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Iain Duncan Smith needs to put on a new benefits thinking cap

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It seems that Britain’s Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has solved a conundrum that has baffled and befuddled philosophers for millenia: how do we know what we know? He has cut through the Kant and ditched Descartes for this elegantly simple formulation: “I think, therefore it is”.

This, in sum, is his view of how his welfare changes will pan out; they will pan out just as he thinks they will pan out. Thus, when the Office for National Statistics suggested the figures did not bear out his assertion that the benefit cap of £26,000 would encourage people into work he told John Humphrys on the BBC Today programme: “Yes, but by the way, you can’t disprove what I said either” – a classic response of the sceptic school of epistemology. He went on: “I believe this to be right; I believe that we are already seeing people going back to work who were not going to go back to work.”

He has no evidence; indeed he has been told that the evidence he thought he had was not in fact evidence; but he believes he is right so he must be right.

Others who contradict him, such as Haringey Council in London, are “politically motivated”, whereas Iain Duncan Smith, Tory member for Chingford and Woodford Green and one time leader of the Conservative Party is, of course, not politically motivated.

All this is good news, not least because IDS has also said that his welfare changes won’t lead to people becoming homeless or being driven out of London. He has said it; he presumably believes it; and hence, cogito ergo est: it must be true.

Which is odd, because some of those on whom people rely for their homes, the housing associations of England and Wales, have in effect contradicted Duncan Smith’s position. They certainly believe that the welfare changes will lead them to evict their tenants, and they believe they may have to do it using the much criticised and draconian Ground 8 possession procedure.

This gives landlords mandatory possession if tenants are eight weeks (or two months) in arrears with rent. Housing associations say they rarely use the Ground 8 provision in the Housing Act 1988 but that the benefit changes will make greater use of it inevitable.

Under Ground 8 if a notice is properly served courts have no discretion to delay or halt the eviction or inquire into the reasons for the arrears – even if they are not the tenant’s fault.

The National Housing Federation, representing English housing associations, has said: “The rate of Ground 8 evictions among housing associations is very low, but an increase may be unavoidable because of the government’s welfare reforms.”

In Wales Newport City Homes said: “Newport City Homes does not currently use Ground 8 powers in its tenancy management procedures and therefore has not relied on this in any possession proceedings. However, given the challenges and risk to future income streams posed by Welfare Reform, we are in the process of reviewing this position.”

‘You can’t disprove what I said … I believe this to be right; I believe that we are already seeing people going back to work who were not going to go back to work’ – Iain Duncan Smith

The Welsh government, using delegated housing powers, is considering repeal of Ground 8 for housing association lettings. Scotland has no equivalent of Ground 8 for the “Scottish secure tenancy” used by social landlords and local authorities. But Duncan Smith’s government at Westminster has no intention of repealing it.

The result could be a flood of housing association evictions with courts unable to step in to try to sort out problems between landlords and tenants – as they almost always try to do in other possession proceedings when courts do have some discretion.

The Ground 8 provision (see below) basically means that if at the date a notice is served and also when the matter comes to court there are eight weeks’ arrears (or two months), then the court must order possession. It doesn’t matter whose fault the arrears are. It doesn’t matter what happens between the notice and the court hearing. Some of the arrears may have been temporarily paid off and new arrears accrued. It makes no difference.

It doesn’t even matter that the Government has brought in a series of new welfare policies that will inevitably lead to confusion, delay and failure to properly assess what benefits are due to individuals. A court cannot consider any of this in a Ground 8 case.

Among the welfare changes, the Government has decided that housing benefit will be paid to tenants under Universal Credit rather than direct to landlords. One can only think this is for bizarre doctrinal reasons – like introducing sin into Eden to test humanity’s moral mettle. The aim is to encourage the budgeting skills and self-reliance of those who have least to budget with and little to rely on. The result will be that arrears rise. We know this (empirically, for those of a philosophical bent) because it has been piloted in various areas and arrears soared.

But we also know it because it is common sense – though IDS has, of course, with his epistemological revolution, dismissed the deductive approach of the philosophical Rationalists from his world view.

The new “bedroom tax” is further worrying social landlords. This is a cut in housing benefit for those households “under-occupying” – having a remaining spare bedroom once their children are legally accommodated in their siblings’ upper bunk beds or Zedbeds on the floor.

Sadly Duncan Smith has given this some thought, yet no more suitable accommodation has been conjured up as a result of his solipsistic mental processes for these families to move to. The “tax” will therefore be imposed and arrears go up – absent the better paid jobs that are also a mere product of IDS’s stray thoughts (and bearing in mind many, and probably most, housing benefit recipients are already in some form of work – probably the best they can get).

So Aragon housing association has seen arrears rising within the first 100 days of the under-occupancy charge – and a lack of suitable accommodation for tenants to move to. The bedroom tax is a particular worry because of the drip-drip effect. Tenants for the most part will not be plunged quickly into eight weeks of arrears by the welfare changes but once they start falling behind, the result will be inevitable. There will be a peculiar incentive for landlords to wait until the arrears reach eight weeks and go for Ground 8 possession knowing that the benefit changes will have made it impossible for many families to ever clear their arrears. They will be better served by the simple mandatory process than involving themselves in months or years of court wranglings and tenants’ promises that can never be kept.

The result will be homelessness and people being driven out of London. Whatever Iain Duncan Smith thinks.

Twitter: alrich0660

An analysis of the High Court judgment 30/7.2013 on the bedroom tax and disabled people is here
A Guardian piece here looks at the claim that the benefit cap has “incentivised” people into work.

The Welsh government has published (2015) its Renting Homes (Wales) Bill which is intended to abolish Ground 8 for social landlords. It is examined by Nearly Legal here: Let’s all move to Wales

Note: There are tenants on assured shorthold housing association tenancies who have already had warnings of evictions citing the benefit changes as the reason. Ground 8, though, is unlikely to be used since possession against these tenants (housed under local authority duties to house the homeless) can be gained easily on a no-fault basis with notice.

Ground 8 is an issue for long-term assured tenancies, typically granted by housing associations and registered social landlords. They can only be evicted if grounds under the Housing Act 1988 Schedule 2 are made out, such as arrears, breach of the tenancy agreement, nuisance, redevelopment. Ground 8 is not available for repossession from tenants in local authority housing.

On direct payments Lord Freud, work and pensions minister, has announced that “If arrears reach the equivalent of 2 months rent, the claimant will have housing payments switched to the landlord, or managed payments.”

Housing Act 1988 Schedule 2
Grounds on which Court must order possession:
Ground 8:
Both at the date of the service of the notice under section 8 of this Act relating to the proceedings for possession and at the date of the hearing—
(a) if rent is payable weekly or fortnightly, at least eight weeks’ rent is unpaid;
(b) if rent is payable monthly, at least two months’ rent is unpaid;
(c) if rent is payable quarterly, at least one quarter’s rent is more than three months in arrears; and
(d) if rent is payable yearly, at least three months’ rent is more than three months in arrears;
and for the purpose of this ground “rent” means rent lawfully due from the tenant.

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About alrich

Journalist and blogger on legal and financial/economics issues

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