Let’s get the Coalition’s position on the benefit cap clear!

The Coalition's benefit cap plans would lead to tens of thousands of families losing their homes. The government, unworried by that reality, is however concerned about the news that the proposal won't save Britain any money after all

A ‘government spokesman’ might have said:  “Our proposal will drive hundreds of thousands of poor and ‘squeezed middle’ families out of their homes and neighbourhoods in desirable areas and disrupt their children’s schooling, break up friendships and ruin most of their social life. We object to the canard that this constitutes urban cleansing. It is true that at the extreme end of our measures  some 20,000 families will lose their homes and have to apply for emergency housing from local authorities.  But we will save shedloads of money, OK.”

A new ‘government spokesman’ now urges caution: “Oh dear, we have worked out that another 20,000 families may pay the extreme penalty for living in areas where they don’t belong. That is not OK, because the cost of accommodating (or not) all the potentially 40,000 newly homeless families will wipe out the estimated savings the cap is supposed to deliver.”

In brief, the issue is simply one of financial costs.  In pursuit of savings on benefit spending, this government plans to create a housing tsunami that will deprive a huge number of families of their homes, schools, friends and everyday lives.  They seek to justify the onslaught in terms of a nebulous equity among the poorer people in our society – a meaningless equation, as housing benefit is itself paid to families and others renting to equalise people’s lives, it is not as though it is “spending money” as it goes to private (and public) landlords; and of course at this level child benefit is a universal across-the-board that families receive regardless of their home circumstances.

This is a government that is promoting the idea of a Big Society and its concern with well-being, or happiness.  It is very hard to square these proclaimed aims with what its ill-thought-out and reckless policies actually do. If the Big Society is to be genuinely worthwhile, it must be inclusive and equitable.  The benefit cap and hordes of other benefit changes are all predicated on the assumption that state beneficiaries are beyond the pale and, as like as not, “scroungers”. They can safely be punished for the failings of our society and its economic and housing policies to ensure that middle class and professional people can be largely untouched by the financial crisis.

About the author

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88. He is a consultant to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the State of the Nation polls.