The housing benefit bill is still rising under the coaliton

Even with the cap, in-work poverty means the bill has risen to £23bn.

Housing benefit is becoming the curse of the coalition. The Prime Minister promised to cut the benefit bill and back those who work hard. But the latest DWP data (19 July) shows that the number of housing benefit claimants continues to rise and is now well past the five million mark. The housing benefit bill is £23bn and rising, despite the welfare caps and cuts. Dig deeper and you see that by far the largest increase is among those in employment, most of them part-time workers  (the Smith Institute estimates that in-work poverty alone will add £1bn a year to the housing benefit bill).

Contrary to Conservative claims, it is the under-employed, not the unemployed, who are pushing up the cost of housing benefit. In-work claimants now account for nearly 90% of the net increase in overall housing benefit claims. The rise of in-work poverty belies Conservative propaganda about the "underserving poor" and benefit scroungers.  Low growth and falling real wages are pushing more people to the margins of the labour market, where pay is not enough to live on. In London, and other high housing demand areas, the problem is exacerbated by higher private rents.

But this is not a problem made by the recession and the coalition’s welfare reforms.  The housing benefit bill has been increasing since 2000, and doubled between 1997 and 2010. New Labour got hooked into a spiral of subsidising higher social rents. The number of housing benefit claimants stayed roughly the same between 2003-2007, but payments to landlords rose year-on-year.  As the recession hit, the situation got worse as the numbers of unemployed increased. Now we are in the third stage, with more claimants as a result of falling real wages and under-employment.

Social and private rents are still going up (social rents have increased by a fifth over the last five years), but they will arguably have less impact on the future housing benefit bill because of the cap. However, they are being offset by cost pressures because more people in work are claiming. This is evidenced by the fact that the gap between pay for the bottom 10% and their rents has widened significantly.

Rising rents, falling wages and benefit caps are a triple blow for low income households and will lead to higher levels of poverty. Labour can’t ignore the problem, which started on its watch. Part of the solution must be reversing the decline in real wages. But a future Labour government is also going to have to grapple with subsidies and the balance between revenue and capital subsidies for those who simply can’t afford to pay higher rents.

The housing benefit bill is £23bn and rising, despite the welfare caps and cuts. Photograph: Getty Images.

Paul Hackett is the director of The Smith Institute.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.