There’s an odd little phrase in the documents from yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, which proposes to stop most young people from claiming Housing Benefit. The government plans, we’re told, to “Remove automatic entitlement to housing support for 18-21 year olds”. The word ‘automatic’ conjures a picture of an impersonal, self-operating machinery; it suggests that people don’t have to do anything, or anything much, to get it, and that success is guaranteed. I’ve seen the word before in old press releases about homelessness, where it was used to the same purpose – implying that all people have to do is turn up and they’ll be received with a bunch of keys, a fanfare and a welcoming hamper to start them off. It stands markedly in contrast with the experience of anyone who’s actually tried to claim benefits or who’s applied for housing as a homeless person.
Benefits aren’t, in general, ‘automatic’. Nearly all benefits are ‘subjective rights’, based on a claim – they’re not delivered without it; they are subject to qualifying conditions, of varying degrees of complexity, and many require lots of further information before payment is possible. (There has been a recent experiment with paying Pension Credit automatically, only checking up on conditions afterwards, but this is very unusual.) Many vulnerable claimants, not just young people, need lots of support to see them through the process – this is something that most social housing landlords have got to be rather good at. And to get Housing Benefit, of course, one has to get a place to rent as well.
What is being removed, then, if it’s not getting support ‘automatically’? There are two possible interpretations. One is that people are getting the right subject to further conditions – but as there already some conditions in place, this is largely a matter of having further hoops to jump through. The other is that the entitlement will be treated as personal, exceptional and defeasible – which may mean that it’s not an entitlement at all.