The coalition looks to widen its attack on child benefit

The benefit could be limited to two children for all families.

Having accused those parents aggrieved at losing their child benefit of "fiscal nimbyism", the government looks set to go even further in its assault on welfare. Treasury minister David Gauke (the man responsible for that "nimbyism" jibe) yesterday revealed on Radio 4's Moneybox that the coalition was considering limiting child benefit to a maximum of two children for all families. Iain Duncan Smith has previously suggested that the government could restrict benefits for out-of-work families, but Gauke hinted that the measure could also apply to those in-work. He said: "We are looking at it in terms of the welfare bill across the board as to how that might work." A Treasury source went on to tell the Daily Mail:

All options are being looked at in this area. It’s not something we can do retrospectively. The main focus is on the incentives that apply to workless households as opposed to working households. You could just do that with child tax credits. But we are looking in detail at child benefit as well. We are looking at various options.

The government emphasised that no details had been settled and that the measure "would only apply to new children", but it would still be wise to tread carefully. Limiting child benefit to two children, regardless of parental employment status, would be seen as a betrayal of its promise to "make work pay". It would also be yet another example of the government penalising families. Since coming to power, the coalition has abolished baby bonds, removed the ring-fence on Sure Start (leading to hundreds of centres closing), frozen child benefit for three years, scrapped the Health in Pregnancy Grant and withdrawn child tax credits from higher earners. Pensioners, by contrast, have retained universal benefits, including free bus passes, free television licen­ces and the Winter Fuel Allowance. While cutting welfare for families isn't a good argument for cutting welfare for the elderly (we need not choose between competing sets of welfare cuts, in other words), it will be even harder for the government to maintain this double standard if it widens its assault on child benefit.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last month's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.