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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.