Bishops attack government's planned benefit cap

Backed by Rowan Williams, 18 Church of England bishops condemn coalition's controversial welfare ref

Eighteen bishops, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, have demanded that the coalition rewrite their controversial plan to place a £500-a-week benefit cap on families.

The bishops urge MPs to back a series of amendments to the bill, which is due to be debated in the House of Lords tomorrow. In an open letter to the Observer, they warn that the plans risk pushing "some of the most vulnerable children in the country into severe poverty", and say that the Church of England has a "moral obligation to speak up for those with no voice":

The introduction of a cap on benefits, as suggested in the Welfare Reform Bill, could push . While 70,000 adults are likely to be affected by the cap, the Children's Society has found that it is going to cut support for an estimated 210,000 children, leaving as many as 80,000 homeless. The Church of England has a commitment and moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice. As such, we feel compelled to speak for children who might be faced with severe poverty and potentially homelessness, as a result of the choices or circumstances of their parents. Such an impact is profoundly unjust.

We are urging the government to consider some of the options offered by the Children's Society before the bill is passed into legislation, such as removing child benefit from household income for the purposes of calculating the level of the cap and calculating the level of the cap based on earnings of families with children, rather than all households. The government could also consider removing certain vulnerable groups from the cap and the introduction of a significant "grace period" of exemption from the cap for households which have recently left employment.

This intervention follows a period of soul-searching about the role of the Church of England, prompted by their attitudes to the anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St Paul's: Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser resigned over plans to evict them forcibly, arguing that the Church should stand up for those with a moral argument, while Williams expressed support for their cause.

An initial statement from the Department for Work and Pensions suggests that the bishops' call has not been taken on board. A spokesman simply reiterated that: "It simply isn't fair that households on out-of-work benefits can receive a greater income from the state than the average working household gets in wages.

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

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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.