The early months of the coalition government seem to have settled into a pattern. A ‘savage’ (sic) cut is in the offing, be it capping benefits at £26,000 per year, tuition fees or public sector pension reform, which the media puffs up into the spark which will ignite outrage.
Then something strange happens. Or rather, it doesn’t. Families on benefits receiving no more than the average income, the students who benefit paying more towards their university education or public sector workers paying more into their pension funds are all accepted by a public which sees them as the common sense they are. This dissonance was seen with housing benefit reform.
Part of this is down to the sheer madness of the hyperbole deployed by the opposition. Jon Cruddas MP took a deep breath and blew hard on his dog whistle when he spoke of housing benefit reform leading to “social and economic cleansing”. Even less tastefully Polly Toynbee spoke of the Conservatives “final solution for the poor”.
It’s hard to think what the coalition actually could do to justify conjuring up the ethnic massacres of Yugoslavia or the hell of Auschwitz. Certainly their plans to save £1.8 billion per year by cutting Housing Benefit don’t.
Currently you can claim up to £8,000 per month from Housing Benefit. In one recently reported case, Abdi and Sayruq Nur and their seven children get just that to rent a house in London’s eye-wateringly expensive Kensington. They previously lived in the less salubrious Kensal Rise area but, according to Mr Nur, “The old house was good but the area was not so good. It was a very poor area and there were no buses, no shops and the schools were too far”.
I, as an average salary earning full time worker living in London, cannot afford to live in Kensington. Yet I pay taxes that go towards paying for the unemployed Mr Sur and his family to live there. Rather than grotesque talk of ‘cleansing’ and final solutions, this is real social justice. As Nick Clegg said in the Commons on October 26th
“it is perfectly reasonable for the government to say that it won’t hand out more in housing benefit than people who go out to work, pay their taxes, play by the rules will do when they look for housing themselves.
We are simply suggesting there should be a cap for family homes of four bedrooms of £400 a week. That is £21,000 a year.
Does he really think it’s wrong for people who can’t afford to live privately in those areas that the state should subsidise people to the tune of more than £21,000? I don’t think so.”
To remedy this unfair situation the measures proposed by George Osbourne, and which have provoked such fury from the likes of Cruddas and Toynbee, will cap housing benefit at £400 a week for a four-bedroom property and £250 a week for a two-bedroom home.
Far from forcing people out onto the streets a quick search on rightmove.co.uk revealed that, even in expensive London, there are 624 properties available with at least 4 bedrooms for £400 per week. A search on zoopla.co.uk found over 800 properties. Coming down to two bedroom properties rightmove produced over 1,000 while zoopla turned up 3,126, including many in trendy areas such as Islington and Camden.
True, many of these properties are to be found in London’s outer areas, zones 3 and 4, which would seem to lend weight to the argument made in the Independent that “the result of the cap, which takes force next spring, will be an exodus of the poor from the rich centre to the periphery and beyond”.
But that is exactly the choice that many people are faced with now; much as they might like to live in Kensington they cannot afford to so they live somewhere else. These reforms are about applying the same cost constraint on housing benefit recipients as are placed on the rest of us.
This shows why there is such a discontinuity between the “sound and fury” of shameless, tasteless and exploitative cynics like Cruddas and Toynbee and the public perception. The British people are a generally generous and fair minded bunch. Many of the key aspects of the welfare state still command widespread support. But when they see their taxes being used to subsidise people living in houses they couldn’t afford, we see just how far the welfare state has moved from Beveridge’s safety net to become a hammock. A poll for YouGov found that the housing benefit cap had 72% support. Even 52% of Labour voters backed the measures.
This is why all of the cynical, shameless and exploitative rantings from the likes of Toynbee and Cruddas are likely to have so little traction with the public. They are tales, as Macbeth said, “Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”