Cameron's housing benefit myths debunked

New report shows that the number of working people claiming housing benefit has risen by 86 per cent in three years.

David Cameron and George Osborne are fond of describing housing benefit as a payment for the unemployed. Recently challenged on his plan to abolish the benefit for the under-25s, Cameron said:

We should ask this question about housing benefit: if you're a young person and you work hard at college, you get a job, you're living at home with mum and dad, you can't move out, you can't access housing benefit [emphasis mine].

And yet, actually, if you choose not to work, you can get housing benefit, you can get a flat. And having got that, you're unlikely then to want a job because you're in danger of losing your housing benefit and your flat. We have to look at the signals we send and I think we should have a system where we say 'you shouldn't be better off out of work than in work'. The system doesn't work today, so we need to reform it.

By portraying housing benefit as a payment for "the shirkers", not "the strivers", Cameron and Osborne aim to convince the public that their unprecedented welfare cuts are justified. But the truth is that the benefit is increasingly claimed by the working poor, the very group that Cameron purports to care so much about.

Today's report from the National Housing Federation, Home Truths, shows that the number of working people forced to rely on housing benefit to pay their rent has increased by 417,830 (86 per cent) in the last three years, a figure that is rising at a rate of nearly 10,000 a month. Ninety three per cent of new claims last year were made by households containing at least one employed adult. By 2015, a total of 1.2 million working people people will only be able to stay in their homes through state subsidy.

As the figures suggest, it is excessive rents and substandard wages that are to blame for the inflated housing benefit budget (which will reach £23.2bn this year), not workshy "scroungers". The cost of privately renting a home has increased by 37 per cent in the past five years, and is set to rise by a further 35 per cent over the next six years. With 390,000 new families formed in 2011, but only 111,250 new homes built, rents have inevitably soared as demand has outstripped supply.

Rather than making housing benefit ever more restrictive, Cameron should act to lower rents and increase wages (when did you last hear him speak of a "living wage"?). Punitive cuts to welfare might win the Tories favourable headlines in the right-wing press, but this approach will do nothing to help "the strivers".

David Cameron visits a building site in Victoria, where he met a number of apprentices on October 18, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour is getting very, very scared about robots

Forget Brexit, it's the march of the automatons you should be worried about. 

Labour is worried about getting exterminated - and not at the polls. One of the preoccupations of this year's party conference is robots, and the possibility that mechanical devices will soon be replacing Britain's workforce. And fast. 

Norman Pickavance, a Grant Thornton consultant who advised Ed Miliband on employment policy, warned that three different futures loomed, including a "world of extraction" where humans are commoditised, or a "world of robotics and anxiety" (his preferred world was the third, an "age of connections"). Speaking at a Fabian fringe event, he said: "On robotics, I think the changes are coming really quickly."

Yvette Cooper, a former Cabinet minister, concurred. She said: "None of us know quite how fast this could happen, but it could rip through certain areas or sectors."

Next it was the turn of Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary. He may have made headlines at conference for his comments on integration, but it seems he wasn't just talking about the human kind. "There are communities which have a high concentration of a particular industry that we know automation and robots are going to fundmentally impact," he said during a Resolution Foundation event.

So is Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet going to shrug off Brexit and focus on robot wars? The Staggers asked Jon Trickett, shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. And if anything, his view is even more apocalyptic. 

"It is part of the reason we can't go on in the same way," he said. "There are things that have happened to our country that make it difficult to sustain the status quo. Now we have got this innovation process which is about to accelerate. I think thousands of thousands of jobs are under threat.

"I think it's important we don't become Luddites, because this can emancipate people from the drudgery of labour, but at the same time it is important people are not left on the scrap heap."

As for why everyone's talking about it? According to Trickett, this is simply because "it is literally about to happen".

In the age of the robots, politicians must seize power in more ways than one. "Technology can either be our master or our servant," he told The Staggers. "I think we will have to make it our servant."