10 things about 2014: part 1

The first of a two-part look back at the issues and people that I’ve been blogging about this year.

1) Groundhog Day on the bedroom tax

The year ended as it began, in a welter of parliamentary accusation and counter-accusation that left tenants in England and Wales still having to pay the under-occupation penalty. A Commons debate in December just before the Christmas recess a classic example: Labour called a vote condemning the bedroom tax that didn’t actually change anything; the Lib Dems voted in favour and produced a weasly justification for the decision; and the Conservatives went from claiming it would save £1 million a day in January to £500 million, £1 billion and even £2 billion by the end of the year.

However, there were at least three occasions during the year when it looked as though significant changes would be achieved.

Raquel Rolnik, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, produced her final report in February recommending that the measure should be immediately suspended and re-evaluated. Britain’s ambassador to the UN, aka junior housing minister Kris Hopkins, called it ‘a misleading Marxist diatribe’.

April saw the first anniversary of the bedroom tax and a report by the all-party work and pensions committee recommending new exemptions for people with severe disabilities and those living in specially adapted homes. The DWP reaction was to do nothing: governments are meant to respond to select committee reports within two months; as of today we are still waiting.

June saw Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George came first in the ballot for private member’s bills and propose more new exemptions. In July the DWP sneaks out an independent evaluation of the policy on the same day as the reshuffle. That was the cue for the Lib Dems to formally withdraw their support. In September Goerge’s Bill won a second reading as Lib Dem ministers voted against their own government and opposition MPs turned up in sufficient numbers to defeat an attempt by Tory backbenchers to talk it out. For once, it seemed that MPs had been able to put politics on one side for long enough to secure change.

Fat chance of that. Politics returned with vengeance: the Conservatives refused to agree the money resolution necessary for the Bill to go any further unless the Lib Dems supported one for a Bill calling a referendum on membership of the EU.

2) Universal faith

Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship reform displayed a remarkable ability to be ‘on time and on budget’ despite continuing problems with the IT, delivery on the ground and the departures of senior staff.

In April the work and pensions committee produced yet another critical report and had this to say about the DWP’s response to requests for information:

‘It is not acceptable for ministers to provide information about changes to major policy implementation to this committee, and indeed to parliament and the public more broadly, only when forced to do so by the imminent prospect of being held to account in a public oral evidence session. We recommend that, in response to this report, DWP sets out how it will improve the frankness, accuracy and timeliness of the information it provides to us, to ensure that it meets the required levels of transparency between the government and select committees, and that we are not hampered in trying to carry out our role effectively.’

In May the Major Projects Authority listed universal credit as ‘reset’, effectively starting again and in July, Sir Bob Kerslake revealed that the Treasury had still not signed off the business case. However, in August the public accounts committee expressed concern that the ‘reset’ was ‘an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny’. The response from IDS roughly translated as ‘whatever’. In September he announced an accelerated roll-out to all job centres from February 2015.

The great man’s ability to proclaim his creation a triumph even as others call it as a disaster prompted me to invoke Schrodinger’s Cat in November. The day after he proclaimed ‘the end of the dole as we know it’ and accelerated the roll-out yet again, the National Audit Office published a progress update revealing that the digital version of universal credit was barely off the drawing board and that the programme had slipped yet again.

3) Welfare, welfare, welfare

Not content with the Welfare Reform Act and universal credit, 2014 saw a series of statements by ministers spelling out what the future will hold under a Conservative government free from Lib Dem influence. The year had barely begun before George Osborne was calling for another £12 billion in welfare savings including the withdrawal of housing benefit from the under-21s and council housing from people earning more than £60,000

Another glimpse into the future came from the Office for Budget Responsibility after a Budget in which Osborne set out his plans for a welfare cap. Contradicting the chancellor’s narrative that housing benefit is ‘out of control’, the OBR said the rising cost is being driven by caseload growth in the private rented sector and the number of people in work who need help with their rent. The private rented sector is expected to account for 40 per cent of the housing benefit bill by 2018/19.

In August I considered the coalition’s record on housing benefit in its first four years: while the number of claims had fallen since in the last year, the overall bill was still rising and the number of in-work claims had risen from 650,000 to 1.1 million since 2010.

Was IDS bothered? Far from it, he told the Commons in September that the rising number of in-work claims for housing benefit was a triumph.

4) How to create a TV stereotype

Channel 4 courted fresh controversy (and counted the viewing figures) with a new reality show called Benefits Street. It purported to show the reality of life on benefits on James Turner Street in Birmingham, but residents complained they were misled and Twitter was split down the middle between critics of the stereotyping and abusers of ‘the scroungers’. Comparing it to a memorable TV drama from the 1970s, The Spongers, I concluded that one set out to give a voice to people who did not have one the other one while the other put them on public display.

April brought a second series of How to Get a Council House and the launch of a new campaign, Council Homes Chat, to counter the negativity. Evidence from the English Housing Survey in July showed how wrong the stereotypes can be. However, things reached a new low in a Christmas card from Clinton’s Cards offering ’10 reasons why Santa Claus must live on a council estate’. Dismissing all the criticism as ‘a form of censorship’, Channel 4 has already started filming a new series of Benefits Street in Stockton.

5) Devolution and divergence

2014 was a year of divergence for housing in the UK. Landmark legislation to abolish the right to buy in Scotland and regulate the private rented sector in Wales was passed even as England did the opposite. It was full steam ahead for the bedroom tax in England but in Scotland the SNP government was able to mitigate it in full and in Northern Ireland political deadlock meant it had never been introduced in the first place.

However, the independence referendum in Scotland opened up the prospect of even more radical change affecting the whole of the UK. The campaign and especially ‘the vow’ made by the major UK parties made it clear that greater devolution was on the cards even if the Scots voted no.

The promise was, depending on your point of view, delivered or betrayed when the all-party Smith Commission reported in November. Scotland won greater powers to vary the details of welfare reform but control of most benefits stayed firmly with Westminster. However, devolution was on the way in England too, with new powers for Manchester, including control of its housing budget, heralding a similar deal to come for other Northern cities.

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing


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