Watching the benefit cap

Originally posted on April 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What did see when you watched last night’s Panorama on the benefit cap?

Most people reading this here will, I think, have seen the impact of an arbitrary policy that leaves thousands of people with 50p a week towards their rent.

But outside my timeline on Twitter the view was very different. Roughly 95 per cent of tweets with the hashtag #benefitcap were hostile, but to the people featured in the programme rather than the policy.

There is nothing new in this divide of course – exactly the same thing happened with Benefits Street and How to Get a Council House and a Dispatches documentary on the cap last month– but this was an hour on BBC One on primetime.

Part of the problem lay with the way that Panorama framed the issue. This was clear in the first two minutes.

First, the title of the programme – The Benefits Cap: Is It Working? – and the opening commentary were based on the government case for the policy that was not seriously challenged.

As work and pensions minister Caroline Nokes puts it: ‘What we sought to do was incentivise work because we know that the outcomes for children will be better if they are in families that are working.’

As Joe Halewood was quick to point out, the advance publicity also seemed to assume that most people capped are unemployed and on Job Seekers Allowance when in fact just 13 per cent are.

The fact that the vast majority of people capped are either unable to work or not required to work was only raised tentatively half way through the progamme.

Most of those capped are lone parents with young children who are not required to look for work (the age at which they do has been steadily reduced to three) or people on Employment and Support Allowance who do not qualify for an exemption but are still not fit for work.

Second, a representative of the ‘TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) was given airtime. Despite the name, this is an organisation rated by the campaign Whofundsyou.org as among the least transparent of all think tanks for the information it discloses about its funding.

Yes, the Child Poverty Action Group was there to speak for people who have been capped.

But this was a spurious balance. The TPA was given a platform to speak for ‘tax payers’ (when we don’t know how much tax its donors pay or who they are) about ‘benefit claimants’ (who do actually pay taxes such as VAT).

That said, the rest of the programme did a reasonable job of explaining the arbitrary impacts of the policy and a good one of illustrating the difficulties that lone parents have going back to work.

Where the original cap fell mainly on people living in expensive areas in the private rented sector, this one also hits people with children everywhere in all types of housing.

David Pipe explained the effects very well in a piece following the Dispatches documentary last month.

At its most extreme the cap leaves people with just 50p a week to pay their rent. Panorama found 7,500 households in this situation across 370 local authority areas.

This is the way the cap works, leaving a nominal amount for housing benefit or universal credit once someone’s benefits total more than £20,000 (£23,000 in London). In effect it is imposed on top of the rest of the benefits system.

There are already rules about how much support people should get for their children, whether they are expected to look for work and how much help they should get with their housing costs.

All of these individual elements have been the subject of endless debate over the last few years and entitlements have been cut.

Local caps on the local housing allowance have applied since 2011, LHA rates are frozen until 2020, the age your children have to be before you have to look for work has been steadily reduced and new restrictions on child support under universal credit came into effect today.

The perversity (or genius, depending on your point of view) of the cap is that it trumps all those judgments about what is fair in the benefits system.

Instead it must be fair to people who are working, earning £20,000 and paying taxes, while carefully ignoring the in-work benefits they could also be receiving for their children or housing costs.

And what about the long-term consequences? The evidence so far suggests that only a small minority of people have reacted to the cap by finding work or moving.

For many others, discretionary housing payments are the only thing keeping them in their home. In the DWP’s eyes, DHPs are the answer to everything but they effectively reproduce the localised and cash-limited relief system that existed before the welfare state.

For all the help and support that many social landlords are giving to their tenants, the effect over time will be rising rent arrears and evictions and allocations policies that make it less likely that people on benefits will get a tenancy in the first place.

But when even people in caravans are being capped, where do the poorest people live? And what will the knock-on costs be in terms of homelessness and the impact on the children?

So much, perhaps so obvious, to anyone familiar with the issues, but this is seeing the impact in terms of the system as a whole.

The majority of people commenting on Twitter were seeing the undeserving individual instead: the stroppy single mother with a mobile phone and the couple who have too many children.

As work published by Shelter last year showed, this is part of a much bigger problem of public attitudes to the welfare safety net and how to build support for it.

To paraphrase Panorama’s question, the benefit cap may or not be working. It depends whether you see it as policy or politics.

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