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.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

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