Wednesday 22 September 2010

DWP minister Steve Webb joins critics of housing benefit changes

How fairness and austerity can be combined in the government's approach to deficit reduction has been a central theme of the LibDem conference, which debated and passing the Social Liberal Forum's motion on this theme yesterday.

Beyond anxiety about the pace and scale of deficit reduction, among the issues generating most concern are the government's changes to housing benefit, which are increasingly generating criticism across the left, centre and parts of the right of the political spectrum.

DWP minister Steve Webb acknowledged that the criticism was valid at a conference fringe meeting.

Webb, who is widely respected for his policy expertise in the area and who spoke recently about his warm working relationship with his Tory colleagues at DWP, went beyond agreeing with Simon Hughes about the dangers of removing lifetime tenure to also agree with critics of the Budget's housing benefit proposals.

As Inside Housing reports.

He also criticised Treasury plans announced in June’s emergency Budget to dock housing benefit by 10 per cent for those who have been receiving jobseeker’s allowance for more than a year.

He said: ‘[Removing security of tenure] would make the problem worse. I would be very concerned if they did that.’

In response to a question about the fairness of cuts to housing benefit for the long-term unemployed, Mr Webb said: ‘Your point is well understood: that is not the best bit of housing reform.’

Labour's David Lammy told the CentreForum/Fabian fringe on Sunday that the proposal would lead to a socially segregating "exodus" of poorer people from inner London.

"Cutting housing benefit for anybody who has been on out-of-work benefits for a year could lead to an exodus of people from inner to outer London on a scale which we have not yet seen anywhere, except in Paris”.

Lammy also feared social unrest, recalling growing up at the time of the early 1980s Tottenham riots.

“I do predict social unrest again unless we can halt the pace on this”, he said.

Dave Hill's London blog has followed the story closely - and reports London Council's research showing that the full range of housing changes could lead to 82,000 families in London being forced to leave their homes.

This should reinforce the warnings of Mayor Boris Johnson that "if you put in this cap in this way, in a very draconian, thoroughgoing way, it will have a damaging effect on many households in London". The Tory Mayor has argued that transitional arrangements are required for London given the scale of the social impact.

I told the same fringe on Sunday that an automatic reduction of 10% in housing benefit for anybody on jobseekers' allowance for twelve months would seem to be the very definition of a policy that is "top down, arbitrary and one size fits all" - the commons criticism made of Labour policymaking - since it would take no account of personal circumstances.

The proposals will have an important political effect. I have spoken to people on both the right as well as the left who believe that detailed analysis of the Conservatives' narrow election defeats in Westminster North and Hammersmith have helped to provide part of the motivation for a policy which would undoubtedly much more sharply segregate urban housing, with many moving to less well-off constituencies which are already Labour.

With unemployment rising, the policy will strike most people as unfair when applied to those doing everything they can to seek work. Forcing families to move house - quite possibly to a completely different area - will disrupt the education of children from families who are struggling economically, at a time when the Coalition is supposed to be doing everything it can to close the attainment camp, and seems unlikely to be positive for IDS' agenda of relationship support and family breakdown.

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