After a slow start to the debate about the coalition’s reforms to Housing Benefit things seem to be hotting up somewhat. The government proposes capping payments to households at a maximum of £400 per week (or £21,000 a year). The government suggests that this will affect up to 21,000 households or 2% of claimants in the private rented sector. However, over 17,000 of these households are in London, and this constitutes 11% of such claimants in the capital.
Those who argue against the policy see it as the Conservatives’ ‘final solution’ and as an attempt to ‘cleanse’ the poor from our more expensive cities. Whether one accepts such emotive language or sees it as overblown rhetoric, it is certainly the case that there are some fundamental issues that lie behind the proposals. First, the attempt to limit Housing Benefit implies that no one has an absolute right to live in a particular place. One may have roots in a community and be deeply committed to it, but what matters is whether one can afford to live there. Second, the limiting of payments also suggests that a couple should only have children if they can afford them. The state is no longer prepared to automatically increase benefits indefinitely as family size increases.
Put another way, these proposals question whether the state or the taxpayer has a duty to fund the lifestyles of the poor regardless of the cost. Those in receipt of benefits are to face restrictions on their choices, as is the case with those who rely on their own income. Whether the government intended these changes to have these effects, or just saw the proposals in terms of the money they would save is unknown. Certainly, there was no attempt to debate these issues before the policy announcements. However, this should not detract from what is a quite fundamental shift in the role of the state and its duty to the poor.
Dr Peter King is the author of Choice and the End of Social Housing.