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.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.