The rise in housing benefit is driven by a rise in need. No more, no less

It's not greed, it's not fraud, it's just more people needing help to live their lives, writes Declan Gaffney.

It’s safe to say that housing benefit has few defenders on any side of the political debate.

All parties agree that spending is out of control and needs to be reined in. The right has ruthlessly promoted the claim that housing subsidises the underserving poor to live in accommodation ordinary workers couldn’t afford. The left responds by saying that it is landlords rather than tenants who are milking the system. Thus Owen Jones writes:

Greedy landlords are fully aware that most cannot afford to pay their extortionate rents. But they also know that the taxpayer will step in and subsidise them with housing benefits… Instead of wasting billions on housing benefit, we could spend it on building housing, creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

What the left and right criticisms have in common is more important than what distinguishes them. Housing benefit exemplifies the gruesome two-step of current welfare debate.

  • Step one: claim that expenditure is at unprecedented and unsustainable levels.
  • Step two: blame this on some unpopular group milking the system—greedy landlords or irresponsible tenants—thus suggesting that expenditure can be cut or redirected to other purposes without pain.

Step two is wishful thinking, as I’ll argue below. Step one is easily dealt with. Look at this chart:


The green curve shows expenditure on housing benefit as a share of GDP, indexed to 1978/9, from that year to 2011/12. (It’s the share of GDP that counts when the sustainability of expenditure is at issue.) Spending now, four years after the onset of recession, is at almost exactly the same level as it was in 1995/6 four years after the last recession. In the intervening period it first fell dramatically as the impact of the early 90’s recession receded, then rose sharply when the global financial system collapsed in 2008/9. There has been no long-term upward trend since the early 1990's, so the rhetoric of unsustainability is completely misplaced.

The red curve on the chart, which takes out the effect on expenditure of changes in the number of claimants, shows that the recent rise in expenditure is overwhelmingly driven by the caseload (the dotted blue curve). It also allows us to see the impact of the switch from supply-side to demand-side funding during the late 1980s — that is, the switch from directly subsidising social rents and building homes to giving tenants the money to pay higher rents.

This doesn’t represent a change in overall expenditure but a redirection of subsidy to a different channel.1 The impacts of that switch, particularly on work incentives and poverty traps for lower income groups, have been hotly debated, but the point here is that this step change in housing benefit spending doesn’t represent an additional cost to taxpayers (except in the form of any negative impacts on employment). So even in this long-term perspective the notion that housing benefit represents an increasing burden on the Exchequer is wrong.

What about the other item on the charge sheet—that housing benefit expenditure is wasteful because either landlords or tenants are milking the system on a grand scale? Both these claims, if we are to make sense of them, involve similar economic assumptions.

To see this, consider how landlords might be able to raise rents above market level to capture the subsidy—bearing in mind that if rents aren’t above market level, there is no subsidy (left critics have been surprisingly uninterested in demonstrating this). The private rented market is dominated by small-scale, uncoordinated cottage industry operations, so we can rule out the notion that landlords are using market power to drive up rents. (An exception, but a small element in total spending, may be the market in temporary accommodation for people meeting local authority homelessness criteria).

The other possibility would be if tenants were to some extent indifferent to rent levels. That could allow landlords to use price discrimination (charging more to housing benefit claimants) to extract above-market rents from taxpayers. Alternatively, even if landlords didn’t use price discrimination, tenants might choose more desirable (expensive) properties if they weren’t worried about the rent—the government’s main argument for cutting entitlements. Thus the greedy landlord and irresponsible tenant stories turn on the same explanatory mechanism of tenants failing to respond to prices: they differ only in who is said to be extracting the unfair advantage.

Which raises the question: why would tenants be indifferent to rents? The higher the rent level, the more earned income will be subject to punitive marginal tax rates as housing benefit is withdrawn. You would have to suffer from extreme myopia or have minimal expectations of your future earning capacity not to take this into account in choosing accommodation. Add to this that about half of private rented sector claimants were living in their current accommodation before they made their claim, so they would have been making the same tradeoffs as anybody else when they chose where to live.2

Fortunately, all this can tested empirically.

London has the largest private rented sector in the country, a highly mobile population, substantial variations in rents between areas and (although Londoners hate to admit it) an excellent public transport system.

If housing benefit tenants care about rent levels, we would expect them to be in lower rent areas, subject of course to the availability of accommodation. If they didn’t care, we would expect them to be distributed across areas in accordance with the rental stock.

When a model in which the number of private sector claimants in each borough in 2010-11 is measured against (a) the size of the local private rented sector and (b) the lower 25 per cent of local rents, we find the latter "explains" 66 per cent of the variation in caseload between areas. Overall, a 1 per cent increase in rents implies a 1.7 per cent decrease in the number of claimants.3

Given this strong negative relationship between rent levels and private sector HB claims, the notion that landlords are capturing a large part of the subsidy by charging above market rents looks implausible.

This is even more the case when we look at what’s happened in London since the cuts to housing benefit in April 2011. Using the same model with post-reform data, there is no statistically significant change in the relationship between rents and caseload: even quite dramatic cuts to entitlements don’t seem to have made that much difference to the already very strong propensity for higher rents to drive down the number of claimants.

(This isn’t to say there has been no effect from the changes, but that if there has been, it’s small by comparison with what was already happening before they took place.)

At the same time, between 2011 and 2012, rents rose by 8 per cent in London, and they rose most for the type of larger property where the cuts had the most impact on tenants’ ability to pay—rents for three- and four-bed flats have risen by more than 10 per cent. So much for the government’s claims that rents are falling in response to the cuts

Given how much we spend on housing benefit in the private rented sector it would be surprising if there were no landlords taking advantage. But the hard lesson is that this probably has little impact on overall spending levels. Claims from the left that billions are being wasted "subsidising" private landlords are about as convincing as claims from the right that billions are being wasted subsidising irresponsible tenants to live in mansions.

There’s a longstanding debate about the merits of funding housing through demand rather than supply-side subsidy. (For a fair statement of the argument, see Shelter’s report). But suggesting that there’s a free pot of money available for housing investment in the form of subsidy captured by greedy landlords adds nothing to that debate.

If we want more housing investment, we’re going to have to pay for it some other way: perhaps by borrowing as Jonathan Portes has suggested. Taking that route would also have positive impacts on employment, thus reducing expenditure on housing benefit without hitting the incomes of struggling workers. But the welfare reform two-step is a distraction from the real issues, whether you lead with the right or the left.

1 See page 55 here.

2 See section 6.2 here.

3 Geek note: all variables in logarithms, all p-values <.01. The results are not driven by multi-collinearity between the independent variables.

A housing estate in Lambeth. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage