Housing benefit can be the route to social mobility

Without housing benefit mine and my family's life chances would have been obliterated.

For four weeks in 2008, aged 24 and an unemployed graduate, I tried to claim housing benefit. I had just moved to London with my then partner from Yorkshire via a postgraduate training course in Essex, and a stint living back with my dad and temping in a bid to clear multifarious student debts. Both my partner and I were interning, me for a national magazine, he for a think tank. Neither of us was paid bar minimal expenses. But since his internship was longer-term, DFSS somehow decided that constituted a job, a job that meant he could or should support me (despite the fact he was living on hand-outs from his parents) and which invalidated my claim for housing benefit after just three weeks. In the end his family (who lived in Cyprus) offered to lend me some money, and soon after I landed a minimum wage media database job.

I was relatively privileged. There was some housing benefit available to me, for however short a time. At the eleventh hour, there was someone to help out. If I’d gone back home to West Yorkshire I could have kissed goodbye to a media career in the capital and my autonomy, but I’d still have had bare means. Certainly more than my younger cousin, a carpenter by trade, married with two small children and who had lost his job twice in 12 months since the recession gauged a chunk out of the northern economy, relying on benefits to keep him and his family going until he finally found work again. Brought up in a two-up two-down terrace, moving back into his childhood home with his partner and two small children wouldn’t exactly have made for comfortable living. That my aunt had serious health problems and one of her daughters (admittedly over the age of 25), her partner and two small children living with them for a while too due to similar economic constraints would have made it untenable.

Give or take a couple of years and Cameron’s proposed policy would have seen my cousin and I, two prime examples of the ‘feckless’, ‘entitled’ under-25-year-old benefit scroungers he wishes to obliterate, pretty much obliterated before we’d had a chance to make adult lives for ourselves. 

Where should my cousin have moved back to, exactly, Mr Cameron when there was no work for him, though he was desperate to graft, and when his family home was already overstretched? And shouldn’t I, along with thousands of other have been paid for working in the first place, so that there was no need to claim housing benefit? For me, housing benefit was a means of realising my ambitions and enabling social mobility; for my cousin, it was a matter of basic sustenance and pride.  Neither of us wanted state support, but to be able to support ourselves. And that’s not even to mention the situations, needs, or desires of our parents, whom Cameron would similarly see encumbered by banishing us back home in his bid not to overburden the state.

In Cameronland, it’s either spare bedrooms and free use of the second car, or gutless work-shysters who dream of a shabby, free flat on a sink estate. There may well be some 18-year-olds that plot a trajectory from their parents’ council house to their own, but for the majority of the 380,000 under-25-year-olds currently claiming house benefit, their circumstances will be as nuanced and complex as Cameron’s proposed policy is crude. You might want to look at some of those case studies, Mr Cameron, before being dazzled by the immediate cost savings. The sanctity – and sanity – of your so-called big society is at stake.

A block of flats in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder