Last night I met another member of the housing policy and politics blogging community for one of our occasional curries. We were putting the world to rights, as you do on such occasions. Or, perhaps more accurately, contemplating where the heck it had all gone so dismally wrong.
During the course of the evening we touched on the Labour leadership contest.
My dinner companion noted that the candidates for the Labour leadership have adopted a range of positions on the Conservatives’ proposal to lower of the overall benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. Liz Kendall agreed with it. Of course she did. I’m pretty sure that if David Cameron proposed bringing back the stocks and throwing rotting vegetables at the indigent then Kendall would assert that the idea had considerable merit. At the other extreme, Jeremy Corbyn rejected the idea. Of course he did. Bloomin’ lefty. Not at all in tune with the views of hard working people. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper flanneled in a sort-of-yes, sort-of-no trying to be non-committal type of way. Of course they did. Entirely appropriate for front runners for the role of leader of the Opposition to avoid having firm views on straightforward questions about whether they plan to be doing any actual opposing.
Now we all know they’re mostly running scared because the polling evidence suggests the overall benefit cap is popular with voters. And you can never tell voters they’re wrong. Even when there is a strong suspicion that they are.
At a practical level, the policy is going to cause chaos in the rented sectors, both private and social. Housing blogger Joe Halewood has been a lone voice in the wilderness for the best part of three years now. He has repeatedly explaining why the overall benefit cap at its original level was a problem for large families and/or property in high value areas. He has explained how lowering the cap is not only going to make it hard for families in many parts of the country to find suitable accommodation. It is also going to put many households at risk of losing their homes they currently live in. It is going to make it very hard to find temporary accommodation for those who find themselves homeless. And it is going to create turmoil for many housing associations. It could blow a big hole in many business plans. Couple the overall benefit cap with rents rising ahead of benefit uprating and the government is mixing a lethal cocktail. Joe has characterised the Conservatives’ policy agenda as spelling the end for social housing as we know it. He may well be right. He is certainly right to describe it – rather indelicately – as a horse’s ass of a policy.
Joe’s exasperation at the failure by the people at the top of the social housing world to recognise the car crash that was heading their way has been palpable. Others in the housing blogging community are now taking up and amplified the message (notably here and here). But is it too little too late?
Engaging with the policy at this level – in terms of its practical implications and horrendous consequences for the lives of poorer people – is important. But what puzzles me is why no one has the wit or bravery to challenge its premise.
The Conservatives have been allowed to construct a Manichean world of “hard working families” and scroungers living a feather-bedded life of luxury on benefit. That is the narrative that drives the policy. It is the narrative that means the policy garners support from those who want to see themselves on the side of the angels. Working hard. Doing the right thing. Type of thing.
Someone needs to say: “Hang on a minute”. The population of benefit recipients is dynamic. Most people who receive out-of-work benefits only do so for relatively short periods of time. There are, however, plenty who cycle between receiving benefits and low paid employment. But the insecurity endemic in the low paid labour market is a different issue. As Rick pointed out today, the Government’s policy is geared towards a problem – long term worklessness among non-disabled households – that doesn’t exist in substantial numbers. It is more than likely that it is families with a disabled member or single parent families who will get hit by this reduction in available state support. Yet again.
Someone needs to say: if households find themselves out of work then we know that they are very likely to be unemployed for a short period of time. We know that they will be motivated to look for work without needing to starve them back into employment. We don’t think that if someone loses their job on a Friday then it is sensible for them to start worrying the following Monday whether they will lose their home in a few short weeks. It won’t help them concentrate on finding another job if they are panicking about feeding their children or keeping a roof over their heads. You wouldn’t want that to happen to you if you lost your job. Why should you want it to happen to others? Let’s show each other some respect.
Someone could say: But we don’t think it is appropriate to make an open-ended commitment to keep paying benefits on an open-ended basis at a rate that is beyond average wages. So after two years continuous unemployment then we will review whether the overall level of benefits received by a non-disabled household is appropriate. But at the same time we need to make sure that we do all we can to ensure they are equipped to re-engage with the labour market – not just send them on another CV writing course.
Someone needs to show a bit of political leadership. Before we get to the stage where kicking a beggar is seen as performing some form of civic duty.
It feels to me like it would be possible to frame a response to concerns about cultures of worklessness – whether real or imagined – while at the same time not reducing those who experience frictional unemployment to penury. That isn’t being soft on benefit scroungers. It’s not embracing rampantly left wing ideology. It’s aspiring to policy with some connection to the evidence. It’s acting like a civilised nation for a change.
But do we expect anyone with a serious chance of leading the Labour party to say anything remotely like that?
This afternoon on Twitter @KateBWebb raised the issue of the grace period associated with the overall benefit cap. This is a really important facet of the way the benefit system currently works in practice. Broadly speaking, if you have been working for at least a year before you become unemployed then you have a grace period of 39 weeks before the overall benefit cap comes into effect. So, in a sense, in reality the current system does something similar to what I’m pointing to above. But my point is not primarily about the policy detail because the audience for the “tough on benefits” narrative isn’t engaging with the detail. Rather, my point is about that policy narrative. It is about Labour refusing to engage in the debate on terms framed by the Conservatives, and in the process seeking to reframe the issue in a way that starts to tell a more positive and inclusive story. In a context where the Government is imminently going to propose further erosion of the system that is of fundamental importance.