Work & pensions secretary Ian Duncan Smith: the man with the plan. Image: Getty.
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So Iain Duncan Smith is setting housing policy now? God help us all

Five reasons why Iain Duncan Smith's plan to give free houses to those who come off benefits is a terrible policy. 

Oh, Iain Duncan Smith. Is there any other individual, anywhere in politics, who has such a talent for looking thoughtfully at a problem, giving it long consideration, and then coming up with a solution that is quite so catastrophically wrong?

Today the Times splashed on a story outlining the exciting new idea that IDS is pushing to include in this year's Tory manifesto. It would boost home ownership, incentivise people to move from welfare to work, and make working class voters less likely to defect to UKIP. The party’s leadership is said to be smiling on the plan. Here it is in a sentence:

Free council houses for recent benefit claimants.

Yep. From the Times:

Millions of houses would be “given away” to low-paid workers under Tory plans to reward people who come off benefits.

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, is pushing for a pledge to “gift” tenants their council home after a year in work to be included in the Tory manifesto.

If this doesn't immediately leap out at you as a good idea, that's because it's not. It's awful. How is it awful? Let me count the ways.

 

1) It misunderstands the reason people are out of work.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there are people who don’t claim unemployment benefit because they can’t find a job, but do so instead as an economically rational choice; people who have decided that their time is worth more to them then the wages available. These are the people who might be open to a great big house-shaped bribe to get back into work.

How many of these people do you imagine there are? And can it really be a large enough number to justify the fact that . . .

 

2) It eats yet further into Britain's scarce social housing stock

There are 1.7m people on the waiting list for social housing – people who would like one of these homes but can’t get one.

This policy does nothing for them. No, that’s not fair, it actually makes their situation worse, because it means there will be less social housing available to go round. Well done there.

What’s more . . .

 

3) It loses the taxpayer money

. . . for the very simple reason that, if you give away some sweets, then those are some sweets that you no longer have.

Iain Duncan Smith seems to think the reduction in housing benefit would help a bit to offset the cost of this scheme. And there is talk of a clawback: sell your free house within three years, you’ll pay 35 per cent of the proceeds in tax, that sort of thing. But the policy seems to assume the tax will fall as a proportion of sale price over time, and, anyway, that money won't be available for years. It’s almost certainly a net loss to the state.

Worst of all, a fairly hefty contributor to high house prices is high land prices, which pushes up the price of building replacement housing, too. So that 35 per cent clawback is extremely unlikely to be enough to fund replacement housing. And since the reason we have a housing crisis is that we don’t have enough houses, handing them out as electoral bribes is probably not a very good policy.

That's assuming that the bribery would work of course, which . . 

 

4) It's politically suicidal

. . . it won't. Approximately 17 per cent of households in England and Wales live in social housing; that’s around 4.1m of them. That, in the most optimistic assessment, is the maximum proportion of households who would stand to benefit from this policy.

Now consider how many people would instead be outraged by IDS’s plan. They include those in private rented accommodation, many of whom have been saving for years but can't get on the ladder; anyone sitting on a vast mortgage; and anyone who's drunk the Daily Mail kool-aid, and who now thinks that benefit claimants and social housing residents get a far too cushy time already.

I wouldn't want to hazard a guess of how many people there are on this second list. But since there are 4.2m households in the private rental sector alone, I think we can safely say it's more than on the first list.

Oh, and:

 

5) The government doesn't own many of these homes in the first place

Nearly half of them (1.9m) are instead owned by housing associations. These are charities, whose mission is to provide homes. Many of them have borrowed a fortune to build homes to help them fulfil this mission.

Even assuming that the government can force these charities to hand their assets out to their tenants, many will then be left with enormous holes in their balance sheets. So that will make building the homes Britain needs a whole lot harder, too.

***

Need I go on? This policy is economically, financially, politically and institutionally illiterate, and it'll make the housing crisis worse. So why the enthusiasm from the Tory front bench?

The answer, I suspect, can be found in the other policy currently under consideration: an extension of the right to buy to housing association stock. That also runs headlong into point five above, but it also shows quite how badly the Conservative leadership is still trying to relive the 1980s.

The party wants to increase home ownership, which is lovely of them. But they seem to think that the main the barrier to doing so is an over-mighty social housing sector. Break that, the argument goes, and you get more home owners and more Tories. After all, it worked for Margaret Thatcher.

But it won't work now – because the real reason home ownership rates are falling is rising house prices, and the main force behind that is we are not building enough houses in the places people want to live.

Yet the Tory party remains oblivious to this. Instead, it's shuffling assets around, ignoring the fact its policies will contribute directly to the decline of home ownership, and probably a concomitant decline in the number of potential Tory voters, too.

The Conservatives were once the natural party of government. Today they're a pale Margaret Thatcher tribute act, constitutionally incapable of examining why they can’t get a thumping great majority any more.

And Iain Duncan Smith is setting housing policy. God help us all.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder