Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 16 March 2013

Now there's a surprise!

Rent arrears among tenants on a government pilot project that pays housing benefit directly to recipients have seen a big increase, figures show.
Perhaps it would have been helpful to have treated the officials concerned to a short talk on ursine lavatorial habits beforehand*. After all, it would take a Pollyanna-ish degree of optimism to assume that a population poorly educated in financial matters and systematically deprived by the state of virtually every opportunity to think for themselves would, without exception, have the skill to manage relatively large sums of money on a regular basis.
[The government] wants to pay recipients directly as they think it will increase their sense of responsibility over their own lives and make them better able to cope should they move into a job.
It's a spectacular example of putting the cart before the horse; since the implication here is that we are talking about the low-paid and unemployed, this argues that among their number will be some who are statistically more likely than the rest of the population to have difficulty with the concept of forward planning and numeracy. Those who haven't managed to develop a sense of responsibility by now are hardly likely to produce one spontaneously to order.

(There will now be a short pause for anyone trained in the knee-jerk rhetoric of the Left - as I once was - to point out that I am being unfair to the many responsible and numerate people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in need of housing benefit [insert your own apposite example here, preferably incorporating ethnic minorities, single parents and/or children with special needs]. OK; can we move on now?)

Given that we can expect a reasonable proportion of HB claimants to have the self-discipline and mathematical ability to allocate these payments correctly, it is surely a matter of concern that the rates of default are so high:
Figures obtained by BBC News show that arrears among tenants of Wakefield and District Housing in West Yorkshire have increased from an average of 2% to 11% on the pilot projects. 
Bron Afon community housing in south Wales said it had seen a 50% increase in arrears, while pilot projects in Edinburgh, Oxford and Southwark are showing around 30% increases in arrears.
This suggests that, while some will manage the new system with ease, a number of those with less ability to cope will spend the money elsewhere (though it should be observed that the original default rates in the latter two areas are not given). Doubtless much of this expenditure is essential - we are, after all, talking about people unlikely to have any financial buffers for emergencies - but human nature tells us some will regard the cash as an opportunity to indulge themselves and their children.

The BBC struggles valiantly to present this story in the approved fashion with the example of a single mother who used some of her HB to pay her utility bills, but her own statement sounds rather more ambiguous:
"By them paying the money directly to me it created temptation to use it for other things which has resulted in me being in arrears and possibly being evicted. "
She doesn't say what those 'other things are', though I'm not sure that someone would describe paying the gas bill as a 'temptation'; it doesn't sound quite right, somehow. And even if the BBC's token recipient really was selflessly robbing Peter to pay Paul, it's worth noting that the modern-day Newgate that is my local town boasts a vast population on benefits as well as a burgeoning array of tattoo and tanning parlours and nail bars, all of which seem to be doing a roaring trade.

Pavlov's Cat has supporting evidence of a link from his days in the jobcentre front line, and, of course, there is this post, in which I manage to upset someone of a liberal persuasion. I don't have an answer for this - having seen it at first hand in a housing benefit department, I know there is urgent need to deal with unscrupulous and greedy landlords pocketing a fortune in benefit payments. However, if the tenant is to be given the financial upper hand, some safeguards should be put in place for those who cannot cope with the responsibility.

Meanwhile, since predictability is the order of the day, there is really one only one more thing left to say:
The government says lessons will be learned from the pilot projects.

*Though, as with so many other government policies that end in disaster, it's worth bearing in mind that this initiative is largely being implemented by staff recruited under and in favour of the previous administration.


  1. It's rather like the idea that allowing someone to buy their council house would make them a responsible tenant - it worked for some, but for others, they then owned an unmaintained eyesore.

  2. After all, it would take a Pollyanna-ish degree of optimism to assume that a population systematically deprived by the state of virtually every opportunity to think for themselves would, without exception, have the skill to manage relatively large sums of money on a regular basis.

    In a nutshell.

  3. Julia, those who bought and carefully maintained their council houses are now facing the bitter irony of being forced to sell them to pay for the same nursing care that is given free to their less prudent neighbours.

    Thud, thanks!

    JH, it's one of those official orthodoxies that never ceases to amaze me; how they expect us to be unquestioningly docile one minute and fiercely entrepreneurial the next.


Moderation is on as I’m having some technical difficulties with Comments