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.