Such is the hostility in this country towards the poor and the unemployed — a sure sign of the distressing decline of empathy and compassion in the last 30 years — that a poll conducted by Channel 4 News this week found that 58 percent of people thought that the govermment’s proposed welfare cuts should have been more severe, or were "about right," and 66 percent of people answered yes to the question, "Should there be a maximum limit of £400 a week on the amount of housing benefit that people can claim, even if this means people are forced to move house?"
In the last few months, as the coalition government and a disgracefully compliant mainstream media has stoked the scapegoating of the unemployed as a replacement for the "waves of immigrants" targetted by my mean-minded fellow citizens under the Labour government, the narrative that has emerged has persistently painted the unemployed as workshy scroungers, ignoring the complexity of the issues involved, and also, in particular, avoiding the uncomfortable truth that, as I keep explaining, according to the government’s own figures, there are currently 2.45 million unemployed people, and just 459,000 available jobs.
On housing benefit, the antipathy towards the unemployed has been stoked by misleading stories focusing on a handful of extreme examples of people living in luxury homes, which has been interpreted as an open invitation for journalists, newsreaders and citizens alike to openly complain, in envious terms, about how unfair it is that unemployed people are living in houses that they could not afford to live in, and to follow this up by endorsing the plans for their forcible removal, so that they can feel better about not losing out somehow.
Behind these manipulative headlines, the truth about the government’s assault on housing benefit is that — for a net result that will either not save money or, more probably, will cost £120 million extra a year — they are happy to preside over what London’s Mayor Boris Johnson correctly identified as "Kosovo-style social cleansing," with that cap on housing benefit mentioned in the Channel 4 poll — at £400 a week — almost certainly meaning that, throughout London, for example, thousands of households in wealthy boroughs will be unable to pay their rent, and will be obliged to move to poorer boroughs, which are already struggling to cope with providing for their existing poor as the government’s swingeing cuts to council budgets also take root.
While I understand that rents of over £400 a week are expensive, what is almost entirely ignored in all the assaults on those living in these properties is that they do not pocket the money themselves, and the blame for such exorbitant rents is for a variety of the following reasons: either because their landlords are greedy, unscrupulous people who are milking the public chest as much as possible; or because of the knock-on effect of an overvalued property market (Labour’s greatest gift of greed and divisiveness to the British people); or because of the scandalous under-investment in social housing since Margaret Thatcher starting selling off council houses and prohibited councils from using any of the proceeds to build new homes (a policy that, in case anyone has forgotten, was maintained by the Labour government).
George Osborne’s answer to the problem of the shortage of social housing has, of course, been typically unpleasant. Instead of accepting that the government might think about a massive social housing programme, he has scaled back investment in new affordable homes by 30 percent, and has decided to fund new social housing by raising the rents for new social housing tenants to 80 percent of existing market rents — an unprecedented assault on affordable housing to which he added another horrible innovation: ending secure tenancies for all council house tenants.
In light of all this, it seems particularly cruel and counter-productive to force as many as 134,000 households to move to poorer areas (according to research conducted for Shelter), or, as councils in Londons have warned, 82,000 households, or 200,000 people in London alone, where, as well as putting a burden on those councils and their already strained services, they will probably find that they have relocated to ghettoes of worklessness.
In addition, of course, the plans will also lead to a greater incidence of homelessness, as other families and individuals — perhaps those who are not workshy, but have other problems that require support (mental health problems, or physical disabilities, for example) — are tipped out onto the street, obliging councils to deal with an increase in homelessness, and to spend even more money rehousing them elsewhere — in seaside towns that have been a dumping ground for the unemployed for many years, or perhaps even from the south to the north of England, where, again, the opportunities for work are minimal to non-existent.
As well as all this, another contributory factor to homelessness will almost certainly be the government’s decision to cut benefit claimants’ housing benefit by 10 percent if they are unemployed for a year. Given the unemployment and job figures cited above, and the government’s avowed intention to add another 1.3 million to the ranks of the unemployed, this is another witlessly cruel plan, as those unable to draw on savings will also end up on the streets, where they too will join the queue of unemployed people being forced onto a coach and relocated to Hastings or Hartlepool.
A final unpleasant change is an amendment to the existing "single room rate," which currently applies to the under-25s, providing them with housing benefit only if they live in shared housing. The government has now raised the age to 35, which prompted Jim Jepps of Liberal Conspiracy to state, "So if you’re currently working for the public sector and living in a small flat a redundancy notice will mean you’re out on the street as well as out of work."
In contrast to all this misery, the government has the nerve to claim that private rents will drop when the cap is introduced, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that private landlords have ever done so willingly, or are likely to do so now.
All of this adds up to a horrendously ill-conceived policy, which, sadly, has already overcome a hurdle erected in the House of Commons by Labour MP Douglas Alexander, who proposed a motion stating that, "whilst housing benefit is in need of reform, the Government’s proposals will mean significant losses for hundreds of thousands of working families and pensioners and risk spending an additional £120 million on the cost of providing temporary accommodation."
Alexander’s motion, which was defeated along party lines this week, with the Liberal Democrats voting en masse with their Tory colleagues to reject it, also called on the government "to bring forward revised proposals for the reform of housing benefit which do not penalise those who have been unable to secure employment within 12 months, and which ensure that any proposals are implemented on a revised timetable which allows councils, tenants and landlords to adjust, allows the impact on rents to be observed and understood, and avoids additional spending on temporary accommodation."
Too little, too late may well be the verdict on that Labour challenge, which was defeated by 61 votes, but it leaves me wondering who can challenge these dreadful policies, in an attempt to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people do not suffer unnecessary hardship before — some years from now, perhaps — there is either an awakening of compassion or, more bleakly, a point is reached where the coalition government can brag that it has succeeded in its malignant attempt to remove the safety net that a caring society provides for the poor and the vulnerable.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.