Posted by: Carl Brown29/06/2012
Now the dust has settled on the prime minister’s controversial welfare speech on Monday it is worth reflecting on what signals have been sent and what it means.
David Cameron’s suggestion that housing benefit could be removed for under 25 year olds has been dismissed by many as unworkable and as an example of the prime minister serving up ‘red meat’ to his party’s right wing. Cutting welfare plays well with sections of middle England and the mainstream press, and allows the Conservatives to draw a distinction between them and the Liberal Democrats.
The speech has drawn a sharp response from the social housing sector, and rightly so. The idea of removing housing benefits for under 25s is light on detail and is not at this stage government policy, but to my mind this is the perfect time to start opposing it.
The idea, and the rhetoric behind it, has a number of obvious flaws, not least of which the idea that housing benefit claimants are out of work. As official government figures show, one in four claimants are employed, meaning housing benefit for many is a way of topping up income and helping hard-working claimants keep a roof over their head. Stagnating wages are leading to more and more employed people having to claim housing benefit. More than 90 per cent of new claimants in the last couple of years are working people, so Cameron’s neat distinction between claimants who don’t work and non-claimants has no relevance in the real world.
The other more bizarre thing about Mr Cameron’s speech is the idea that, instead of claiming housing benefit, people should move back in with their families.
Aside from the simple fact there are thousands of people for whom this is not an option, the idea seems to conflict with the central thrust of the government’s welfare policy.
The government’s universal credit idea is based on persuading people that it always pays more to work rather than claim benefit. The government presumably wants people to actively seek work, moving to other parts of the country if necessary to do this.
Removing housing benefit for young people living independently would force many to live at home and could restrict their ability to find work by moving.
On top of this the DWP’s loathed bedroom tax policy will penalise tenants for having a spare room. What happens if a young person living independently sees his or her circumstances change, meaning they can no longer cover their rent?
They may be unable to follow Mr Cameron’s advice by moving back to the family home, because the family has got rid of its spare room to avoid the bedroom tax.
Most importantly though is the fact that Mr Cameron’s idea differs from other welfare reform in a significant way.
While the coalition’s benefit caps and restrictions are contentious, they do not remove the principle that housing is a right. They simply narrow the range of circumstances under which help can be given.
But removing housing benefit for a whole section of the community would abolish the principle that housing is a right, and that those who can’t afford to pay housing costs themselves are entitled to state help.
This is, I believe, why Mr Cameron’s words have caused so much anger this week - one would hope that the idea he’s suggested would struggle to gain the support of the Liberal Democrats and more moderate Conservatives.
From Housing matters
Carl Brown looks at regulation, training, board members, pay and a host of other issues that impact the day to day running of social landlords