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 Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation