The benefit cap: what does it mean and why is it unfair?

Peers are to fight plans to cap benefits at £26,000, despite public support. Here is everything you

What is the benefit cap?

A cornerstone of Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reform, the principle behind the benefit cap is that unemployed people should not be paid more than working families. Under the proposals, working-age benefits would be capped at £500 per week, or £26,000 a year. This is equivalent to the average wage earned by working households after tax.

What do voters think?

The public are broadly with Duncan Smith on this one. A YouGov poll shows that 76 per cent of the public are in favour of the benefits cap, including 69 per cent of Labour voters. It also shows that 36 per cent would like to see even tougher measures, with no household getting more than £20,000 in welfare payments.

Why is it unfair?

There are several criticisms levelled against the cap, centering on the impact on children, and on the very families -- those in work and paying taxes -- who it is meant to defend.

It takes no account of children
The benefit cap is the same regardless of how many children a family has. Therefore a family with five children would receive the same amount as a family with just one or two. This has proved particularly problematic, with church leaders have called for child benefit to be exempted, while Nick Clegg conceded that government may need to look at "the place of children who were born, if you like, innocently into another set of rules".

Leaked government analysis showed that the move could push a further 100,000 children into poverty. Duncan Smith's team are scathing about an amendment that would exempt child benefit, saying it would encourage people on benefits to have more children. But what about families that already have many children? They should not be penalised for the fact of their existence.

It ignores employment history
A couple who have never worked will end up being less affected than families on a low to middle income who are suddenly affected by unemployment in the recession. This is because families with parents who have never worked will tend to live in social housing where rents are cheaper. However, low to middle earners are likely to rent privately: they are not poor enough to qualify for council accommodation but not well off enough to buy. There are 680,000 working households claiming housing benefit, making up 14 per cent of the total housing benefit caseload.

As the recession claims more and more jobs, many families who need short-term support could find themselves in an impossible position. Duncan Smith has criticised "people being placed in houses they cannot afford", but for these families, it is a case of rapidly changing circumstances rather than flagrantly living above their means.

It penalises those in the south-east
Rents are higher in the south-east, and cutting housing benefit to £100 a week makes it practically impossible for a family with children to rent privately. In the Guardian today, Tim Leunig says that after council tax, rent and utilities, a family with four children would be left with 62p per person per day to live on.

Critics have said that this will result in "social cleansing" from inner-city areas -- the percentage of privately rented properties in central London available to housing benefit claimants will fall from more than 50 per cent to just 7 per cent. Leunig predicts that many people will remain in these areas, where job prospects are better, but will have to "downsize", with siblings sharing bedrooms and parents sleeping on sofa-beds.

Who opposes it?

Lord Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, has said that he is unable to support the reform as it will unfairly penalise children in benefit dependent homes. He said:

I voted with the Government on everything until now. I see it as my job as an ex-leader to support my successor, but I will not support the benefit cap in its present form.

Church of England bishops, led by John Packer, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, will today table the key amendment around which rebel Lords plan to gather. It would exempt child benefit from the cap. As outlined above, the government is hostile to such a plan, though Clegg has suggested that there may be some scope for "transitional arrangements" to cushion the effect.

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

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.