The benefit cap will only succeed in harming the weakest and most vulnerable

Instead of the social vivisection currently taking place, lowering the benefits bill requires an agenda that creates jobs, arms people with skills and lowers rents.

Yesterday, four London boroughs, including Haringey, where my Tottenham constituency is located, began piloting the benefit cap before it is rolled out across the country over the course of the year.

Let's begin by confronting the elephant in the room: the cap is a popular policy. In fact, it is the coalition's most popular one by a long stretch, backed by an overwhelming 79 per cent of the public. We can speculate why it has become so popular, whether it is the symptom of an increasingly individualistic country or because the recession has increased suspicion of those in receipt of social security, but we will struggle to contend with its eminently reasonable premise: those out of work should not have a higher income than the average in-work family.
 
That entire households rely on the state to provide every last penny of their budget over many months isn't - in the vast majority of cases at least - a badge of honour but a mark of failure. The difference is who is failing and why. The government and their allies in the press see failure only in the individual. To them, claimants are a separate species, only capable of vegetating on "handouts" (which are inevitably spent on a diet of Special Brew, Golden Virginia and Sky TV) rather than finding work.
 
Our analysis has to be different. We see failure in some individuals but not all - certainly not the majority. We are more likely to find failure in a labour market that is void of jobs, in a skills sector that did not provide adequate training and a childcare system that is beyond the reach of ordinary families. Most of all, we find failure in a housing infrastructure that allows landlords to hoover up an increasingly greater chunk of the nation's welfare bill through extortionate rent increases all the while offering deteriorating conditions and even more overcrowding.
 
Our outrage at the benefit cap isn't that we cannot stand that people in work will be better off than those out of it - we ought to welcome that - but that for all of these institutional failures, it is only the weakest and most vulnerable that are being asked to change. Of the 900 families in Tottenham that are being pushed to the brink of homelessness half are single parents and a quarter are in receipt of the Employment and Support Allowance. Meanwhile, the institutions that failed them are left untouched: fewer affordable homes are being built, rents continue to rise, and many of the jobs being created are underpaid, part-time, insecure and offer no prospects of advancement or training.
 
While satisfying the desire to frame the welfare debate in the lead up to the next election around who can appear "toughest" on "skivers", the benefit cap fails almost every other ambition the government has set itself. For all the government rhetoric about families, parenting and the importance of marriage, it is this cocktail of welfare reforms that provides the formula for family break up - the party that continues to plead for tax incentives for marriage now prides itself on reforms that incentivise divorce and estrangement. For all the talk of extending opportunities to all children of whatever background, the most disadvantaged will now be fed and clothed with a stipend of just 62p a day. Any monies saved now will only boomerang back as the social bill of abject poverty - educational failure, rough sleeping, and yes, hopelessness that leads to crime and unrest - mounts for generations to come.
 
We need to treat the disease, not the symptoms. Instead of the social vivisection currently taking place in Haringey, Enfield, Bromley and Croydon, lowering the benefit bill requires an agenda that creates jobs, arms people with skills and lowers rents (a major house building programme would achieve all three, for instance). If we want to "make work pay" to incentivise people to take jobs when they are available, it is more effective to make significant upward revisions to the minimum wage (an increase of £1.20, rather than 12p, perhaps) rather than condemn families to squalor. All parties should want to lower the benefit bill and all want to make work pay. The difference between this government and ourselves is humanity: they believe homelessness and family break up is a price worth paying, we believe it never can be.

 

Homes on the Falinge Estate, which has been surveyed as the most deprived area in England for a fifth year in a row, on January 8, 2013 in Rochdale. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.