In May this year, the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) published a report on the subject a particularly vulnerable group of people in our society – young people living independently. It’s an interesting phrase that. It conjures an image of late teens or early twenty-somethings, perhaps graduates or young apprentices who have successfully transitioned from living at home with parents or guardians to a flat or house they have bought or rented. Every parent’s dream right? “They’re off our books!” “They’re young and living independently!”
Not quite. Many of these young people (and there are around 300,000 of them across the UK) are forced to live independently due to their domestic circumstances. A significant minority of these young people for example are care leavers or have been subject to abuse. For the most vulnerable in this group, living independently is not so much choice as an unwelcome and uncomfortable necessity. Claiming benefits is also a necessity to get them on the road to a sustainable life. Practical policies and the informed support of an expert work coach is therefore vital.
For decades now, governments of all parties have treated these younger adults less generously than older adults, in order to reduce benefit expenditure, to discourage them from setting up home before they can afford to and to incentivise work. Noting all this, SSAC decided to examine this policy area and the accompanying culture of the DWP frontline more closely in order to gain a better understanding of the impact on these vulnerable young adults and see whether the protections put in place for them are working effectively.
We consulted widely with young people, DWP frontline staff, the third sector, devolved governments and others. We noted very carefully their views on how ‘the system’ could be improved and the fear and resentment some claimants feel when it seems to work against them. During our visit to Jobcentres in Wales, we noted inspirational examples of best-practice where dedicated work-coaches, often working in partnership with third-sector partners were achieving life-changing outcomes with young people who may have complex needs but, as we know, are full of potential.
The SSAC report offered eight practical and focussed recommendations to the DWP. These included: increasing choice on housing benefits payment to include monthly and fortnightly options; enhancing the expertise of work-coaches and the specialist advice they provide to claimants on, for example, available grants; adopting a more empathetic approach to sanctioning; exempting care leavers from the Shared Accommodation Rate and the under-occupancy penalties until they are 25; and publishing actionable evidence in time for the 2019 spending review to demonstrate the affordability of basic living costs for a young person living independently on benefits.
We are pleased that three of the eight recommendations covering: awareness of claimants to available grants; a reassessment of the sanctioning regime in two of the four areas we noted; and publishing evidence for the 2019 spending review were, in part, accepted. However, we are disappointed that on the central thrust of the report – that we found evidence of great financial hardship and a need for a range of specific measures to support this vulnerable group to become confident and successful adults – the Department did not seize the opportunity more fully to acknowledge and address this. For example, rejecting our proposal to trial youth specialist advisors to support work coaches in their interactions with young people with particularly complex needs is a missed opportunity. This and other enhancements to the front-line service would not only build the capacity but crucially reinforce the very positive behaviours we observed among some highly dedicated and passionate work coaches who care deeply about and support this group of young people who have faced a really tough start to their lives.