Neither Caerphilly MP Wayne David nor the rest of the Labour Party should take seriously David Cameron’s posturing over social housing, as demonstrated in Prime Minister’s Questions today.
Mr David raised the serious question of a disabled couple who have been living in the same house for 26 years, and who will have to pay the government’s ‘bedroom tax’ on the property, starting in April. He asked: “What justification can there be for this?”
Mr Cameron’s initial response was predictable: “This is not a tax; a tax is when someone earns money, it is their money, and the government takes some of it away.”
He’s wrong. A tax is a compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government against a citizen’s person, property or activity, to support government policies. So the ‘state underoccupation subsidy’ – a phrase only coined within the last few months and a measure that will only come into force in April – is a tax, as it is levied against property occupied by citizens of the UK to support government policies.
Let’s see if he fared any better with his next comment: “The party opposite has got to engage in the fact that housing benefit now accounts for £23 billion of government spending – that is a 50 per cent increase over the last decade.”
That is the financial argument – and the fact is, this is no laughing matter. But dreaming up a way of taking money from the poor, simply for the privilege of continuing to live in their own homes, is treating the symptom and not the cause. Mr Cameron makes no attempt to ask why the government is having to spend more on housing benefit because that might reflect badly on his government, its policies, and the fatcat business executives it supports.
Housing benefit is paid to people who are unemployed or disabled. Why are they unemployed? Because of a recession that followed a global economic crash, caused by high-paid banking executives, perhaps. Has Mr Cameron’s government penalised the banking executives? No. Their bonuses are secure.
Housing benefit is also paid to people who are in work but on low incomes. More than nine-tenths of all new housing benefit claims are made by citizens who fall into this category. This means they aren’t being paid enough by their employers to cover all their costs. Isn’t this an indictment against Britain’s business leaders – that they are not willing to pay a living wage for an honest day’s work? Has Mr Cameron’s government stepped in to seek better pay for employees? No. The comedy Prime Minister takes great pleasure in crowing about employment increases but refuses to examine the damaging small print.
And housing benefit, ultimately, does not go to the occupant but goes to the landlord instead – and landlords will continue to receive their full rent, no matter how unjustified the amount or unfit the accommodation. Social landlords, as I have learned to my own cost, are particularly poor at resolving problems. The bedroom tax therefore cruelly impoverishes people who are already on the bread line, using the threat of eviction as the stick with which to beat them. Has the government done anything to dissuade landlords from charging rents that are too high on properties that are not up to scratch – like capping rents? No. This government believes that such action would be unjustified interference in the market.
Mr Cameron concluded: “And we have to address the fact – as well – that we have 250,000 families in overcrowded accommodation and we have 1.8 million people waiting for a council house.”
This is probably the most misleading of all his comments as it attempts to hide a policy his own government is actively pursuing at the moment, and vigorously – the sale of social housing.
According to the BBC, more than 2,000 tenants took up the government’s Right to Buy discount scheme during the last three months of 2012, after the government quadrupled the discount to a maximum of £75,000.
Mr Cameron is selling off social housing and then complaining that there isn’t enough!
It’s typical of Conservative Party policy: Say one thing – do another.