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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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