Beyond facts

The routine is familiar by now: researchers question government policy, government rubbishes researchers.

Last week it was the University of York, the bedroom tax and Esther McVey, today it’s the Chartered Institute of Housing, the benefit cap and Mike Penning but the gist was the same.

Where McVey embarrassed herself on the World at One, Penning had definitely got out of bed on the wrong side before he arrived in the Today programmestudio. That was compounded when presenter Justin Webb introduced him as Mark rather than Mike. ‘Let’s start as we mean to carry on, shall we?’ he harrumphed before attacking ‘the BBC and The Guardian’ for being the only media outlets to report the story.

The routine is familiar by now: researchers question government policy, government rubbishes researchers.

Last week it was the University of York, the bedroom tax and Esther McVey, today it’s the Chartered Institute of Housing, the benefit cap and Mike Penning but the gist was the same.

Where McVey embarrassed herself on the World at One, Penning had definitely got out of bed on the wrong side before he arrived in the Today programme studio. That was compounded when presenter Justin Webb introduced him as Mark rather than Mike. ‘Let’s start as we mean to carry on, shall we?’ he harrumphed before attacking ‘the BBC and The Guardian’ for being the only media outlets to report the story.

The interview went downhill from there. ‘Let’s report the facts, not flawed data,’ he said, but seemed unsure quite what the facts were. And he then blundered into an on-air row with Webb in the following exchange:

Penning: ‘It’s a fair policy and it’s much too early for the BBC and the institute to be writing this off.’

Webb: ‘It’s ridiculous to say the BBC is writing this off, we’re merely reporting what they did.’

Penning: ‘Why did you accept what they reported? Because we gave you the information last night that it wasn’t factually correct.’

Webb: ‘We’re not accepting it. We just had an interview with the woman in charge and asked her questions about it. That’s how you report things. We’re not accepting it by reporting it, you know perfectly well we’re not.’

That I think provides a clue to Penning’s initial annoyance. The DWP had obviously been trying – and failing – to kill the story last night. Its line was that 16,500 claimants ‘potentially affected by the cap’ have been helped into work across the country (since April 2012) and so it’s working. The department is of course a paragon of statistical rectitude when it comes to the cap.

Penning’s other point was that: ‘I don’t understand why we are looking at something so early on in one very restricted London area, which just happens to be Labour-controlled, which is said not to be working.’

In fact the CIH research looks in detail at the impact in Haringey, one of the four London boroughs where the cap was first introduced. Among the findings:

  • Only 74 of the 747 households affected by the cap were known to have moved into work, while 11 had increased their hours by enough to avoid it
  • Half those affected were claiming discretionary housing payments to help pay their rent, shunting the costs from central government to councils (as Haringey leader Claire Kober points out). Around £60,000 has been saved from the benefit bill but expenditure on discretionary housing payments (DHPs) totals £960,000 so far.
  • The mass evictions that were feared have not yet materialised – though the report warns ‘they are visible on the horizon’. Claimants have relied on DHPs so far but this will be unsustainable in the long term.
  • A small number of households have faced severe consequences. These include women unable to leave abusive partners, children in danger of being taken into care and pre-emptive evictions of some private tenants.

The CIH concludes that the cap is ‘struggling to meet its aims’ of saving money and encouraging people into work. True, 11 per cent of households have moved into work but that does not seem much to show for the resources thrown into Haringey and the other pilot areas.

But all of this assumes of course that work and savings really are the main objectives of a policy that has always been intensely political. Opinion polls show that public support for the policy remains high. A survey for the DWPpublished earlier this month shows strong public support for the cap on just about every count, even though people believe it is unfair to people in high-rent areas.

I’ve written many times before about the way that the benefit cap’s arbitrary notion of ‘fairness’ breaks down once you look beyond the headline figure of £26,000 a year. This starts of course with the flawed use of earnings rather than income to set the level of the cap but it goes beyond that to the way that the cap operates independently of decisions already taken elsewhere in the system.

And so where there are already caps on the maximum housing benefit payable in each area, the overall cap operates well below that level. It is only DHPs that are making up for the rent shortfalls in Haringey.

Where councils accept a duty to homeless people and house them in temporary accommodation, the cap decides it will not pay the rents for it. This applies to 43 per cent of the capped households in Haringey.

And where the benefits system has rules on in what circumstances lone parents are expected to work that depend on the age of the child and the availability of affordable childcare, the benefit cap cuts the income of all those not working. Six out of ten of the households capped in Haringey had children below school age and the availability and affordability of childcare were major barriers to work.

But the benefit cap is a policy that operates independently of such considerations and in a world that exists beyond the facts. That’s why research and researchers have to be rubbished.

Originally posted on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing

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