Benefit chan

The Government’s latest crack down on rip-off landlords could backfire on tenants claiming housing benefit, writes Stephen Naysmith.

Recent changes to the housing benefit system have been strongly criticised by senior housing officers. amid claims that they will force people into arrears and eventual homelessness. The changes have been introduced to tackle landlords who charge inflated rents. but there are widespread fears that tenants will suffer instead.

The cuts introduced at the start of the year limit the amount of rent covered by housing benefit and restrict local authorities‘ powers to help those in need. In the past. those who qualified for the benefit could claim their rent back from the state. Now if council rent officersjudge a rent too high, benefits offices will only pay part of it. with the tenant forced to make up the difference. The average rent for people claiming housing benefit is £45.

Vikki Anderson claims housing benefit and is a member of Camwadric Tenants Association in Glasgow. She was appalled to hear of the changes. ‘lf l had to pay more i would be in the soup myself.‘ she said. ‘It would take a slice off my money to keep the gas and the electricity on.‘

The Government believes the changes will force landlords currently exploiting the system to lower their rents. But housing charity Shelter is alarmed at the moves. claiming they will force people into debt and homelessness. ‘People on low incomes will either have to top their rent up from their own resources. or they won‘t pay it and will accumulate arrears.‘ said Shelter‘s Scottish research officer Gavin Corbett.

Shelter fears people will be forced into ‘ghettoes‘ by their inability to pay the rent in higher quality property. leaving only areas of ‘slum‘ property for benefit claimants. Private landlords may be less likely to let their properties to benefit claimants and Shelter fears the new policy might actually offer an incentive for landlords with poor quality property to push their rents up to the local average.

‘At the moment housing benefit can offer a landlord steady income and easy management. but not if a significant proportion oftenants face reduced benefits.‘ said Corbett. ‘The Govemment thought landlords were exploiting the system by charging

es may widenverty trap

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high rents. but most landlords didn‘t understand the benefit system well enough to milk it.‘

Local authorities are also sceptical that the moves will drive down rents. Peter Meehan. chiefhousing officer at Glasgow District Council. believes the changes will force people on housing benefit into cheap. poor quality accommodation.

‘People will be under pressure to use their meagre resources to top up their payments or they will move out and it will create homelessness.‘ said Meehan. ‘The Government seems to assume that landlords will be benevolent and reduce the rent. but there is no evidence that that is going to happen. Those people who do have quality accommodation may not be able to afford to feed or clothe themselves.‘

The changes will only affect new claims after 2 January. but as Meehan points out. this can easily affect people already renting. Every year around a third of private tenants move address. and that means a fresh claim under the new rules. ‘In addition if you took a seasonal job forjust four weeks you would have to make a new claim. which would come under the new controls.‘ Meehan said. ‘lt is an extension of the poverty trap and a disincentive to find work.‘

Before the changes were introduced. many local authorities offered special assistance to those in particular need. such as pensioners and families with young children. Now these payments will only be possible from a Government-set budget for those in exceptional hardship. Meehan says councils‘ hands

All change: housing associations such as this scheme in Easterhouse are exempt, but many benefit claimants

could be caught in the poverty trap

have been tied. ‘The means testing is really

: draconian and it is cash limited.‘ he said. ‘We will

only be able to make small awards for very short periods. so it won‘t provide people with any security.‘

Further changes are planned in October. with housing benefit for under-25s capped so they will

only be given payments up to the average rent for . shared accommodation. Although housing

association tenants are to be exempt from the

! capping. Dave Alexander of the Scottish Federation

of Housing Associations is critical ofthe changes.

‘We are very worried about the impact on young

people,‘ he said. ‘Under-ZSs are already discriminated against and this just seems punitive.‘ The changes affecting young people were introduced because of mistaken prejudices on the part of govemment ministers. Alexander argues. ‘There is this assumption that people under-25 have other options such as living at home.‘ he said. ‘Our evidence is that this is not the case for many of them.‘

Vikki Anderson too has little faith in the goodwill oflandlords: ‘They are out for their money and that is it. it will be a big blow for a lot ofthe tenants here. The Govemment doesn't give a thought for the people who have to pay this. People have been freezing and haven‘t been able to afford to heat their flats as it is this is another kick in the teeth for them.‘

And finally . . . Irn Bru supply on ice as eel thieves slip away

One plumber was on the tools for four days straight. sustained only by chocolate and energy drinks as Scotland collectively sprang a leak over New Year. Other tradesmen were kept going by call out charges running into hundreds of pounds. Allegedly.

The lucky ones. whose pipes withstood the freeze. were asked to refrain from bathing unnecessarily to allow reservoir levels to recover. The Daily Record attacked Scottish Office minister George Kynoch, described as a ‘Tory drip‘ for refusing to pull on his wellies and go out to meet flood victims. What is the call out charge for a government minister?

The drama really threatened to become a crisis when it emerged that soft drinks king A. G. Barr had been forced to halt supplies of lm Bru for three days because lorry-loads of the amber nectar were arriving at their destination frozen solid. Had the freeze

continued any longer. Army helicopters would no doubt have been called on to dr0p emergency supplies over parts of Glasgow in a mercy mission to cure thousands of Hogrnanay hangovers. Another supply line was temporarily broken over the festive period that of the Scottish silver eel, which turns out

Home Counties.

Ripley: back from the grave

A policeman with bigger fish to fry was John Orr, Strathclyde‘s new chief constable. who was up bright and early on 1 January to take over from outgoing top cop Sir Leslie Sharp. Orr‘s New Year resolution was to tackle Glasgow's drug problem. which a leaked report claimed was costing the city £500 million in drug-related crime. Orr. who headed the Lockerbie investigation. promised a crackdown on pushers. with ‘high-visibility policing‘. ‘A drug dealer does not stand alone. he is connected to people.‘ he said.

However in a remarkably frank comment piece published in The Herald this week. prominent Scottish advocate lan Hamilton QC said: ‘To l

, to be a Japanese delicacy with possible I suggest that the drug trade can be ,’ aphrodisiac properties. A consignment of the slippery customers the eels. that is was hijacked on route from the Highlands to its destination in the

supressed by tackling the drug pedlars shows a naivety beyond belief. Where there is demand there is always supply.‘ He continued: ‘A chief constable who licenses a killer drug like alcohol. and prosecutes the use of a gentle sedative like cannabis. may be following the law. but that does not make his action any more sensible.‘

Talking of drugs. the celluloid pushers behind the film of Irvine Welsh‘sjunkie novel 7hrinsputting were recently hired to make Alien 4. in which Ripley is brought back from the dead. Director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew MacDonald will be in charge ofa £44 million budget approximately 50 times the cost oftheir debut thriller Shallow Grave. Will Sigourney Weaver be required to tackle an alien lifeforrn occupying the loft space in an Edinburgh New Town flat? (Eddie Gibb)

The List 12-25 Jan l996 5