Sunday, 05 July 2015

In denial

From: Inside edge

Judging from Nick Clegg’s wobbly in parliament yesterday the pressure is telling on ministers over the effects of housing benefit cuts. 

The deputy prime minister angrily rejected claims by Labour’s Chris Bryant that the poor are being ‘socially engineered and sociologically cleansed out of London’ as ‘outrageous’ and ‘offensive to people who have ethnic cleansing in other parts of the world’.

He went on: ‘We are simply suggesting that there should be a cap for family homes with four bedrooms of £400 a week. That is £21,000 a year. Does the hon. Gentleman really think it is wrong that the state should not subsidise people to the tune of more than £21,000, when people cannot afford to live privately in those areas? I do not think so.’

Downing Street later rejected Bryant’s claim that 200,000 people will be affected (London Councils’ estimate based on 88,000 households in the capital receiving more than the bedroom caps) and argued that the true figure is 21,000 households. However, that only covers people affected by the £400 cap on four-bed homes. 

The exchange followed increasing signs of unrest on the Lib Dem backbenches, with deputy leader Simon Hughes condemning the cuts as ‘harsh and draconian’ over the weekend. 

The BBC reported yesterday that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith was listening to the concerns of Conservative MPs and London mayor Boris Johnson while Channel 4 News reported that special measures were being considered for the capital - either a delay in the introduction of the cut or a higher cap. 

But this morning Downing Street moved to deny reports of a climbdown, with a spokesman insisting that it was ‘absolutely committed’ to the reforms. And that was repeated later by David Cameron at a prime minister’s questions in which Labour leader Ed Miliband devoted all of his alloted time to housing benefit. ‘I know you don’t like the answer “we’re sticking to our plans”,’ said Cameron, ‘but we’re sticking to our plans.’

Denial it may have been but it was also evidence of the pressure being felt at a national level.

The impact on local Conservatives was illustrated in an interesting interview on the Today programme this morning with Cllr Timothy Coleridge, cabinet member for housing at Kensington & Chelsea.

Coleridge said the borough had 3,000 households in receipt of housing benefit in the private rented sector and that about 2,000 of those would be affected by the caps. ‘We reckon that about 1,000 of those would be people we consider to be in priority need, people who would find it particularly difficult to move because they may be elderly, they may have children, they may be ill, all sorts of reasons.’

He said he broadly supported the principle of the caps because housing allowances had gone so high (rising 20% in three months following their introduction in 2008) that they had priced out people in North Kensington who were working. 

‘What we’re saying is that a number of people will be able to move out, should be able to find alternative accommodation elsewhere in London. However, we would like the government to be as flexible as possible for those people who are particularly vulnerable.’

Coleridge also explained if the changes went ahead unamended Kensington & Chelsea would be forced to give the homeless priority for its own stock over people on the waiting list and that people who became homeless as a result of the cap would have to be housed outside the borough perhaps for several years.

Given those local pressures, will the government really make no more concessions beyond a bit more money for discretionary funds? 

The caps have been by far the most controversial of the housing benefit cuts so far, but the £70m a year savings are only a fraction of the total £2bn a year savings the coalition is planning to make from housing benefit as a whole.

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