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.

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Constitutional expert: Scottish independence “sweet deal” for EU

The remaining member states know a bargaining chip when they see one. 

An independent Scotland could succeed in staying in the European Union, despite legally having little power to block Brexit, a constitutional expert has argued.

His comments come after the German MEP Elmar Brok, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the EU27 could “make a fuss” over Scotland in the Brexit negotiations. 

Jeff King is a professor of law at University College London, and a specialist in the UK constitution.

He said that the Supreme Court ruling on Article 50 had confirmed that Scotland would be unable to veto Brexit from within the UK. 

But he argued this did not mean Scotland would need to leave the EU. 

“Independence for Scotland could very well be a sweet deal for the rest of the European Union,” he told a European Commission event.

“The independence movement, which has some extremely good politicians in it, is going to be in the strongest position they have been for a long time.”

A multi-layered game of bluff

The SNP's Brexit negotiations currently resemble a rather wooden play. It is being acted out for the benefit of Scotland’s sceptical majority, who, polls suggest, would not vote for independence just because of Brexit. They have to be convinced. 

The latest act is the Scottish government’s paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe. First, it asks for a Brexit Britain to stay in the single market (Theresa May has already ruled this out). Second, it asks for a different deal for Scotland, along the lines of the “Norway option”. And third, it asks for a share of the EU powers now being repatriated to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

According to Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP’s trade spokeswoman at Westminster, the ball is now in the UK government’s court.

“As far as what happens next, we are really waiting for the government to confirm what their position is in relation to our document, Scotland’s Place in Europe,” she told me. “Are they going to agree to a differentiated agreement for Scotland, and if not, then a decision will require to be taken.”

If the SNP are reading their lines for the benefit of Scottish voters, they are doing so with one eye on Germany. As I’ve written before, at the time of the 2014 independence referendum, it wasn’t clear that an independent Scotland could stay in the EU. The SNP believe an intervention from Angela Merkel could provide the reassurance they need. They will be cheered by Brok’s words. 

But Germany is a negotiator too. As The Daily Record reports, there is goodwill towards Scotland in the EU27, but also an awareness that a constitutional crisis could blow up in the UK government’s face. 

If Merkel’s friends and allies continue to talk about their sympathy for Scotland, the idea that the EU considers keeping an independent Scotland in to be a "sweet deal" will seem commonplace. The question for Scottish voters then will be: but how sweet is it for us?

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.