Commons misled over impact of benefit cap on homelessness

Ministers repeatedly claimed that the risk was "not quantifiable" despite clear warning from Eric Pi

Ministers have been accused of repeatedly misleading the Commons about the impact of their £26,000 cap on welfare payments.

Yesterday, we noted the incongruence between David Cameron's claim that the cap would not lead to greater homelessness, and the warning in a leaked letter from the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles (written by his private secretary Nico Heslop). The letter warns that welfare cuts could make an additional 20,000 families homeless (on top of 20,000 already anticipated because of other changes to housing benefit). It also warns that the plan will cost more than it saves because of the bill for temporary housing.

Now, Labour has highlighted several instances where ministers have acted disingenuously, given that this letter was sent in January. In February, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published an impact assessment saying it was "not possible to quantify" the cost to local councils of the welfare cap, and the likelihood of greater homelessness. Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister, and others, quoted this assessment when asked about the impact on homelessness -- despite the fact that a specific estimate is included in Pickles' letter. Maria Miller, a welfare minister, told a Labour MP to "get real" when asked if the benefit cap would increase homelessness, while Chris Grayling said that it would not "exacerbate" the problem.

It is profoundly worrying that these concerns were not only ignored by government but repeatedly kept secret. The reason is easy enough to see - a dogged ideological commitment to encouraging work by punishing those on benefits. The Guardian quotes a governmental source pointing out that entering part time work exempts families from the cap, adding:

There might be some people who have to move to a less expensive area. But that doesn't mean they won't have anywhere to live. We are very optimistic about the behavioural change that this will bring about.

However, it is worth noting that the letter does not argue with the underlying principle that a family on benefits should be better off than a family that works. Rather, it suggests measures which would mitigate the negative effects while still retaining this fundamental aim. These include excluding child benefit from the cap, which would reduce the homelessness and child poverty risks, while still ensuring that most families with four children would not be able to live in "London or the south east" (Boris Johnson referred to this as "Kosovo style social cleansing" of poor people from cities).

Labour will try to force Pickles and the Welfare Minister, Iain Duncan Smith, to respond to an urgent question in the Commons today.

Unless it is modified, this policy risks failing on two counts: is not only inhumane but impractical and expensive too.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.