THOUSANDS of unemployed young people living in bed and breakfast rooms paid for by the Department for Health and Social Security are being asked to leave London and other cities in a rolling programme of evictions from board and lodging hotels that begins tomorrow.
The evictions follow changes in benefit regulations announced in April by Tony Newton, the minister for social security. Officials at DHSS offices are now working through lists of board and lodging claimants and telling those under 26 that their payments will be stopped unless they move elsewhere after a certain length of time.
In London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow the limit is eight weeks, in other inland locations four weeks, and in seaside town two weeks.
After these limits expire, more than 45,000 claimants are being told that they must either find some other form of accommodation or leave the area for at least six months. To implement this policy, DHSS officials have produced a 100-page guide dividing Britain into areas and parishes.
As the two- and four-week time limits have expired around the country, advice agencies have reported a sudden increase in the number of young people arriving in London. But tomorrow the eight-week limit expires, and voluntary organisations that deal with the homeless are predicting a crisis in the capital affecting some 10,000 young people.
Ministers have assumed that most people under 26 will return to their families, and a number of categories of claimant have been exempted from the time limits. But the plan has provoked widespread criticism, including opposition from the government's own social security advisory committee.
"The danger is that you just make young people move around the country like wandering nomads," said Peter Barclay, the committee's chairman. "The very fact that they have to keep moving makes it extremely questionable that people can put down roots, find a job and get on a housing list."
Barclay's warning follows earlier criticisms of the new plan by the advisory committee and reports in The Sunday Times last winter than the government proposals could lead to unforeseen hardship. Ministers have also received an unprecedented volume of complaints from voluntary bodies.
Later this week, Newton faces an emergency House of Commons debate on the new rules, which Robin Cook, Labour MP for Livingstone, says led to a 23-year-old former constituent killing himself. Newton is also investigating an attempted suicide in Shropshire, which followed an eviction notice under the regulations.
Alarm is spreading among Conservative backbenchers whose constituencies have tended to be affected first by the changes. Charles Irving, Conservative MP for Cheltenham, has already been to see Newton to recount the circumstances of two teenage constituents who have been told to leave the town and who he believes will be at risk elsewhere.
"These proposals are absolutely inhumane," Irving said yesterday. "There is no doubt that the government has acted from the best of motivations. But it has introduced a blanket inflexibility that doesn't protect people in the grey areas. I think the apparent indifference of the government is creating tremendous problems"
Newton's aim has been to cap an explosion in board and lodging spending which rose from £62m in 1979 to £570m last year. These payments cover many sorts of accommodation, including private old people's homes, but ministers have been particularly incensed by "Costa del Dole" abuses, where some young people have gone on holiday at public expense.
Privately, Newton admits alarm that the new rules may have been badly framed. He is to make a statement on them in the Commons tomorrow. "We have decided that some changes are now called for to allow other categories of exemption to be made," he said last night.
But Char, the campaign for single homeless people, urged the government to abandon its rules. "People are in board and lodging because they have no alternative whatsoever," said Chris Holmes, Char's director.
Char, with Shelter and other advice agencies, says it is being inundated with anxious inquiries from young people who have been told by the DHSS that their benefit will soon be stopped. With a severe shortage of rented flats in London, and voluntary hostels mainly full, many claimants are being advised how to squat illegally or how to get by sleeping rough.