Tuesday, May 25, 1999 Published at 01:28 GMT 02:28 UK
Benefit delays 'cause homelessness'
Housing benefit problems could cause homelessness, says NACAB
Delays in assessing housing benefit could cause the very problem it was designed to avoid - homelessness.
In a report published on Tuesday, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB) says thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes because of "chronic delays" in paying housing benefit.
Tenants were having to choose between going into arrears and risking losing their homes and cutting back on other areas such as food.
NACAB says some landlords are refusing to take people on housing benefits because of the problem.
More than four million people are estimated to be on housing benefit.
The NACAB survey of its branches in England and Wales found that more than one in five people had been threatened with eviction because of benefit delays.
Claims are supposed to be processed within 14 days, but in many cases it is taking weeks and even months before people receive the money.
NACAB says the process is too complicated.
It is also worried that changes to housing benefit in recent years means that there is often a big gap between the amount people receive in housing benefit and their actual rent.
Since 1996, housing benefit has been restricted for single people under 25 to the average cost of a room in shared accommodation, regardless of whether that accommodation is available.
NACAB is calling for an easing of these restrictions, for compensation to be paid to tenants who suffer due to delays in processing benefits and for a ban on court action against these tenants.
Chief Executive David Harker said it was "shocking" that the housing benefit system was so poorly organised that it could actually cause homelessness rather than relieve it.
The Department of Social Security is working on a green paper on housing policy, to be released later this year.
It says it will consider NACAB's findings.
A spokeswoman for homeless charity Shelter said delays were due to a variety of failures, including benefit officers asking for the wrong information and poor communication.
"Simplifying housing benefit would be cost effective and reduce errors," she said.
Shelter does not necessarily want to see an end to the system by which housing benefit is set according to average local rents.
It says there needs to be a recognition that rents vary across the country since flattening them out could hurt people in high-rent areas.
But it says the system should be simplified, for example, by introducing one-stop shops for all benefits.
The spokeswoman said people had to spend money travelling to different benefit offices where they gave more or less the same information.
Shelter also wants the system for restricting benefits for single people under 25 to be scrapped.
It says research shows that many young people have to go short in other areas, such as food, to find the money to bridge the shortfall between benefits and their rent.
This is particularly common in London and the south east, where rents are high and there is a shortage of cheap, shared accommodation.
In some cases, people have to live in cheaper areas and cannot afford the fare to travel to the areas where they might find jobs, says Shelter.
"This undermines the government's New Deal and social exclusion policies," said the spokeswoman.