The claim

“The public thinks that homelessness is about not having any reasonable accommodation to go to, that’s not what the definition is. The definition inside government and places like Shelter is that children have to share rooms… Nobody, and I can guarantee this, nobody will be made homeless in the sense of the public’s view of it – without a home to go to – as a result of this.”

Iain Duncan Smith MP, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, 23 January 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

It’s what you might call a holy alliance: the Bishops have teamed up with Lib Dem and Labour peers to try and scotch the government’s plan to cap benefits at £26,000 a year. That’s equivalent to the average wage earned by working households after tax. The public is certainly on ministers’ sides. But to try and win support to their cause, charities are claiming that tens of thousands of children will be made homeless by the reforms. That’s certainly given parliamentarians pause for thought. So the work and pensions secretary decided to plunge in feet first, effectively accusing charities of scaremongering by suggesting that people can be declared “homeless” if they’re forced to put their children in shared bedrooms. That sounded a bit odd to FactCheck. Over to the team.

The background

IDS hit the airwaves this morning to defend the government’s plans to cap benefits at £26,000 per household next year as “quite fair”.

The main opposition to the bill comes from Church of England bishops who warned in a letter to The Sunday Times that “although the cap is targeted at promoting fairness between working and non-working households, evidence shows that it will hit children ten times harder than adults”.

The Children’s Society has previously warned that the reforms could make more than 80,000 children homeless and push thousands more into poverty.

Yet Mr Duncan Smith has brushed off such warnings, arguing that the public don’t understand the government’s definition of homelessness. FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

Shelter’s chief executive Campbell Robb was quick to dispute Mr Duncan Smith’s claim that the charity agreed with his definition of homelessness.

He said: “The Secretary of State said that, according to Shelter, families where children share a bedroom would be defined as homeless. This is simply not true. Shelter uses the same definition of homelessness as the government, as set out in the Housing Act 1996, passed by the last Conservative government.”

So what is the official definition of homelessness?

The 1996 Housing Act defines homelessness as having no “accommodation available” and therefore sleeping rough, but also by a broader range of circumstances that include reasons why people are unable to occupy their current home, such as because of a threat of domestic violence.

A person is classed as homeless if they can’t gain entry to their home, if their home is in “poor physical condition” or if they are likely to become homeless within 28 days. The Act further stipulates that if it isn’t “reasonable” to continue to occupy a property, then the authorities much consider them homeless.

Where does sharing a bedroom come into it?

Families aren’t considered homeless if their children are forced to share a room. This is flatly contradicted by what’s known as the ‘bedroom standard’. Under this a “bare minimum” of bedrooms is allocated to meet a family’s needs – it has been used in government since the 1960s.

According to the standard, ideally one bedroom should be allocated to: married or cohabiting couples, single people over the age of 21, pairs of children under 10 years old, or pairs of children aged 10 to 21 of the same gender.

If there are more than two children in a room, it might be classed as overcrowding, but it doesn’t render the family homeless. The statutory definition plainly states that “living rooms and even large kitchens are considered acceptable places for children to sleep”.

At the moment, 473,000 households don’t meet the standard in England, 180,000 of which live in social housing.

Only the most severe cases of overcrowding could be potentially considered by local authorities as homeless under the statutory definition.

How many people could become homeless?

Mr Robb pointed to the government’s own analysis published last February that warned the move to cap benefits would push households into rent arrears, resulting in some households having to move and others presenting as homeless to their local authority.

A year on and this warning has disappeared from the DWP’s final assessment on the basis that it will spend millions on helping people avoid homelessness and find alternative accommodation.

The assessment has instead only said it expects the number of households to be hit by the changes to be 67,000 (up from its original estimate of 50,000), with each family losing an average of £83 a week.

How many people this might push into homelessness, we don’t know. A spokesman for the DWP told FactCheck that some households may have to move but that there were “measures in place” to prevent people becoming homeless.

He said the government has provided £190m to help Local Authorities with the transitions in housing benefit, and those due to be hit with the cuts will be issued with one year’s written notice.

He also dismissed claims in a leaked memo from the office of the Communities secretary Eric Pickles that the benefits cap could see 20,000 families losing their homes.

The Department for Communities and Local Government told FactCheck today: “The leaked memo was based on old information and did not reflect the views of Eric Pickles.”

Yet the simple fact remains that if these people are unable to pay their rent, many of them will have to present themselves as homeless.

Cathy Newman’s verdict
Iain Duncan Smith is wrong to declare that children who share bedrooms could call themselves “homeless”. Overcrowded maybe, although many “squeezed middle” families wouldn’t consider putting their offspring in bunk beds a particular hardship. What’s harder to call though is how many families will genuinely be forced out of their homes. The government says 67,000 households will be affected. Charities say many will have to declare themselves homeless if they can’t afford the rent. Councils would then be obliged to find them accommodation. So on that point, Mr Duncan Smith may be right, but it’s too early to tell.

The analysis by Emma Thelwell