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: Getty
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Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

Her £1bn deal with the DUP could make it even harder to push through cuts in the rest of the UK.

Going, going, gone...sold to the dark-haired woman from Enniskillen! Theresa May has signed a two-year deal with Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, to keep her in office. The price? A cool £1bn and the extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.

The deal will have reverberations both across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically. To take the latter first – the amount spent in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 was just under £10bn. A five point increase in spending on health, education and roads is a fairly large feather in anyone's cap.

It transforms the picture as far as the fraught negotiations over restoring power-sharing goes. It increases the pressure on Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing so they can help decide exactly where the money goes. And if there's another election, it means that Arlene Foster goes into it not as the woman who oversaw the wasteful RHI scheme (a renewable energy programme that because of its poor drafting saw farmers paid to heat empty rooms) but as the negotiator who bagged an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland. 

Across the United Kingdom, the optics are less good for the (nominal) senior partner to the deal.

"May buys DUP support with £1 billion 'bung" is the Times"£1bn for DUP is 'just the start" is the Telegraph's splash, and their Scottish edition is worse: "Fury at 'grubby' deal with DUP". With friends like this, who needs the Guardian? (They've gone for "May hands £1bn bonanza to DUP to cling on at No 10" as their splash, FYI.) 

Not to be outdone, the Mirror opts for "May's £1bn bribe to crackpots" while the Scotsman goes for "£100 million per vote: The price of power".  Rounding off the set, the Evening Standard has mocked Foster up as Dr Evil and Theresa May as Mini-Me on its front page. The headline? "I demand the sum of....one billion pounds!"   

Of course, in terms of what the government spends, £1bn is much ado about nothing. (To put it in perspective, the total budget across the UK is £770bn or thereabouts, debt interest around £40bn, the deficit close to £76bn).

But only a few weeks ago Theresa May was telling a nurse that the reason she couldn't get a pay rise is that there is "no magic money tree". Now that magic money tree is growing freely in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been struggling to get further cuts through as it is – just look at the row over tax credits, or the anger at school cuts in the election – but now any further cuts in England, Scotland and Wales will rub up against the inevitable comeback not only from the opposition parties but the voters: "But you've got money to spend in Northern Ireland!"

(That £1bn is relatively small probably makes matters worse – an outlay per DUP MP that you might expect a world-class football club to spend on a quality player. It's tangible, rather like that £350m for the NHS. £30bn? That's just money.)

For Labour, who have spent the last seven years arguing, with varying degrees of effectiveness that austerity is a choice, it's as close to an open goal as you can imagine. Theresa May's new government is now stable – but it's an open question as to how long it will take her party to feel strong again.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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