Edinburgh Council has decided to distinguish between deserving and undeserving cases for the allocation of Discretionary Housing Payments. The DHPs are there to mitigate the effects of the government’s underoccupancy penalty – the ‘bedroom tax’ – in the event of hardship. The hardship, of course, is general, because the effect of the penalty is to reduce basic living allowances well below the minimal rates of benefit. Faced with the extra demand, the council has decided to ask people if they drink, smoke or have mobile phone contracts or satellite dishes. The priority for the DHP is to be given to people who live more virtuous, ascetic lives.
In the days of the Poor Law, people had to be completely destitute before they could receive benefits. The means-test was introduced between the wars to avoid the harshness of that regime, but it became a by-word for pettyfogging rules and intrusion in its own right. True, people didn’t have satellite dishes, but they might have had a piano in the parlour or some silverware, and the inspectors identified those items as luxuries and demanded they should be sold before benefit could be paid.
Several rules about luxuries and disposal of assets were carried through to Supplementary Benefit and Income Support, but in principle means-tested benefits since 1948 have not been intended to penalised people for having better life styles. Social security was supposed to be a form of social protection. Anyone could be sick, disabled or unemployed – it could be you. Despite what you read in the press, that’s still true. Most people are unemployed for relatively short periods – less than one person in 250 is unemployed for five years. Most people who become long-term sick have worked for a time before it happens. Most single parents become that way because their relationships break down. In better times, people take on liabilities – including mortgages, tenancies, satellite television, mobile phone contracts – and those liabilities carry on while they’re on benefit. Suspending support when incomes falter means that people are no longer protected – and the people who have fallen furthest will be those who suffer the most.
What else, an Edinburgh councillor complained, could they have done? The answer is, lots. They could have sought to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax by reclassifying property. They could be offering advice on income maximisation and debt minimisation. If they have to ration DHPs, they could try to determine priorities and introduce clear and legitimate criteria. Instead, they’ve decided to spearhead an attack on the undeserving poor.