Five reasons why the benefit cap is wrong

The £26,000 cap, which is introduced in four London boroughs today, will raise child poverty, increase homelessness and cost more than it saves.

Whichever Conservative first came up with the line that "no out-of-work family should receive more in benefits than the average family receives from going out to work" probably deserves some sort of prize. The policy to which it refers - the benefit cap of £26,000 - has been framed so as to make reasonable disagreement appears impossible. Who can argue that it should pay more to be on welfare than in work? It’s unsurprising, then, that the policy is one of the coalition’s most popular (perhaps even the most popular). A YouGov poll published earlier this month found that 79 per cent of people, including 71 per cent of Labour voters, support the cap, with just 12 per cent opposed. But while politically astute, the cap, which is introduced in four London boroughs today (Bromley, Croydon, Enfield and Haringey), before being rolled out nationally from July, may be the most flawed of all of the coalition’s welfare measures. Here are five reasons why.

1. An out-of-work family is never better off than an in-work family

The claim on which the policy rests - that a non-working family can be better off than a working one - is a myth since it takes no account of the benefits that an in-work family can claim to increase their income. For instance, a couple with four children earning £26,000 after tax and with rent and council tax liabilities of £400 a week is entitled to around £15,000 a year in housing benefit and council tax support, £3,146 in child benefit and more than £4,000 in tax credits.

Were the cap based on the average income (as opposed to average earnings) of a working family, it would be set at a significantly higher level of £31,500. The suggestion that the welfare system "rewards" worklessness isn’t true; families are already better off in employment. Thus, the two central arguments for the policy - that it will improve work incentives and end the "unfairness" of out-of-work families receiving more than their in-work equivalents - fall down.

(And it will hit in-work families too)

Incidentally, and contrary to ministers' rhetoric, the cap will hit in-work as well as out-of-work families. A single person must be working at least 16 hours a week and a couple at least 24 hours a week (with one member working at least 16 hours) to avoid the cap. 

2. It will punish large families and increase child poverty

The cap applies regardless of family size, breaking the link between need and benefits. As a result, most out-of-work families with four children and all those with five or more will be pushed into poverty (defined as having an income below 60 per cent of the median income for families of a similar size). Iain Duncan Smith has claimed that “[at] £26,000 a year it's very difficult to believe that families will be plunged into poverty” but his own department’s figures show that the poverty threshold for a non-working family with four children, at least two of whom are over 14, is £26,566 - £566 above the cap. The government's Impact Assessment found that 52 per cent of those families affected have four or more children.

By applying the policy retrospectively, the government has chosen to penalise families for having children on the reasonable assumption that existing levels of support would be maintained. While a childless couple who have never worked will be able to claim benefits as before (provided they do not exceed the cap), a large family that falls on hard times will now suffer a dramatic loss of income. In view of this, the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment by Church of England bishops to exclude child benefit from the cap (which would halve the number of families affected) but the defeat was subsequently overturned by the government in the Commons.

The DWP has released no official estimate of the likely increase in child poverty but a leaked government analysis suggested around 100,000 would fall below the threshold once the cap is introduced.

3. It will likely cost more than it saves

For all the political attention devoted to it, the cap is expected to save just £110m a year, barely a rounding error in the £201bn benefits bill. But even these savings could be wiped out due to the cost to local authorities of homelessness and housing families in temporary accommodation. As a leaked letter from Eric Pickles’s office to David Cameron stated, the measure "does not take account of the additional costs to local authorities (through homelessness and temporary accommodation). In fact we think it is likely that the policy as it stands will generate a net cost. In addition Local Authorities will have to calculate and administer reduced Housing Benefit to keep within the cap and this will mean both demands on resource and difficult handling locally."

4. It will increase homelessness and do nothing to address the housing crisis

Most of those who fall foul of the cap do so because of the amount they receive in housing benefit (or, more accurately, landlord subsidy) in order to pay their rent. At £23.8bn, the housing benefit bill, which now accounts for more than a tenth of the welfare budget, is far too high but rather than tackling the root of the problem by building more affordable housing, the government has chosen to punish families unable to afford reasonable accommodation without state support.

The cap will increase homelessness by 40,000 and force councils to relocate families hundreds of miles away, disrupting their children's education and reducing employment opportunities (by requiring them to live in an area where they have no history of working). 

5. It will encourage family break-up

Iain Duncan Smith talks passionately of his desire to reduce family breakdown but the cap will serve to encourage it. As Simon Hughes has pointed out, the measure creates "a financial incentive to be apart" since parents who live separately and divide the residency of their children between them will be able to claim up to £1,000 a week in benefits, while a couple living together will only be able to claim £500.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle