How Osborne disguised the truth about the rising housing benefit bill

Excessive rents and substandard wages are to blame for soaring housing benefit payments, not workshy 'scroungers'.

Rarely has there been a better example of a politician attacking the symptom, rather than the cause, than in the case of George Osborne and housing benefit. Addressing Morrisons workers earlier today, Osborne sought to terrify his audience with tales of families receiving "£100,000 a year" (just five did). It was such cases, he said, that prompted the government to cap housing benefit payments at £400 a week.

We can’t have a system that penalises you for going out to work and wanting to get on. So we’ve put a stop to those staggering payments and put a cap on housing benefit.

We’ve made sure that you can’t get more than £400 of Housing Benefit a week in this country. That’s still a pretty generous amount.

And yet when we did the pressure groups and welfare lobby attacked it as not enough.

They still say that people should get more than £400 a week housing benefit.

They don’t seem to realise that the money to pay these benefits comes from people who work hard, who pay their taxes, and many of whom can’t afford £400 a week in rent.

On one point the Chancellor is right: the housing benefit bill is too high. But what he chose not to tell his audience is that benefit payments have only soared because rents have. The bloated housing benefit bill (which will reach £23.8bn this year, more than a tenth of the welfare budget) is the result of a conscious choice by successive governments to subsidise private landlords, rather than invest in affordable social housing.

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. As a result, the number of working people forced to rely on welfare 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 are 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. It is excessive rents and substandard wages that are to blame for the inflated housing benefit budget, not workshy 'scroungers'. Even with the government's cuts, the bill is forecast to rise from £23.8bn this year to £25.9bn in 2017-18. 

But had Osborne chosen to tell his audience this, rather than launching another lazy assault on the welfare system, he might have been forced to explain why the government isn't building more homes. With 390,000 new families formed in 2012 but only 111,250 new homes built, rents have continued to soar as demand has outstripped supply. And as the OBR, among others, has noted, Osborne's new "Help To Buy" scheme is only likely to further drive up prices. But the government's response to the housing crisis too often remains to change the subject. In this case, by displacing public anger onto those who least deserve it: the poor and the vulnerable. 

Members of the public in north London walk past a poster informing of changes to the benefits and tax system that have come into force. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Nobody's bargaining chips: How EU citizens are fighting back against Theresa May

Immigration could spike after Brexit, the Home Affairs select committee warned. 

In early July, EU citizens living in Scotland received some post from the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. The letters stated: “The immediate status of EU nationals living in Scotland has not changed and you retain all the same rights to live and to work here. I believe those rights for the longer term should be guaranteed immediately.”

The letters were appreciated. One Polish woman living on a remote Scottish island posted on social media: “Scottish Government got me all emotional yesterday.”

In reality, though, Sturgeon does not have the power to let EU citizens stay. That rests with the UK Government. The new prime minister, Theresa May, stood out during the Tory leadership contest for her refusal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens. Instead, she told Robert Peston: “As part of the [Brexit] negotiation we will need to look at this question of people who are here in the UK from the EU.”

As Home secretary in an EU member state, May took a hard line on immigration.  As PM in Brexit Britain, she has more powers than ever. 

In theory, this kind of posturing could work. A steely May can use the spectre of mass deportations to force a hostile Spain and France to guarantee the rights of British expat retirees. Perhaps she can also batter in the now-locked door to the single market. 

But the attempt to use EU citizens as bargaining chips may backfire. The Home Affairs select committee warned that continued policy vagueness could lead to a surge in immigration – the last thing May wants. EU citizens, after all, are aware of how British immigration policy works and understand that it's easier to turn someone back at the border than deport them when they've set up roots.

The report noted: “Past experience has shown that previous attempts to tighten immigration rules have led to a spike in immigration prior to the rules coming into force.”

It recommended that if the Government wants to avoid a surge in applications, it must choose an effective cut-off date for the old rules, whether that is 23 June, the date Article 50 is triggered, or the date the UK finally leaves the EU.

Meanwhile, EU citizens, many of whom have spent decades in the UK, are pursuing tactics of their own. UK immigration forms are busy with chatter of UK-based EU citizens urging one another to "get your DCPR" - document certifying permanent residence - and other paperwork to protect their status. More than 1,000 have joined a Facebook group to discuss the impact of the referendum, with hot topics including dual nationality and petitions for a faster naturalisation process. British citizens with foreign spouses are trying to make the most of the "Surinder Singh" loophole, which allows foreign spouses to bypass usual immigration procedures if their British partner is based in another EU country. 

Jakub, a classical musician originally from Poland, is already thinking of how he can stay in the UK, where there are job opportunities for musicians. 

But he worries that although he has spent half a decade in the UK, a brief spell two years ago back in Poland may jeopardise his situation.“I feel a new fear,” he said. “I am not sure what will happen next.”