responsibility in a private market where social housing is virtually non-existent. All in it together, or segregation by social cleansing?