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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.