David Cameron barely makes a speech without referring to hardworking people who “do the right thing” and don’t claim benefits. This language implies that claimants are, by default, doing the wrong thing – a convenient position given unprecedented cuts to the welfare budget.
While the government has already indicated an £18bn reduction in welfare spending by 2014, it is being reported that the Prime Minister is looking at plans that would see a further £25bn in cuts.
The proposals have been drawn up in a policy paper for David Cameron and are understood to have come from Steve Hilton, No 10’s outgoing policy chief. Hilton, who has just departed Downing Street to take up an academic post at an American university, has suggested that a further £25bn can be cut. The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith – who told the Times last month that the government had a duty “to support people in difficulty” – reportedly thinks that this level of extra savings is unfeasible.
Where exactly would these extra savings come from? The suggestions on the table are even further cuts to housing benefit and a tougher system for the universal credit to push people into full-time rather than part-time work.
Let’s take these one by one. The housing benefit cap is already having a devastating effect, in what Boris Johnson termed “social cleansing”. The BBC reported last month that Newham council was trying to evict 500 families to Stoke – 135 miles north – as it could no longer afford to house them in private accommodation. As rents rise unfettered but wages are frozen across the board, 93 per cent of new housing benefit claimants are in employment - doing Cameron’s feted “right thing”. There is no denying that housing benefit has ballooned and rents are too high, and that this is in part due to successive governments choosing to subsidise private landlords rather than build more social housing. But slashing housing benefit without attempting to provide alternatives unfairly penalises tenants. The Chartered Institute of Housing has estimated that 800,000 homes will already be put out of the reach of poor families, and that many may be forced to move to areas where there is less employment (ie. out of big cities), thus compounding the problem. The housing issue is already one of the most radical and inhumane of the governments’ policies; it is difficult to see how further cuts could be sustained or justified.
Secondly, it is all very well to encourage people into full time work, but only if there are full time jobs for people to do. A system which helps people to end benefit dependency is a good thing – but it is disingenuous to pretend that unemployment is a choice. There are 5.7 people for every job vacancy in the UK. You do not need to be a mathematician to understand that you cannot squeeze five people into one job. Most people are unemployed or working part-time because that is their only option.
The fact remains that cuts to welfare are popular with the public. The British Social Attitudes survey in December showed that half of Britons believe that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage people from finding work. The benefit cap – for all its cruelty in practice – was broadly supported. With Liberal Democrats saying there is no way they would support these £25bn extra cuts, and Duncan Smith saying that this level of saving is “absolute nonsense”, let’s hope that Cameron “does the right thing” and throws these plans out.