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13 March 2015

Low wages and high prices, not laziness, are driving up the social security bill

Low wages and rising prices are pushing up the cost of in-work benefits. Labour will raise wages and keep the cost of social security down.

By Chris Leslie

Britain needs a responsible and fair social security system that works for working people. One that rewards contribution, and protects those who cannot work or cannot earn enough to support themselves and their families. To deliver those aims, our system needs to be affordable.

But under David Cameron, low pay and high housing costs are pushing up the welfare bill, meaning that despite changes such as the cruel and unfair Bedroom Tax, the Tories have spent £25 billion more than planned over this parliament.

Housing Benefit makes up the second largest area of social security spending after pensions. Under the Tories, spending has risen over the parliament to reach £24 billion this year, a rise of £1.5 billion on 2010.

A toxic combination of low pay, a crisis in housebuilding, and rising rents plays a key part in explaining this rise, with the number of people forced to rely on housing benefit to pay the rent rising by over 440,000 since 2010 – clear evidence of the Tories’ failing plan.

And because of the mismanagement of the benefits system under Iain Duncan Smith, there’s also been a surge in housing benefit overpayments due to fraud and error, adding an extra £470 million to welfare spending. Overpayments now represent six per cent of total spending on housing benefit, the highest level since records began.

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This can’t go on. As Ed Balls has said, will need to make tough choices to get the deficit down. Today, in our interim Zero-Based Review of the Department for Work and Pensions spending, Labour is setting out a plan to control the housing benefit bill and ensure that we can deliver a sustainable social security system.

We have listened to the independent Work and Pensions select committee and will consult on how to use data from credit reference agencies and the payments industry to make sure the information provided by people claiming housing benefit is correct.

And we will give councils back the fraud investigation powers that this government wants to take away. Just bringing error and fraud levels down to the levels seen under the last Labour Government would save the taxpayer £1 billion over the next five years, and we will set a target to save at least that amount

Labour will also take action to bring down the high cost of rents – which is pushing up the housing benefit bill – by building at least 200,000 more homes a year by 2020, and introducing stable tenancies with predictable rent rises.

At the same time we will tackle low pay which is forcing more and more working people to rely on housing benefit because they can’t afford to pay the rent. A Labour government will raise the minimum wage to at least £8 an hour by 2020 and giving tax rebates to firms who pay their staff a Living Wage so they can pay the rent.

We will deal with the rising costs of temporary accommodation and turn around a system that is trapping thousands of families in, poor quality hostels and B&Bs, while costs continue to rise. And we will reward councils that negotiate lower rents with landlords, by letting them keep these savings so that they can build more affordable homes.

Labour has a better plan to ensure we have a social security system that is fair and affordable, and that works for working people.