SOCIAL INSECURITY. It is the low #income #renters with ever higher #rents who are suffering, Adult #UniversalCredit a very loose & wobbly cornerstone of the benefit system                  

27 November 2019


The Reverend Paul Nicolson

The political parties' various social-security policies are discussed on doorsteps and in the media without any comprehensive description of the insecure circumstances of the poorest UK citizens. We hear nothing about the savings to the economy of effective social-security policies or the value to the economy of a healthy workforce. Poverty creates costs in the health service and in the police (because there is a risk of the violence of fighting for very scarce resources), in the prisons and in the high cost of placing families in temporary accommodation, which has increased by 77% since 2010 to 84,740 families. The increasing number of deaths of homeless people on the streets also has to be noted.  

It is the low-income renters with ever higher rents who are suffering. Since 2012, homeless families are forced into the private rented sector by councils. Before 2012, they had to be placed in council accommodation. In Haringey, the rent on a two-bed council home is £90 a week, but in the private rented sector, it is over £300 a week.


The minimum human needs of every household for shelter, food, fuel, clothes, transport, participation in the community and other necessities have been compromised by the State since 1979, whichever political party has been in power. The adult Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA) of £73.10 a week equates to the Universal Credit (UC) of £317 a month. The £57.90 a week paid to those aged 16 to 25 is so inadequate that it is an invitation to criminality. Adult benefits have been losing value since 1979. Increases were frozen at 1% in 2011 and then totally in 2015. JSA/UC is also paying a proportion of council tax in 289 of 326 English local authorities, owing to the cuts in council-tax benefit, and to  paying rent, because of the cuts to housing benefit. 

JSA/UC is the very wobbly cornerstone of the benefit system. It is so unstable, in fact, that it risks the collapse of the roll-out of Universal Credit. All other benefits are added to UC. But neither JSA or UC is high enough to maintain the health of an adult, let alone pay council tax and rent, which means children's benefits and those specific to the disabled are being used to pay rent and council tax – plus the high enforcement costs that are added by courts and the bailiffs when those people inevitably fall into arrears. 


I am on the advisory council of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition. There are particular concerns about low birth weight and the unprecedented rise in infant deaths of the babies of poor mothers. Mothers need a healthy diet before and during pregnancy to give birth to a healthy baby. Three days' food sporadically procured from a food bank does not support a nine-month pregnancy. After a six-year campaign by Taxpayers Against Poverty, Haringey Council finally stopped imposing the council tax on holds in receipt of inadequate benefits from April 2019. 

The crucial page from minimum-income standards research I commissioned as Chair of the Zaccaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) in 1998 is here and from that carried out in 2019 is here  They represent, respectively, the first and the most recent research backing  the Living Wage. Shelter, food, fuel, clothes, transport and participation in the community are all essential draws on a healthy household's budget. The Government ought not to settle the level of statutory minimum incomes in or out of work without reference to such robust research. The statutory minimum income for those out of work ought to be less than the statutory minimum income in work, but nevertheless be enough to maintain health and wellbeing after rent, council tax and income tax is paid. The unemployed are now punished by totally inadequate benefit incomes, plus the enforcement of rent and council-tax arrears, even before they have done anything wrong, such as fail to look for work.  


In 1977, the prison chaplain of Pentonville called me say that an out-of-work 61-year-old plasterer was in detention there and wanted to see me. He had not paid his National Insurance because he had not been paid by his employer - a builder who had gone bankrupt. The court hearing his case was 10 miles away in Hitchin, so he did not go, because he had no money to get there. "The police just came and got him," said his wife. We paid off his debts and got him released from prison for the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations. It has got worse since 1979. Ian Wise QC, who has drafted our bill, overturned in the High Court more than 1,000 cases of imprisonment for non-payment of the poll tax – all defendants were vulnerable. Yet imprisonment for council-tax arrears continues today.


Impoverished households have to cope with the policy decisions of many national and local government departments, all of which can lead to their eviction. Often a household will be coping with more than one at a time. For example, the local-authority housing department can be threatening them with eviction for rent arrears, while the council-tax department is threatening them with prison for council-tax arrears. All of that set against the backdrop of benefit incomes that will soon have been shredded by a cumulative total of over £30 billion by the Department of Work and Pensions. That shredding of benefit incomes has, in turn, also led to the closure of local shops, depriving communities of their lifeblood. 

Merely ensuring housing benefit pays all the rent will not help the tenant who becomes unemployed after rent and council-tax arrears have been incurred for domestic reasons or ill health while in low, inadequately paid employment. Those rent and council-tax arrears are still enforced during unemployment, and even during and after a three-month benefit sanction (that is, three months additional punishment, when a JSA/UC claimant is deprived of their benefit because of a transgression such as failing to attend an appointment at the job centre) and during a zero hours contract.  A private landlord will threaten the tenants with eviction when it is the local authority, in fact, that is late in paying the rent. If that rent is being paid to the landlord by direct debit, the tenant then incurs bank charges for an unauthorised overdraft. 


On top of all that, there is the Ministry of Justice and the magistrates impose fines for non-payment of the TV licence or because a child has been persistently truanting from school. Yet both of those offences can arise because of poverty. For example, a person on a limited income cannot afford a TV licence, but needs to have a television to feel part of the community. Children are teased, humiliated or even bullied in the playground if their parents cannot buy decent clothes or even stretch to second-hand garments, which can lead to a child refusing to go to school. Those people most often have the highest fine imposed because so few go to court when summoned. Even fewer of them attend, now that the Government has shut many local magistrates' courts. The Ministry of Justice was responsible for the setting of the very high bailiffs' fees, which the debtor is expected to pay. The enforcement of utilities debts also involves the magistrates and the installation of pay-as-you-go meters on expensive tarriffs. That leads to cold homes when there is no money to top up that meter.    

Non-payment of a TV licence is a criminal offence. The bailiffs can break in to enforce a fine. Non-payment of council tax creates a civil debt, however, so the bailiffs may not break in to seize goods. Yet that information is not shared by the bailiffs on the doorstep when enforcing council tax. 

At Z2K, we had a contract with Wycombe Magistrates' Court to help people prepare their defaulter's means statements for the magistrates on Wednesday mornings. From 1995 to 2004, I acted as a McKenzie Friend – that is, a lay advocate. I spoke on their behalf goving the facts to the magistrates, who have the power to reduce or remit fines and council tax (although the latter only at a committal hearing) when they are disproportionate to income and their outstanding debts. 


When when government officals and ministers publish data abpout inequality of wealth they ought to make the point that renters have gained nothing and continue to gain nothing from the huge untaxed and unearned increase in the value of land since the 1979 government deregulated lending, abolished rent controls and allowed the free flow of cash in and out of the UK, so allowing national and international speculators to make hay with British land. 

Fines, enforcement and bailiffs, debt, hunger, homelessness, mental and physical health, and an early death are inevitable when statutory minimum incomes are so very, very inadequate. 

The evidence is on our website.

The good health and wellbeing of all UK citizens in or out of work must now become a national priority.

Taxpayers Against Poverty

Partnered with Compassion in Politics
No citizen without an affordable home and an
adequate income in work or unemployment.