Cameron is repeating the housing benefit myth

The statistic Cameron ignores: only one in eight claimants is unemployed.

Having long abandoned the pretence that "we're all in this together", David Cameron is preparing yet another raid on the welfare budget. In a speech today, he will announce plans to abolish housing benefit for under-25s and will indicate that the government is considering "time-limiting" Jobseeker's Allowance, reducing the new benefits cap to £22,000 and restricting payments for large families (specifically, limiting child benefit to three children, although this proposal will not be mentioned in the speech).

As previously signalled by George Osborne, the cuts are designed to save the government £10bn but so far Cameron hasn't chosen to focus on the alleged savings. Rather, he has argued that the plans are necessary to reverse a "culture of entitlement". In his pre-speech interview with the Mail on Sunday, Cameron claimed that housing benefit "discourages" young people from working:

A couple will say, 'We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents.'

But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn't available to us?

One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.

With those words, Cameron perpetuated the biggest myth about housing benefit: that it is a benefit for the unemployed. The truth is that just one in eight claimants is out of work (not a statistic that you'll find reported in most papers). The majority of those who claim housing benefit, including the under-25s, do so to compensate for substandard wages and extortionate rents. A recent study by The Building and Social Housing Foundation showed that 93 per cent of new housing benefit claims made between 2010 and 2011 were made by households containing at least one employed adult.

It is meaningless of Cameron to claim that the housing benefit budget is "too large" without considering why. The inflated budget, which will reach £23.2bn this year, is the result of a conscious choice by successive governments to subsidise private landlords rather than invest in affordable social housing. Yet rather than addressing the problem of stagnant wages and excessive rents, Cameron, in a bid to appease his querulous party, has chosen to squeeze the already squeezed. 

That he should do so by abolishing housing benefit for under-25s is particularly egregious. Of the 380,000 young people who claim the benefit, a significant number do so because they have been thrown out by their parents. As Shelter notes, "Last year nearly 10,000 households in priority need were recognised as homeless after they were thrown out by their parents. Many more won’t have shown up in the statistics and will have resorted to sofa surfing, hostels or at worst the streets."

Others may be unable to live at home after their parents divorced or downsized or, as Petra Davies previously noted on the site, may have been rejected due to their sexuality. As she noted, around 25 per cent of the young homeless population in urban areas is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. 

But such objections will do little to deter Cameron's drive to shrink the state. With his latest attack on the working poor, he has finally outed himself as a compassionless Conservative.

David Cameron has vowed to tackle what he calls "a culture of entitlement" in the welfare system. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.