The questions Labour needs to answer about its regional benefit cap

Why support a regional benefit cap but not regional benefit levels? And what level would the cap be set at it in London?

With the introduction of the £26,000 benefit cap in four London boroughs this week (see my blog from Monday for five reasons why the cap is wrong), Labour has been challenged again to say whether it would keep the policy if elected. The party's answer is still that it supports a cap but one that takes into account regional variations in housing costs. 

Ed Balls said on LBC this morning that the party would "definitely keep" the cap, so long as it is "set in the right way". On Question Time last night, Caroline Flint argued:

I also believe in a benefit cap but one that can work and the problem is that because there are different housing costs around the country, the government have introduced this sort of standardised benefit cap that is going to cause problems. We argued that, actually, we should have localised benefit caps that did reflect some of the housing costs

There is logic to Labour's position. House prices in London are 61 per cent higher than the national average and, as a result, nearly half of those households affected by the cap are in the capital. As Liam Byrne argued when the policy was first proposed last year, "While all that £500 a week might get you in central London is a one-bedroom apartment, in Rotherham, Yorkshire it would get you a six-bedroom house. How can a 'one-size-fits-all' cap be fair to working people in both London and Rotherham?"

But the proposal invites the Conservative rejoinder: if you support a regional benefit cap, why not regional benefit levels? When Michael Howard made this point on Question Time, Flint replied: "There is a different issue when it comes to housing, if you look around the country, Michael, you can see that there are disparities in terms of housing costs." In other words, she dodged the question. There is a strong argument against regional benefit levels (and regional public sector pay) - that they would depress local economies at a time when they desperately need stimulus - but it is one that Labour has failed to make so far. 

The other question that the party needs to answer is what level the cap would be set at in London and elsewhere. While a regional approach would mean a cap below £26,000 in some areas, it would almost certainly mean a cap above this level in the capital. The political problem for Labour is that most voters already regard the existing cap as too generous. As the Telegraph's Iain Martin tweeted this morning, "If Labour says £500 per week benefit cap in London is too low, what should it be set at instead? £700? A grand?" A higher benefit cap in the capital would inevitably prompt the accusation that poorer areas are unfairly being asked to subsidise housing costs for Londoners. 

The overwhelming public support for the cap (79 per cent of people, including 71 per cent of Labour voters, back the policy) has convinced Labour that it can't be seen to oppose the policy unconditionally. But without further development, the alternative of a regional cap risks falling apart under Tory scrutiny.  

A general view of the Falinge Estate, which has been surveyed as the most deprived area in England for a fifth year in a row, on January 8, 2013 in Rochdale, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
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Theresa May's speech on the Westminster terror attack

"We will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart." 

I have just chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee, COBRA, following the sick and depraved terrorist attack on the streets of our Capital this afternoon.  

The full details of exactly what happened are still emerging. But, having been updated by police and security officials, I can confirm that this appalling incident began when a single attacker drove his vehicle into pedestrians walking across Westminster Bridge, killing two people and injuring many more, including three police officers.   

This attacker, who was armed with a knife, then ran towards Parliament where he was confronted by the police officers who keep us – and our democratic institutions – safe.  

Tragically, one officer was killed. The terrorist was also shot dead.   The United Kingdom’s threat level has been set at severe for some time and this will not change. Acting Deputy Commissioner Rowley will give a further operational update later this evening.   Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been affected – to the victims themselves, and their family and friends who waved their loved ones off, but will not now be welcoming them home.

  For those of us who were in Parliament at the time of this attack, these events provide a particular reminder of the exceptional bravery of our police and security services who risk their lives to keep us safe.

Once again today, these exceptional men and women ran towards the danger even as they encouraged others to move the other way.   On behalf of the whole country, I want to pay tribute to them – and to all our emergency services – for the work they have been doing to reassure the public and bring security back to the streets of our Capital City.   That they have lost one of their own in today’s attack only makes their calmness and professionalism under pressure all the more remarkable.  

The location of this attack was no accident. The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech.   These streets of Westminster – home to the world’s oldest Parliament – are engrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe. And the values our Parliament represents – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law – command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere.   That is why it is a target for those who reject those values.   But let me make it clear today, as I have had cause to do before: any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure.

Tomorrow morning, Parliament will meet as normal. We will come together as normal.   And Londoners - and others from around the world who have come here to visit this great City - will get up and go about their day as normal.

They will board their trains, they will leave their hotels, they will walk these streets, they will live their lives.

And we will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.