Bicycles and other items sit on the balconies of council run housing in Lambeth on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour targets the Tories' weak spot on housing benefit

New figures show that there has been a 59 per cent increase in working people claiming housing benefit since 2010.

There are few stances that the Conservatives emphasise more than their commitment to reducing welfare spending. The policy imperative is to cut the deficit; the political imperative is to cast Labour as the party of the feckless.

But the rhetoric belies the reality. As Labour is highlighting today, new research by the House of Commons library shows that there has been a 59 per cent increase in working people claiming housing benefit (386,265) since 2010, increasing the already swollen budget (£24.3bn) by £4.8bn. Spending has increased in every local authority, proving that this is not merely a London problem. Rachel Reeves and shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds will visit Croydon today, where the housing benefit bill has risen by 1,100 per cent since 2010, the largest increase in the country. 

The Tories will respond by pointing out that Labour has opposed measures intended to reduce spending, such as the removal of the "spare room subsidy" and the £26,000 benefit cap (Labour would introduce a regionally-weighted version). But the opposition will present the figures as evidence that the government is engaged in crude salami slicing when more profound reform is needed. As one source told me: "Whenever the coalition talks about this issue, it’s almost entirely focused on restricting housing benefit for the under-25s, or taking it away from EU migrants. But one of the biggest drivers is people who’ve got jobs but who don’t earn enough to stay above the poverty line." 

The task for Labour is to demonstrate how it would tackle the long-term, structural causes of welfare spending. As Jon Cruddas has long argued, it is madness that for every £100 spent on housing, just £5 is invested in building, while £95 goes on housing benefit. The party's pledges to build at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020, to cap rent increases and to restore the lost value of the minimum wage are all aimed at turning the tide. I'm told that Reeves will be making further announcements to this end later in the year. 

If Labour can persuade the public that stagnant wages and extortionate rents, not work-shy claimants, are the biggest drivers of welfare spending, it may finally be able to turn the welfare debate in its favour. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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