The benefit cap isn't working for the poor, but that was never the aim

The cap is less a serious act of policy than a political weapon designed to trap Labour on the wrong side of the argument and to demonise the unemployed.

Whichever Conservative first came up with the line that "no out-of-work family should receive more in benefits than the average family receives from going out to work" probably deserves some sort of prize. The policy to which it refers - the benefit cap of £26,000 (£500 a week) - has been framed so as to make reasonable disagreement appears impossible. Who can argue that it should pay more to be on welfare than in work? (Although the cap takes no account of the in-work benefits claimed by families.) It’s unsurprising, then, that the measure is the coalition’s most popular. A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 79% of people, including 71% of Labour voters, support the cap, with just 12% opposed. But while politically astute, the cap, which was introduced nationally in July, is perhaps the most flawed of all the government's policies.

A study of its effects in Haringey, one of the boroughs where it was piloted from April, offers new evidence of why. While the cap is saving the council £60,000 a week after 747 households had their benefits reduced, it is costing nearly as much to manage. The council is currently spending £55,000 a week on Discretionary Housing Payments to help claimants meet their rent and thousands more on additional welfare and employment support. None of this should be surprising. As a leaked letter from Eric Pickles's office to David Cameron warned in 2011, the measure "does not take account of the additional costs to local authorities (through homelessness and temporary accommodation). In fact we think it is likely that the policy as it stands will generate a net cost. In addition Local Authorities will have to calculate and administer reduced Housing Benefit to keep within the cap and this will mean both demands on resource and difficult handling locally."

At the same time, there is little evidence that the cap is achieving its stated aim of moving claimants into work (principally because few choose to live "a life on benefits"). Just 74 of the 740 households affected have found work, a number no greater than one would expect without the cap given the regular churn of claimants. In many cases, the lack of affordable childcare continues to represent a barrier to employment. Indeed, by requiring councils to relocate families hundreds of miles away, the cap actually reduces work opportunities by forcing them to live in an area where they have no employment history. 

But to judge the cap on these terms is to misunderstand the government's motives. The cap is less a serious act of policy than a political weapon designed to trap Labour ("the welfare party") on the wrong side of the argument and to perpetuate the belief that the unemployed are to blame for their own misfortune. On this basis, lamentably, it is working just as intended. 

Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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