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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear