At every opportunity, Iain Duncan Smith and other Conservative ministers seek to give the impression that they're reducing the number of benefit claimants, counterposing themselves to Labour - "the welfare party". But as so often, the statistics tell a different story.
The latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that the number of housing benefit claimants rose by 40,526 to 5.1 million in the year to May 2013, an increase of 320,738 since the coalition came to power. Of the total, nearly a million (987,610) are in work, a rise of 52 per cent (337,059) since May 2010.
May 2010 4,7521,526
May 2011 4,879,182
May 2012 5,031,738
Jan 2013 5,070,291
Feb 2013 5,078,523
Mar 2013 5,060,689
April 2013 5,062,172
May 2013 5,072,264
It's a reminder that by imposing punitive welfare cuts (the benefit cap, the bedroom tax), rather than addressing the underlying structural causes of the inflated housing benefit bill (substandard wages, the lack of affordable housing, long-term unemployment), the government will only increase the number forced to rely on state subsidy to stay in their homes.
Before the recent Spending Review, Boris Johnson and Vince Cable, among others, urged George Osborne to remove the cap on the cap on councils' borrowing and allow them to build more affordable housing. Boris said:
We should allow London’s councils to borrow more for house building - as they do on continental Europe - since the public sector clearly gains a bankable asset and there is no need for this to appear on the books as public borrowing.
In policy terms, it is a no-brainer. The Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that raising the caps by £7bn could enable the construction of 60,000 homes over the next five years, creating 23,500 jobs and adding £5.6bn to the economy. But for almost entirely ideological reasons, Osborne refused to act. As Vince Cable commented on The Andrew Marr Show last month:
Well that’s where the big gap is [social housing] and certainly as Liberal Democrats at conference, we’re going to be arguing how the government through local councils should be doing much more to build social housing. Absolutely right, that is a big problem area. Nothing like enough has been done.