Housing benefit: the scandal and the myth

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Wed Oct 17 21:47:18 BST 2012

Housing benefit: the scandal and the myth

George Osborne and David Cameron’s call to end 
housing benefit for people under the age of 25 is 
the latest move in a government so right wing 
that it would make Margaret Thatcher blush.

In an interview with James Naughtie on Radio 4’s 
Today programme this week, David Cameron set out 
to explain why he thought people under the age of 
25 shouldn’t get housing benefit:

And yet, actually, if you choose not to work, you 
can get housing benefit, you can get a flat. And 
having got that, you’re unlikely then to want a 
job because you’re in danger of losing your 
housing benefit and your flat. We have to look at the signals we send.

At first glance, I hoped that Cameron’s 
explanation signalled idiocy more than hate. He 
certainly revealed a massive ignorance of how the 
system actually works. Housing benefit is not 
just something for the unemployed.

In fact, households in employment accounted for 
at least 93% of new housing benefit claimants by the end of last year.
Overall, only 1 in 8 housing benefit claimants 
are out of work. Not to mention, of course, that 
many people who claim housing benefit are unable 
to work – due to disability or age. Housing 
benefit isn’t a lifestyle choice for the lazy. 
It’s a necessity for low-income people just to get by.

In the Radio 4 interview, Cameron prefaced his 
remarks on housing benefit claimants by 
contrasting them with decent, young people who 
are in work but live at home with their parents. 
It’s true that many young people haven’t flown 
the nest, but it’s mainly because they can’t get 
decent paying jobs – and sending us into a 
double-dip recession hasn’t helped things.

But Cameron failed to acknowledge that many young 
housing benefit claimants CAN’T go back home to 
mum and dad — because for many, there ISN’T 
anywhere or anyone to go back to. The assumption 
that all young people can live with their parents 
ignores the huge number who have suffered from 
abuse and neglect. Gay young people are 
especially at risk of being kicked out of home by 
their parents. Already, a staggering 25% of 
homeless people in urban areas identify as LGBT.

205,000 housing benefit claimants under 
twenty-five have children. What happens to them 
when their parents can’t afford to live in their 
homes? Cameron was confronted about this point 
directly by Naughtie: ‘The people who will suffer 
are the children. By your very argument, these 
kids, if they are put in that position when they 
are young children, are going to be the problem 
children of the future’. Predictably, Cameron 
simply ignored the question, replying that he was 
right to ‘launch this national conversation’. I 
wonder whether this will include these young people?

The Prime Minister and the country might benefit 
if he refrained from using the vulnerable as a 
convenient punching bag quite so often. We need 
fast work to tackle extortionate rent prices, to 
launch serious public housing construction 
projects, and to fight for a living wage. Housing 
benefit is a treatment for a much more serious 
economic malaise, which suggests deep inequities 
in the way in which our economic system works. Ed 
Miliband has been right to raise 
‘predistribution’ as one way of addressing these 
inequalities – but we urgently await more detail.

David Cameron said we must look at the signals we 
send. In the same year they chose to give an 
average tax cut of £40,000 to top earners, 
Cameron and Osborne have decided to establish 
fiscal ‘credibility’ by going after the majority 
low-income workers who rely on housing benefit to 
top up their rent each month because they can’t 
earn otherwise make ends meet. To me, this 
signals that Cameron cares less about the people 
who actually claim housing benefit than the 
political benefits in attacking them.

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