Housing benefit is to be axed for 18-21 year-olds within weeks after ministers decided to go ahead with controversial plans to force young unemployed people to live with their parents or pay their own rent.
Labour condemned the move, which was slipped out on a quiet Friday in new regulations published to Parliament when the House of Commons was not sitting.
The new Universal Credit regulations, which are secondary not primary legislation and open to less scrutiny by MPs, state that jobless under-22s will no longer qualify for help with their rental costs.
The policy – which will affect new claimants – was first unveiled by David Cameron and George Osborne in 2015 and was a key plank of the Tory manifesto.
Following the arrival in No.10 of Theresa May, housing charities had hoped that she and Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green would scrap the plans amid fears they could force thousands of youngsters onto the streets.
But on Friday, the DWP laid the regulations before Parliament and made clear that while some exemptions would be made, the change would go ahead.
The policy will apply only to claims for Universal Credit made after April 1.
Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Housing John Healey, said: “This disgraceful cut to housing support will leave thousands of young people with nowhere to go. Many could end up on the streets.
“These young people are old enough to fight for their country, but in Theresa May’s Britain not old enough to get the same help with housing costs as everyone else.
“Ministers would do well to remember that the shameful doubling of rough sleeping since 2010 is a direct result of decisions they have made. With this decision they will make the scandal of rising homelessness worse still.”
Among the exemptions are cases where the Secretary of State judges it is inappropriate for individuals to live with their parents due to a threat of violence and other reasons.
The policy will not apply to those with dependent children, care leavers, those in temporary accommodation or young people who have been working for the previous 6 months.
But the exemptions failed to quell the angry response from campaigners and even landlords – who pointed out that Theresa May has claimed she wants more housing help for families in Britain.
Charities Shelter, Crisis and Centrepoint have spent months lobbying against the removal of what they describe as an “essential safety net”.
Roger Harding, director of campaigns, policy and communications at Shelter, said: “We’re deeply disappointed the government has chosen to deny 18-21 years olds housing benefit at a time when rough-sleeping is on the rise.
“They have failed to heed the dire warning that tampering with this vital safety net will result in more young people being left to fend for themselves on the streets.
“The option of being able to live with your parents is not one that is open to everyone. These cuts will affect those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in desperately difficult situations.
“Whether these young people are escaping an abusive household or thrown out because of their sexuality, they’ll now have the added, sometimes impossible, burden of having to prove they can’t go home. If they can’t, their only option may be to sleep rough.
“The government has said its committed to reducing homelessness so it makes no sense to take away this help for desperate young people. Clearly doing something that risks increasing the number of rough-sleepers is the wrong path to take. If it’s the welfare bill they want to cut, the government should make building homes that people can actually afford more of a priority.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “These cuts are an utter disgrace. Many of our most vulnerable young people rely on housing benefit for a roof over their head, especially if they have no family to turn to.
“Without this funding there will be a rise in young people forced to live on the streets and living at risk of physical and emotional abuse. This is a shameful decision by a heartless Conservative Government.”
Richard Lambert, Chief Executive Officer of the National Landlords Association said: “The Government has effectively closed the door to private rented housing for some of the most vulnerable individuals in society.
“Never mind the nuances, all landlords will hear is that 18-21 year olds are no longer entitled to housing benefit. Faced with a young person who may not be able to pay the rent, a landlord won’t worry about the details of their life, they just won’t consider them as a tenant.
“However much the Government tries to make this policy more palatable by talking up the exemptions, it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.”
George Osborne confirmed the plans in his 2015 Budget but the proposal sparked such a backlash that it was delayed until this year.
A spokesman for the DWP insisted that current claimants would not be affected and that the exemptions would make a difference to key groups.
“We want to make sure that 18 to 21-year-olds do not slip straight into a life on benefits, which is why we are helping young people get the training, skills and experience they need to move into a job and build a career,” he said.
“This government is delivering on its commitment to ensure young people in the benefit system face the same choices as young people who work but may not be able to afford to leave home.
“We know that personal circumstances will differ so we have worked closely with charities and the housing sector to develop a fair and robust set of exemptions to protect the most vulnerable young people.”
Vulnerable people will continue to be protected, as will carers, families and those who have been in work for at least six months prior to claiming will be exempt, and those working at least 16 hours at the National Minimum Wage.