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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.