Teather: “Benefit cap is immoral and divisive”

Lib Dem MP for Brent Central Sarah Teather makes the front page of The Observer today for a powerful interview slamming the Government’s plans to bring in a benefit cap. I’m quoting extensively from it, below, but it’s well worth reading the whole piece here.

This is clearly an issue that touches Sarah deeply, not least because of the number of her constituents she knows will be deeply affected by the changes. What impresses me most, though, is the way she acknowledges the way the arguments are being framed by the Tories and by the media — and passively accepted by Labour — while sticking up for the rights of children not to end up the victims and for society not to become further fractured.

As we sit down to talk, it is clear that something specific is on Teather’s mind. … It is the issue that disquieted her most during her time in government – the £500-a-week cap on welfare that ministers will place on families from April next year that is eating away at her. When she was in government Teather kept fairly quiet about the issue – though she refused to vote for it in parliament. Now, free of collective responsibility, she feels it is her duty to speak out. …

… she also makes no bones about the fact that, for her, the cuts and caps already agreed by the coalition are unacceptable and wrong. Brent, she points out, is an area with high rents where many people are already living in appallingly crowded conditions. She is in favour of that part of government policy which encourages people off benefits into work but not when it seeks to erode sympathy and support for the poor.

“Having an incentive in the benefits system to encourage people to work is a good thing,” she says. “It is a good thing because it encourages people to participate in society. But having a system which is so punitive in its regime that it effectively takes people entirely outside society, so they have no chance of participating, crosses a moral line for me.”

The local council estimates that more than 2,000 people in Brent will end up losing at least £50 a week when the cap comes in. At the top end, 84 families will lose about £1,000 a week. Many will be driven out of the area, including thousands of children.

She accuses parts of government and the press of a deliberate campaign to “demonise” those on benefits and of failing to understand that those in need of state help are just as human as they are. With vivid outrage she describes the language and caricatures that have been peddled.

“Whenever there is any hint of opposition they wheel out a caricature of a family, usually a very large family, probably black, most likely recent immigrants, without much English, lots of children, apparently chaotic, living in a desirable neighbourhood that middle-class people would like to occupy. That is the caricature and of course it is a partial spinning of the truth and it allows the demonisation to take place.

“I would really urge particularly Conservative colleagues but people in all parties to be careful. I don’t think we can afford to preside over a society where there is a gradual eroding of sympathy for people at the bottom end of the income spectrum and a rapid erosion of sympathy for people on benefits.”

She returns to the theme of morality and politics, saying: “I think deliberately to stoke up envy and division between people in order to gain popularity at the expense of children’s lives is immoral. It has no good intent.

“There are all sorts of things you have to do when times are tight that have negative consequences but you do them for good purposes. To do something for negative purposes that also has negative consequences – that is immoral.” …

“The policy was essentially conceived as a political device. It is simply not in the same league as other policies that are challenging in their consequences but done for a good purpose. I don’t think it was even remotely conceived as a financial cost-cutting device. I think it was conceived as a political device to demonstrate whose side you are on.”

… She talks of a “reverse Jarrow March” occurring in April next year when the cap comes in, as “many thousands of people leave London” adding: “My fear is that a lot of people will effectively just disappear from the area in which they were living. I think some very horrible things are going to happen.”

Teather is aware that she will be attacked for her intervention both by the rightwing press and some colleagues at Westminster, where even Labour is wary of being seen to criticise welfare cuts. She is careful to praise Nick Clegg for having fought valiantly to limit the effect of reductions.

But her most acute concern is for the many thousands of young people involved. She says: “Obviously not all of those children will be made homeless and it is difficult to tell how many will be, but a substantial number will be required to move and that will have a destructive effect on their education. It will remove them from their friends. It will have a destructive impact on the support networks that their families have.” …

Middle-class people would only notice the effect when their children lose their friends. She says: “When the child in the nice middle-class family comes home and says ‘my friend has just disappeared’, I think then it might hit home and they might realise a set of children have disappeared from the class – kids who last week came to Johnny’s birthday party. Then it will start to be real. We are in a vacuum phase where I am frankly terrified about what is going to happen.”

At times Teather is close to tears as she unburdens herself. She says the day she deliberately failed to vote for the government was “extremely difficult”. But then as now – with her decision to speak out – it was a moral judgment she felt she had to make. She says: “Driving a sledgehammer through a fault line that already exists between the working poor and the non-working poor – setting up that hostility – is the thing that I find most difficult morally.”

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Yes Sarah, the immoral thing about taxing working people (including the working poor) and giving £25,000 of that tax per year to a single family for housing benefit … the immoral thing about that is that it’s not enough. Well done. People should be taxed more – or other services should be cut, so that more than £25,000 can be given to these families for their London rent.

  • “At the top end, 84 families will lose about £1,000 a week”

    That really says it all. £1,000 per week – an amount that 95% of the UK population can never dream of earning. I wonder where I would live if I could claim and extra £1,000 a week for my rent. Hmm…

  • I am so relieved that someone in our parliamentary party has had the courage to say this so intelligently. I hope that this marks the rediscovery of our core values “…that none shall be enslaved by poverty, conformity…” etc. , but I am not going to hold my breath. I saw from personal experience the effect of the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, and how most of our parliamentarians bought into the myths created by the Tories and their cheerleaders in the press about students spending the money on fags and booze – as Sarah says ‘stoking up envy and division between people’ – whereas the reality in most (not all, I concede) cases was that £30 a week for attendance made a huge difference to families living in poverty. History shows us the consequences of demonising small groups in society, and what Sarah forsees is a a chilling echo of past events. We should have fought implacably against this, not just ‘fought valiantly to limit the effects of the reductions’.

  • Bill le Breton 18th Nov '12 - 12:05pm

    I agree totally with every word above from Tony Hill. I also congratulate Sarah. However the danger of this coming from a London MP with its atypical rental market , however welcome, is that, unless other MPs from the provinces support her, people will not realize similar hardship is being metered out everywhere else. The turning of Council Tax into a poll tax for the most vulnerable, the up-rating of the age to qualify for ‘ordinary single person’s housing benefit’ from 25 to 35 (driving 25 to 35s into multi-occ), the smaller but just as harmful cuts in the local housing allowance beyond London are a few examples.

  • I think a £500 a week cap on benefits is perfectly fair. If Sarah really wants to make a noise about something, then she could tackle the issue of why so many are going to be affected by this cap, namely, the atrociously high rents in the private sector.

  • “I think a £500 a week cap on benefits is perfectly fair.”

    This is what I’ve always found very difficult to understand. Benefits are supposed to be based on an assessment of need, aren’t they? So what we’re talking about is assessing someone’s need at more than £500 a week, and then telling them that for political reasons they’re not going to receive that amount.

    I can understand someone thinking that benefits are too generous across the board, or pointing to particular flaws in the assessment procedure. But what seems completely irrational is to accept the formula in general, but to say that if it gives an answer that’s larger than some arbitrary figure, then you’re going to ignore it.

  • “Brent, she points out, is an area with high rents”
    I think that is the clue to the solution. Up to present, Landlords and Housing Benefit were in an arms race, that concluded in the absurd situation of families getting £100,000 per year Housing Benefits. That result was dumb, incongruous and immoral on all levels. Try ‘doorstep selling’ that scenario in Corby to a chap that works as a warehouse supervisor at (say), Comet (soon to lose his job), and pays tax on his £26,000 per year salary?
    If a Landlord were to contact Housing Benefits, telling them he can get £5000 per week rent on his property, is it OK to pay out £250,0000 HB per year? At what point would even a tearful Sarah Teather, dry her eyes and say,.. I’m sorry,… that’s just taking the p**s.
    Landlords have had an excellent tax lite time of it over the last few years, and I wonder why, it is more acceptable to shovel wheelbarrows full of HB cash into the system, rather that tackle landlords with a more realistic tax structure?
    Just out of interest, does anyone have any stats, in relation to how many MP’s have properties rented out?

  • The reason that welfare is so high is down to the unregulated Rents.

    It is the wealthy property Landlords who are exploiting the shortage of social and affordable housing with inflated rents.

    If the government wants to cut the welfare budget in a fair way, then they must introduce regulation.

    Cutting employee’s rights is not helping, removing job security make people reluctant to take on mortgage risks.

    Thousands of people found themselves in arrears and at risk of repossession when the economy collapsed. This was then exploited again by certain companies who preyed on vulnerable people offering to buy their homes and rent back to them at inflated rates. Many families felt they had no choice but to go down this route in order to keep a roof over their families heads.

    It is the greedy landlords that are bleeding us dry and taking a huge chunk of the welfare budget, not the claimants who are forced into this situation.

    What is so wrong with legislating the rental market?

  • “….the atrociously high rents in the private sector”. Yes, agreed, BUT: when Margaret Thatcher destroyed the council housing sector by encouraging tenants to buy at discounts of 40% and forbidding councils to replace lost stock with the proceeds from sales, she also introduced the housing benefit system in order to recreate the private rented sector which at that point was pretty much dead (apart from for students and other young people). All governments have struggled with the problem of housing (it was a Tory minister, Harold Macmillan, who made the biggest strides to solving the problem in the early 50s by public investment), but it was Thatcher who ‘sold the family silver’ and created the system whereby private landlords are enriched from the public purse.

  • @ Alex Marsh

    “Not only is welfare reform an agenda based largely on vilification of the poor”

    No, it is not. It’s based on an acknowledgment that because of the dire state of the public finances we can’t carry on paying a rapidly escalating benefits bill, particularly when families are receiving the equivalent of a pre-tax salary of £35,000.

    Welfare reform is an area that Labour shamefully steered clear of because it knew it was going to be difficult. Of course it’s a lot more popular to go on handing out borrowed money because it wins votes and creates a client voter based. Making comments like yours simply plays the same game of pretending things can carry on as before. Sorry, but they can’t.

    These reforms have to happen. Our role should be to make sure they are balanced, and so far, with minor exceptions, I think we’ve done that.

  • Dave Eastham 18th Nov '12 - 12:34pm

    @ MBoy.

    Sadly it seems you have bought into the propaganda. There are around 4 million people in receipt of housing benefit a million of them over the retirement age, which says more about pensions than anything else.. The vast majority of claimants receive less than a hundred quid a week. Around 25% (and rising) are in employment. Frankly, against this background, 84 families who for no doubt very specific individual reasons, are on a thousand a week make no meaningful difference from a savings perspective. These “reforms”, if that is the proper term for them, are not about fairness or savings overall, it’s more about ideological political spite.

    The theory as I understand it, is the Lib Dems are in Government to temper the more vicious instincts of the other coalition partners. No doubt this has been achieved in some areas but not doing as well as hoped it seems.

    You might like to look at a recent blogpost from the TUC. http://touchstoneblog.org.uk/2012/11/housing-benefit-figures-show-government-claims-are-wrong/ to get some background.

  • Well done Sarah, Tony and Bill – makes me feel proud to be a Lib Dem when we stick up for our values and defend the vulnerable rather than vilify them.

    There are positive ways to deal with the problem of high rents – solutions like investing in social housing that reduce the cost of housing, and also enable people to keep more of their earnings when they move into work have multiple positive effects.

    An arbitrary cap does not solve any problems and actually just creates far more. Negative actions and negative outcomes is plain bad government, and we should stamp it out.

  • Max Wilkinson 18th Nov '12 - 12:37pm

    I’m glad to see Sarah Teather has rediscovered her old self. While a minister, she seemed to have completely lost any semblance of the characteristics that made her such an excellent MP.

    Much of what she says, particularly about demonisation of the poor, is absolutely correct. Some of the rhetoric from the Tories is abhorrent. However, it can’t be morally right to dish out so much public money straight into the pockets of wealthy private landlords. Somebody needs to find a solution to the market’s failure.

  • “The local council estimates that more than 2,000 people in Brent will end up losing at least £50 a week when the cap comes in.”

    “At the top end, 84 families will lose about £1,000 a week.”

    Apologies if my maths is wrong, but that means that at the top end, 84 families are receiving £1,500 a week in benefits.

    That means 84 families are receiving at least £78,000 in benefits a year. That is equivalent to a gross pay cheque of £120,000 a year. How can Tony Hill, Bill le Breton and others possibly defend this?

    Even the 2,000 people mentioned must be receiving at least £550 per week in benefits. That is equivalent to a gross salary of £44,000.

    Yet for Sarah Teather, that is presumably perfectly fine.

  • @CP
    “Well done Sarah, Tony and Bill – makes me feel proud to be a Lib Dem when we stick up for our values and defend the vulnerable rather than vilify them.”

    I really can’t believe that people are queueing up to defend and congratulate Sarah Teather on this point.

    If yours is the general consensus within the party, then we don’t deserve to be in government.

  • Sarah Teather identifies an unacceptable problem, not the solution. I doubt very much whether there is a reasonable solution which will be accepted by our ‘Coalition partners’. This demonstrates the absurdity of a ‘horse-trading’ type of coalition government as opposed to a minimalist ‘common denominator’ type. There would be a majority in the House of Commons for working out a sensible way of addressing this issue. Just not the ‘Coalition’ majority.

  • http://fullfact.org/sites/fullfact.org/files/2012/10/DWP_FOI_2012-4057_Housing_Benefit_Response.pdf

    There was a freedom of information request that revealed.
    Housing Benefit Weekly Award
    Sept 2010 Sept 2009
    £0-£49.99 587,390 643,930
    £50-£99.99 3,128,620 2,987,920
    £100-£199.99 899,290 752,400
    £200-£299.99 113,330 86,600
    £300-£399.99 28,600 33,800
    £400-£499.99 6,340 5,240
    £500-£599.99 1,980 1,630
    £600-£699.99 720 620
    £700-£799.99 840 390
    £800-£899.99 100 90
    £900-£999.99 70 80
    £1000+ 120 70

    And for the UK Averages

    HB Award (£ per year) Number of recipients Average number of Household
    £4,000 or less 2,645,060 2
    £4-6,000 1,454,290 2
    £6-10,000 482,630 2
    £10-13,000 101,200 3
    £13-15,000 25,910 3
    £15-20,000 33,750 3
    £20-25,000 6,250 4
    £25-30,000 3,140 4
    £30-35,000 820 5
    £35-40,000 820 5

    more than £40,000 400 6
    Total 4,754,270 2

    Why the poor are so constantly vilified for claiming huge sums of housing benefits is beyond me, especially when it is clear that there is a very small minority receiving these huge sums of money that at the end of the day is going to the greedy exploiting landlords .

  • @ Matt

    Why is paying the equivalent of £120,000 pre-tax a year in benefits remotely acceptable? Because that is what we are doing at present. Not just in Brent, but all over large swathes of London.

  • What happened to my spaces? it makes the figures hard to decipher now.

    Oh well if you care to look, the tables are @ http://fullfact.org/sites/fullfact.org/files/2012/10/DWP_FOI_2012-4057_Housing_Benefit_Response.pdf for all to see

  • @RC

    That is a gross exaggeration go look at the links that I provided and see just how many people fall into the category you suggest.

    The average uk Rent in the private sector now stands at £712 a month or put another way £37k a year

    How do you propose that someone on welfare pays these extortionate rents when their is a shortage of affordable and social housing?

    Should they move into tents?

  • RC – In my experience, the larger families are when 2 parents form a step-family and live in one house, often with the children sharing bedrooms. What this cap would do to this family is that it will effectively force them to split up. They will then be in separate houses, each small house costs less (so below the cap) but as a total costing MORE.

  • So this forces families to split up and costs the state MORE! A typical Tory policy there LOL.

  • matt asks : Should they move into tents?
    Actually no. How about asking this large family to move here?
    It doesn’t look like slum living to me. And only £400 per week. I think a HB cost of £19,200 per year, is a good compromise for the taxpayer, whilst at the same time ensuring a poor vulnerable family gets the housing they need. Don’t you think?

  • @Matt
    “The average uk Rent in the private sector now stands at £712 a month or put another way £37k a year.” Let’s say put your way, Matt(hs).
    I think the abolition of housing tribunals at the beginning of the 1980s gave the green light to landlords to charge what they could get rather than what a tenant could reasonably afford to pay. The Thatcher government’s Housing Act of 1980 coincided with the abolition of earnings related benefit, a temporary but vital support to help the newly unemployed back into work, which meant that many also found themselves dispossessed.

  • In what universe is £712 a month equal to £37k a year? £712 a month is 8k a year.

    @matt – if it affects so few people what’s the problem?

  • @tonyhill

    I agree that the problem is the lack of social housing, and it is beyond me why people continue to make a fuss over the benefit cap whilst completely ignoring lack of social housing and the inflated private sector rents. Two things need to happen: More social housing needs to be built and kept as social housing, not built and immediately bought by the first people who move in, and with that, the private sector rents need to be regulated so that they are fair.

  • lol I mistakenly multiplied the monthly rent by weeks. hands up to that one.

    But the point is still the same, how does the likes of RC suggest those people who are on welfare meet the costs of these rents?

    And John Dunn. With the example of the house you highlighted, how would a family survive on £100 a week, if they were totally reliant on benefits and £400 of it was swallowed by rent?

  • BTW I am not condoning paying huge amounts of HB.
    My argument is simply that private sector rents needs regulating

  • It’s easy to demonise landlords as the cause of the problem, and as I pointed out earlier, Margaret Thatcher deliberately set out to recreate landlordism. But high rents are caused by high property values. One of my daughters rents a small terraced house in the south of England (well outside London). It has a purchase value of £250,000, which would cost a landlord at least £10,000 a year to finance. The average rent in her area for a house like hers is £1350 a month, a gross profit to the landlord of £6200, out of which he has to pay insurance, maintenance and tax. If he is lucky that probably leaves him a profit of about £60 a week. If she were still on housing benefit then the likes of RC would be complaining that she was getting £16,200 of public money a year. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but blaming people who can’t afford necessarily high rents and forcing them as it were into exile doesn’t seem very liberal.

  • @MBOY
    “@matt – if it affects so few people what’s the problem?”

    Because nothing is being done to regulate the inflated rents.

    Rents in the private sector are rising at an alarming rate.

    If nothing is done about this and we continue on with this coalition policy, at the same time as the government is reducing the LHA, then more and more people will be dragged into this and affected by it.

  • @matt: A significant driver of inflated rents, particularly in London, is the fact that there is no housing benefit cap, which means that landlords can put up rent and the tax-payer will bridge the gap. Do you not see this link is part of the problem?

  • matt writes
    “how would a family survive on £100 a week, if they were totally reliant on benefits”.

    Strangely matt, some WORKING people have to.

    I find it bizarre, that people on benefits are not expected to make the kind of lifestyle choices that a working family are expected to make, everytime their financial curcimstances change for the worse?

  • So the solution is to CAP Benefits instead?

    And do you believe that by capping the total benefits someone can claim will result in the Landlords lowering their rents?

    That’s awfully naive.

    The Majority of landlords do not care how much their tenant is left to live on after paying them the rent, all they care about is maximising the rent they can charge.

    So surely the solution is to introduce polices that force the landlord not the claimant.

    Makes a bit more sense doesn’t it?

  • Matt

    Don’t bother

    I suggest you will see less vitriol against the poor on ConHome. This lot are on their way, rightly, to the political backwaters. A rump as in the South and rural areas but nowhere in the North and urban areas

  • Your probably right bazzasc.

    I do not see any of this party living up to promises or expectations.

    I did not even get round to mentioning my local MP Simon Wright and his latest façade when it comes to more council homes and affordable housing.
    Norwich former cricket ground has sat derelict and useless for years, its 3.18 hectare of totally wasted space.
    There are proposals to build 65 new homes. {much needed in Norwich}

    And yet Simon Wright is against the proposals and is encouraging local residents to oppose the application.

    How the party can call for more affordable housing then have it’s Mp’s oppose applications is beyond me.

    I thought the NIMBY was more associated with the Tories, obviously it is yet another Tory trait that has infested this party

  • @tonyhill
    “It has a purchase value of £250,000, which would cost a landlord at least £10,000 a year to finance.”
    You made some good points earlier. However, don’t suggest that all landlords are having to borrow to pay for their rental properties. Most of them traded up and paid off the original sum long ago on the back of the near trebling of house prices in the area your daughter lives in.

  • Ruth Bright 18th Nov '12 - 5:24pm

    John Dunn asks why people on HB don’t move to cheaper areas. Most people on HB are working so telling them to uproot themselves to cheaper areas wit h precious few jobs like Doncaster, Stoke and Consett is plain potty.

  • The key to the high amounts of housing benefit is the lack of affordable rental housing. The Conservatives started it with selling off the social housing stock at great discounts and not letting the Councils rebuild the stock. I have nothing against people buying their Social Housing property but the prevention of councils to put money into rebuilding showed Thatchers and the Conservatives intention to destroy social housing.

    The results of the policy alligned to banks allowing a buy to let housing bubble is massively escalating rents, Do the Conservatives acknowledge this or think of a proper solution to housing problem ? No, of course not, Existing social housing tenants are attacked via the extra room tax or having incomes assessed or for claiming Housing Benefit. The extra room may prevent the older family helping to look after or support younger family. The income assessed prevents people improving their positions and in this world, where there is very poor job security, lead to a situation where someone may be forced to move into expensive private renting and then be forced out of the area if they lose their job. What kind of security is that to build a life or a family ?

    The Conservatives see a problem and focus on the people who suffer the problem rather than see proper solutions. Build some social houses (which people can buy), use the money to replenish the stock, and have some proper thought out solutions to address the madness of the private housing sector, which if left without any intervention or control, leads to a situation where housing needs are not met and only the pockets of rich landlords are lined.

    I know thats how the Conservatives like things, how about the Liberal Democarats ?

    Fair play to Sarah Teather, but what constructively is she or the Liberal Democrats going to do about it ?

  • Sean Blake – you may well be correct in your assumption that most landlords are not paying to finance houses at current capital values, but at some point in the past every landlord would have had to acquire his property at the then current market price so the economics would not have been that different, except that the interest rate on the capital would have been much higher than it has been recently. It is the increase in the value of property that is largely, though I agree not entirely, responsible for increases in rents rather than the supposed greed of landlords.

  • John Broggio 18th Nov '12 - 5:56pm

    Sarah Teather’s position would be more credible had she spoken against & not actually voted for the very measures she now decries.
    Source: http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/mp.php?id=uk.org.publicwhip/member/40113&showall=yes#divisions

  • @tonyhill
    Sorry for going off on a tangent form the topic here, but surely it is rents that determine house prices, not the other way round. Rents are determined by what people can afford and the number of people per household and they have been quite static in real terms outside of London for decades. During the bubble of the last decade real house prices soared whilst real rents remained the same. There’s overwhelming evidence for this in the various house price and rent indexes. It is interest rate slashing that has prevented house prices falling back down, temporarily.

    As for the topic. It’s good to hear something positive from ST. However, she was part of the government that implemented these changes and the cynic in me can’t help but wonder how much she is just shaping her beliefs to the fact she represents Brent and has almost no hope of retaining her seat come 2015.

    As for the solution. LVT and more houses, especially council houses. Of course, it would be electoral suicide for a government to provide such a solution as it would interfere with home-owners given right to take money off everyone else in return for doing nothing. I know who the real scroungers are.

  • Thank you to Sarah Teather for being brave enough to speak out on this issue. I only wish that more of our M.P.’s would speak out publicly about some of the extremist things that the Tories have been coming out with…..

  • Ruth Bright says :
    John Dunn asks why people on HB don’t move to cheaper areas? If you can point to the section of my comment that says (ALL), HB claimants should move to cheaper areas, I’d be grateful.
    The families that are (or were), in the £120,000 p/y, HB recipient category, are frequently, not employed. As such they can live very happily in Preston just as well as Brent. And a lot of working people, who also live very happily in Preston and indeed, much of the North, would welcome them.

  • Rent capping would go a long way towards solving this problem. If it means that some landlords find it no longer viable to rent out a property and they have to put the property for sale on the market then that would be welcome.

  • ” When she was in government Teather kept fairly quiet about the issue”

    I’m afraid this comment speaks volumes. If she felt something was immoral and would adversely affect her constituents then she was not elected to parliament to keep fairly quiet.

    To balance this I felt that she did a good job as a Minister and she was unfortunate to be replaced in the way she was. I guess she felt that the opportunity to do good made it a price worth paying. It’s why the whole collective responsibility system needs a drastic rethink before any further coalitions in the UK.

  • Simon Bamonte 19th Nov '12 - 1:13am

    The word hypocrite does get banded around too frequently these days, but sadly, our MPs seem to be acting and speaking in a way which makes the epithet stick. If Sarah Tether was truly against these proposals and thought they would hurt her constituents, then why did she vote in favour of this policy? It’s with a sad heart that I now realise the term “hypocrite”, as per its OED definition, justly applies to many of our MPs. From Clegg to Laws to Huhne to Tether and beyond, the term is apt.

    What has happened to this party?

  • Peter Watson 19th Nov '12 - 7:54am

    ” When she was in government Teather kept fairly quiet about the issue”
    This is the thought that keeps occurring to me when I return to look at this thread.
    I don’t know much about Teather but she is one of few Lib Dem MPs who seem well regarded across the board on this site. What is her record on voting and speaking about this issue when in government? Are her comments this weekend consistent with what she has done and said over the last 30 months, or could they be interpreted as a cynical attempt to detoxify herself from government ahead of a challenge in her constituency from a resurgent Labour party (or even Respect) in 2015?

  • One of the other dangers of this is whole policy is the {Universal Credit}

    Once Universal Credit has been put in place, All benefits, inc Housing Benefit, will be paid to the claimant directly.

    It should come as no surprise that the people who find it the hardest to budget, are those at the bottom rung of the income scale and those who are reliant on welfare.
    Many families already find themselves juggling bills, robbing Peter to pay Paul so to speak, making decisions on things like to put money on the gas card or buying food. {that is the reality of some peoples situation}
    Having Housing Benefit paid direct to a landlord, removes that particular expenditure from their budget and provides at least some security of keeping the roof over their heads.
    I genuinely worry that including Housing Benefit into the Universal Credit, will put many families at risk when they are trying to prioritise their expenditure.

    I know this response will attract further criticisms from certain individuals making accusations of irresponsibility. But to totally disregard these difficult choices and situations people find themselves in, is to have a complete lack of understanding and empathy towards vulnerable people and the situations that they face.

  • Richard Swales 19th Nov '12 - 10:53am

    Isn’t the point of this policy that people who don’t have a work-related reason to be in high-demand areas will move elsewhere, reducing housing costs for those that remain. Certainly my experience of living in London was taking the train (couldn’t afford to live anywhere with the tube) to work every morning to my job as a computer programmer going past the closed curtains of people being funded to live where I myself couldn’t afford. Presumably if some of those people moved out then it would be a bit easier for young working people starting out in life. I read at that time that one third of UK university graduates had left. Seemed to make sense so I left too.

    By the way, any kind of cap should be per adult though not per family, as we don’t want to introduce incentives to break up.

  • James Sandbach 19th Nov '12 - 1:04pm

    Am very peased that Sarah has spoken out – I think she did make some of these points behind closed doors in Govt and deliberately “missed” a couple of key votes on the Welfare Reform which got her flack from Govt Whips – welfare reform critics should welcome any constructive interventions from senior libdems rather than panning the messenger.

    Before we get onto the specific issue of the Cap, Sarah’s main point is that the whole policy narrative has been based around denegrating the urban poor in particular – erosion of sympathy, underserving poor, resentment and hostility etc, for whom loss of benefit income may push even further to the margins of society or outside society altogegther. Frankly Richard Swales remarks about “closed curtains of people being funded to live where I myself couldn’t afford” stinks of the sort of characterturing. demonising and stigmatising tory perspective that that has so slanted any genuine debate about welfare costs and dependency.

    As regards the Cap and Sarah’s other policy points she seems right on target. No-one is denying there is a problem with benefit dependency and workless households, that the benefits system is too complicated, that welfare costs are too high, or that there is too little support or incentive for unemployed people to engage and get the best out of a very tough, discriminatory and pretty stagnant labour market. Her point is that DWP Ministers and Officials are reaching for blunt instruments to tackle to the problem – arbitary national caps, one size fits all conditionalities and work capability tests, and digital streamlining of benefit payments (and access to them) into a single monthly package for the “head of the household” to manage. There are real risks of the new untested model of benefits administration which will kick of in april next year failing very quickly, especiallty if DWP don’t get their IT systems sorted. DWP don’t understand their customers very well so don’t pick up on these risks. let alone the potential impacts and knock on costs for local authorities and other services, On the specific issue of introducing a benefit cap there is a case for this, but both Labour and Simon Hughes argued that it would be far more sensible for any cap to operate and be set on regional basis to take account of the massive disparities between living costs in different regions – as Sarah says the £500 cap is highly arbitrary. pretty much plucked out of thin air – a political device rather than a properly worked through policy..

  • Paul McKeown 19th Nov '12 - 1:56pm

    I think it would make sense to address the systematic imbalances in the housing market which mean that rents in London are absurdly high. New social housing needs to be built to start with. That will ultimately deflate the rental market which is the real cause of the eye-watering levels of housing benefit payment.

  • @Richard Swales
    The Tories tried moving people out of areas and selling council houses to the “right people” before, ask Shirley Porter how that went.

    Forget whether it is someones community, whether their support network is there (often crucial for childcare when finding a job), whether we end up with virtual ghettos in lower rent areas, where their doctor, social worker, health visitor etc are. None of that matters let’s get those with a good job a house without a commute by moving some of those scroungers out.

    After all a house with closed curtains must belong to a benefit scrounger. I mean my wife is a nurse who worked nights in a shift pattern, but whenever she closed the curtains during the day she morphed into a scrounger not worthy of living in a high rent area, as did the other shift workers..

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Nov '12 - 2:09pm


    Yes Sarah, the immoral thing about taxing working people (including the working poor) and giving £25,000 of that tax per year to a single family for housing benefit … the immoral thing about that is that it’s not enough. Well done. People should be taxed more – or other services should be cut, so that more than £25,000 can be given to these families for their London rent.

    The money is not given to the families, it’s given to their landlords. In the past we had council housing which was let out at cost price only (historical cost only, so diminishing in real terms over time as the loans used to build it are paid off, and it was built when land was much cheaper anyway). Thanks to a deliberate decision from the UK government in the 1980s, that supply of council housing has been run down. The argument (which was actually put to me by the government minister responsible) was that as the housing was still there, there would be no problem. Well, yes, it is still there, but in private hands, let out for much more (in the ward I used to represent, a former council house now in private hands and rented out had a rent about three times that of identical houses still council owned), that much more largely paid by housing benefit, and all going in profit to various people over time. It was fairly predictable this would happen back then. If you supported Margaret Thatcher and the “right to buy” in the 1980s, you supported it – anyone who voted Tory in the1980s was voting for the social and financial consequences we see now.

    If you won’t pay market rents to house families that can’t afford to buy, what will you do to these families? Putting the kids into care will cost more. The fact is the kids exist, they have to live somewhere. Unless you propose stopping them from living – yes, gas chambers, that sort of thing. Or selling the kids abroad into slavery. Seriously – THAT is the alternative.

  • @Matthew Huntbach
    “The money is not given to the families, it’s given to their landlords. In the past we had council housing which was let out at cost price only (historical cost only, so diminishing in real terms over time as the loans used to build it are paid off, and it was built when land was much cheaper anyway). ”

    Absolutely spot on, I grew up in a Council house my parents struggled many times through lost jobs and low wages but we managed to pay the rent – because it was affordable. The trouble is the truth about the folly of Thatchers give away, and the housing bubble that followed it, will not meet the political needs of the coalition to find a villain.

  • “If you won’t pay market rents to house families that can’t afford to buy, what will you do to these families? Putting the kids into care will cost more. The fact is the kids exist, they have to live somewhere. Unless you propose stopping them from living – yes, gas chambers, that sort of thing. Or selling the kids abroad into slavery. Seriously – THAT is the alternative.”

    Perhaps a return to Swiftian Values is being advocated:

  • Dominic Curran 19th Nov '12 - 3:17pm

    @ Simon Bamonte

    You ask why did Tether [sic] vote for these measures in Government? The answer is that she didn’t . She missed those votes, on purpose it now appears, and got some into some trouble from the whips for doing so, since she was a government minister defying her own government.

  • @Elizabeth et al

    Im afraid there is no chance of that as Sarah Teather is far more worried about the ‘market’….

    Sarah Teather in 2010,,,,,,

    I am not in favour of rent controls because the distorting effect on the market would be immense. Perhaps the real issue is giving councils greater ability to control the freedoms on the right to buy, so that not so many properties-especially in areas such as London where we are in dire need of affordable housing-are sold…

  • Dominic Curran 19th Nov '12 - 3:21pm

    People shoudo note that the benefit cap is set at the average UK income, £26,000. However, this is not the average London income, which is about £29,000. The average income of families is even higher, as they are, on average, older and higher up the career ladder.

    So even on the terms of which the policy is formed – ‘that people on benefits should not get more than average working people’ – the policy actively discrinimates agianst Lonon families. They should at least get the cap that is relevant to their region. £26k goes a lot further in Cornwall or Cumbria than Canning Town or Catford.

  • Ruth Bright 19th Nov '12 - 6:42pm

    Exactly Dominic.

    John Dunn – okey, dokey so you are sending unemployed Londoner HB claimants to cheaper areas like Consett, Doncaster, Stoke and Preston where they “can live very happily”. But how will they ever find jobs and build a new working, Cleggtastic “alarm clock” Britain lifestyle in such areas of high unemployment?

  • “Benefit cap is immoral and divisive”

    ..then why didn’t you vote against it Sarah?.. I would say that abstaining instead of voting against, is immoral and devisive..

  • After watching last nights Channel 4 Dispatches MPs: Are They Still at It?

    You do have to wonder if there is still one rule for them and one rule for us.

    Although “apparently” the Mps are acting within the rules, you do have to ask yourself are these rules justified and fair.

    Since MP’s are no longer allowed to claim for Interest on Mortgage payments, it seems a new loophole is being exploited were some MP’s are renting their properties from one another.
    Although this is not against the rules, I do wonder whether “business associate” is not applicable. The IPSA rules do state that you can not claim expenses for property that is owned by a “business associate”

    Putting that issue aside , there were also claims that some MP’s whose Constituencies fall outside of the London boarder and are entitled to claim expenses for a 2nd home. The alleged MP had a Constituency home, They also owned a 1.8 Million pound property, less that an hours commute from Westminster, which they could not claim expenses for and so they rented what was described as a “Luxury” apartment, next to MI6 and overlooking the Thames, just a stone throw away from Parliament and claims the Full rental allowance on this property as expenses.
    Surely this can not be right.

    We are seeing massive cuts to welfare and other departments, whilst MP’s expenses are at the same level as what they were when the expenses scandal first got exposed.

    Thousands of people have to commute every day to work, because they can not afford to live in the likes of Westminster. I fail to see why things should be so different for Members of Parliament.

    Families are being told to move out of expensive area’s because it is not reasonable for the Tax payer to fund these expensive rents, and yet, we allow MP’s to rent in Westminster at the expense of the tax payer, is this fair to the tax payer? would it not be more reasonable to expect those MP’s who are entitled to a second home in London to live in a much more cheaper burgh and commute a short journey?

    These Allowances are “allegedly” supposed to enable “less well off” MP’s to do their jobs, but do we really regard someone who owns a Constituency home in Maidstone, a £1.8 Million pound home in Surrey just 19 Miles from Westminster and then claims full allowances for a luxury apartment in west minister. I personally do not see how that can be interpreted as being “less well off”

    Their are many MP’s who have done very well out of the tax payer over the years by exploiting the expenses system and building themselves up some nice little property portfolio’s. It is surely Immoral that any MP who already own’s a property in London, be allowed to rent out that property {Sometimes to other MP’s} whilst renting elsewhere and claiming it as an expense to the tax payer.

    It also comes to light that some landlords are using offshore holding companies.
    How many offshore landlords own properties in the uk who are renting to tenants at inflated rates at the expense of the public purse and avoid paying UK Taxes.

    Surely before we impose all these policies that demonize the poor, the Government should be getting it’s own house in order and tackling these offshore Landlords.

  • Steve Griffiths 20th Nov '12 - 12:31pm

    Matthew Huntbach and Steve Wray have it absolutely correct, and Steve hints at another key problem about recent Lib Dem housing policy formulation – there are now very few people left in the Lib Dems that have had the experience of social housing and homelessness. Like Steve Wray I was born and raised in council housing and my family was at one time almost made homeless whilst father was away on national service. It was only the intervention of local medical professionals that made the local city council change its mind on eviction.

    In later years I was elected as a Lib Dem councillor to a hung district council, where I became housing spokesman and eventually vice-chair of the housing committee. Due to the long illness of the Independent Chair I became, in effect, Chairman. I was able to speak from my own very real experiences of social housing and the fear of homelessness. I suspect there are few people in the current Liberal Democrat party that can recall those problems first hand, and even fewer with those experiences advising the current policy makers. There ought to be.

    I suspect that most of the contributors to this discussion thread, the Lib Dem parliamentary party, their advisors and most of the Centre Forward think tank, have been lucky in the housing where they were grew up and live now. The council estate where in was raised in the 1960s in a comfortable southern city had a dirty secret. Developers divided the social houses from the private houses by building a 10ft wall with spikes across the top through the gardens, across the pavement and across the roads that joined the two areas of housing. It was eventually taken down after much strife see




    On the day when they were demolished I was in the party of school children that were some of the first to walk through the first breach. People who live in social housing are not there by choice, they just may not have had the start in life or subsequent life experiences that others have had.
    Moving families away from their homes hundreds of miles to other areas is simply recreating similar ghettos elsewhere and the Lib Dems should have nothing to do with it. Their policy advisors need to get out of the Westminster bubble and speak with real people with real experiences.

  • Steve Griffiths 20th Nov '12 - 12:39pm

    I did of course mean ‘Centre Forum’; my apologies to that organisation (writing things in haste).

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Nov '12 - 3:22pm

    Steve Griffiths

    Matthew Huntbach and Steve Wray have it absolutely correct, and Steve hints at another key problem about recent Lib Dem housing policy formulation – there are now very few people left in the Lib Dems that have had the experience of social housing and homelessness

    Indeed. My own background: a council estate in southern England, a father employed (when employed) in low paid unskilled manual work, knowing what it is like to be despised and discriminated against because of your class background, seeing so many who grew up with me left behind, is what makes me say and do what I do politically more than anything else. If I sometime get angry about the complacency and lack of knowledge of what life is like for most people from so many contributors here, that is why.

  • Richard Swales 20th Nov '12 - 9:42pm

    Of course not all the closed curtains belonged to claimants, the point remains though that I as someone who could afford to live only in zone 3 (Lewisham/Hither Green) should not have to pay for people to live in zone 2 or zone 1, simply because they are belongers and I am an outsider. It was said that any discussion of benefit caps leads to moral judgements of the urban poor. Actually I have no interest in anyone elses morality – it is actually the assertion that some other people, though richer than me, have a moral right to my money that introduces the concept of their morality. I would be interested to see a post from someone living in zones 1 or 2 actually written in the first person explaining why the current situation is ok. Of course no such post will be forthcoming because when you hear it as “You should be made to give me your money” it becomes clear how abhorrent the notion is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Nov '12 - 10:04am

    Richard Swales

    I would be interested to see a post from someone living in zones 1 or 2 actually written in the first person explaining why the current situation is ok. Of course no such post will be forthcoming because when you hear it as “You should be made to give me your money” it becomes clear how abhorrent the notion is.

    Hither Green’s gone a bit trendy and upmarket since I lived there – you sure you want it pulled down again by an influx of zone 1 and 2 refugees? There’s actually nowhere in the south-east which is particularly cheap. So wherever you settle families with kids in the south-east, you are going to get these headline figures about what is actually housing benefit (which you get if you are employed, it’s not just for the unemployed) which make out the money is going to the families to spend on luxury and hides the fact that most of it’s going to the landlords.

    Send them off packing up north? Well, OK, but are you aware of the social cost which leads to financial cost of breaking up extended families? You want the taxpayer to pay for what granny now does for free? Or when granny’s too old to do anything, you want the taxpayer to pay for all her care needs, as her children who would have done it otherwise got sent to live several hundred miles away?

  • @Richard & Matthew Re: Headline figures

    I’m interested that there doesn’t seem to be any real insight given into the headline figures. If we take the most controversial headline in the article: “At the top end, 84 families will lose about £1,000 a week”

    What does this really mean?
    – Are these families that are in temporary accommodation eg. Hotel/B&B, for a few weeks and hence will move when more affordable and appropriate accommodation becomes available.
    – Are these families that previously worked in the City, but are currently unemployed and are still living in the rented accommodation they previously could afford? (£1,000 a week plus out-goings with no income will quite rapidly deplete savings.)
    etc etc.

  • “Cutting employee’s rights is not helping, removing job security make people reluctant to take on mortgage risks.”

    You could also argue that the gradual destruction of the state pension and the “race to the bottom” of pensions in the private sector has made it very attractive for people to use property as a way of supplement their income in retirement.

    Whilst I don’t begrudge people doing that, I think some of them forget that this income they have is someone’s home. Generally speaking this lies at the root of the problem, the way property is seen in large as a way of making money rather than providing people with homes. I blame Thatcher for introducting assured shorthold tenancies, which made renting very insecure and I blame the tories for most of this.

    As a former Liberal Democrat, I’m pretty disgusted by the behaviour of this government and particularly how little restraint the party has shown. I really hope that the governmetn (including Clegg and co) are hauled by the European Parliament over legal challenges surrounding what is for want of a better term, ‘social cleansing’. The creation of ghettos in outlying of cities is unacceptable.

    Also what’s going to happen in central London when there are few people on low wages able to do cleaning jobs etc? Perhaps the House of Commons will have to employ people living in illegal built accommodation or illegal overcrowded properties..

  • As others have pointed out, if the cap is 500 a week and they lose 1000, this means they currently are funded by more than 1500 a week or 6K a month!!! This is insane! If you cant support yourself and you have to fall back on the state, you have no divine right to be funded indefinitely to live in one specific area. Yes there should a safety net but there is a whole world outside London with jobs and schools and housing.

  • I am curious, Nobody seems to care about the amount of money MP’s claim for expenses/rent on second homes in London, which in effect is a form of housing benefit.

    Many MP’s claim this to the tax payers expense, regardless of the fact of whether they need this financial assistance or not.

    Surely it is not unreasonable to expect MP’s to either commute or to rent outside the city where it is cheaper.

    If more restrictions are going to be applied to the sick unemployed and low paid, why do MP’s seem to think they should be exempt?

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