It would be hard for anyone to read the new report on welfare reform from the Child Poverty Action Group and the Guardian’s survey of how councils in London are responding to the welfare caps, then go to BBC i-player and watch Andrew Marr’s interview yesterday with Iain Duncan Smith, without feeling a deep sense of outrage.
Duncan Smith peddled every myth and fairy tale going. There were all these people getting £100,000 for rent, families with generations of people not working, people having children just to get more benefits, it goes on and on. All have been debunked by respected fact-finders and by benefit experts who actually deal in statistical analysis. But not a single challenge from the so-called journalist Marr: as easy rides go, this was the easiest.
Marr’s fawning coincided with an excellent Guardian piece by Patrick Butler and Ben Ferguson that illustrates the increasingly desperate search being made by London boroughs to find homes for households made homeless and likely to be made homeless by Duncan Smith’s benefit caps. 17 of the 29 boroughs that responded to their survey said they were already placing homeless families outside the capital, or have secured or are considering temporary accommodation outside London for future use. The fact that so many boroughs are doing the same thing gives the lie to the claim that this is just about families who want to live on housing benefit in rich areas like Mayfair or Kensington. Market rents outstrip benefit cap levels in many of so-called ‘cheaper’ outer London boroughs like Haringey, Waltham Forest, and Barking and Dagenham. Butler and Ferguson say: ‘Councils said the move was inevitable because there is virtually no suitable private rented temporary accommodation for larger families in London that is affordable within government-imposed housing benefit allowances’.
Another excellent Guardian piece by Amelia Gentleman looks in detail at how being moved away from home and established networks has affected one family, and case studies are also a focus of the CPAG report. It’s only by looking at the impact on individual families that the real nature of the reforms becomes clear. The people being affected are the polar opposite of Duncan Smith’s crude demonisation: they are typical families who are seeing their aspirations smashed by the reforms.
The Government’s story that all this would lead to landlords reducing rents has also been exposed. Rents continue to rise and more landlords are refusing to take people on housing benefit, another turn of the screw both for the families and for councils.
Councils and organisations like the co-authors of the CPAG report, London Advice Services Alliance, are trying to advise people but the options are becoming slimmer. Discretionary transitional funds are proving wholly inadequate.
The Government continues to maintain the fiction that this is nothing to do with them and that boroughs should not act outside the law: councils ‘must secure accommodation within their own borough so far as reasonably practicable’. But this is plainly fatuous when most councils in London are in breach and they all cite the shortage of supply and the welfare reforms as the reasons. Most of the boroughs concerned are doing their best in impossible circumstances although it is impossible to feel sorry for the Hammersmith and Fulhams and the Westminsters who deliberately exclude affordable housing from their future programmes.
As a response to the emergency, CPAG recommends that homeless families in temporary accommodation should be exempted from the caps (at a cost of £30m). This is a sensible and pragmatic proposal. They also want the mayor and London councils to co-ordinate their responses and the work of advice agencies much more effectively.
And, like everyone else, they say that the only medium and long term solutions are to build more houses.