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.

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Tax and the self-employed

For all the sound and fury over national insurance and the self-employed, it is still a sideshow in wider debates about tax, employment status and rights at work.

Philip Hammond’s unraveling Budget matters politically and it signals both the strength and the weakness of the government. Only a chancellor facing the worst opposition in decades could even consider a measure that breaks four separate commitments in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. Only a prime minister with a small majority could be forced to retreat at the first sign of Tory dissent and newspaper headlines about white vans.

hammond

Much of the blame lies with the ex-chancellor now trousering £1m a year on top of his MP’s salary for his advice and speeches. It makes you wonder how George Osborne is being paid for all that hard work and hope that he’s about to get clobbered for tax because it’s through a personal service company.

It was Osborne who in 2015 abolished Class 2 national insurance contributions (NICs) for the self-employed (from 2018) and gave them access to the higher state pension via Class 4. If he had introduced an increase in Class 4 contributions at the same time, few people would have complained. Instead he posed as the great reforming chancellor, agreed the manifesto pledge and left Hammond to fill the holes in his spreadsheet.

Combine these different measures and the treatment of the self-employed looks (reasonably) fair: most of the lowest paid will pay less, there’s a better state pension than before, and the burden falls heaviest on people earning more. But try and defend this week’s Budget announcement using that argument and you look like a shifty betrayer of ‘ordinary working families’ and ‘entrepreneurs’.

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Prevention and cure

Originally posted on January 30 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

As the Homelessness Reduction Bill passes its final stages in the House of Commons, it is time to mix celebration with realism.

The cause for celebration is that, once the bill has passed through the Lords, more people facing homelessness are entitled to help and that they will get it earlier. A landmark piece of legislation will make it on to the statute book 40 years after the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

Conservative MP Bob Blackmandeserves great credit for leading the way but the bill was backed by Crisis, drew support from the government and MPs of all parties and has also had extensive input from Shelter and local authorities. Poppy Terry has a useful summary of how the bill has evolved on the Shelter policy blog.

Crucially, the bill was not just backed by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee, it also went through extensive scrutiny. The issues are fiendishly complex but the comparison with the ‘back of a fag packet’ Housing and Planning Act could hardly be more marked.

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10 things about 2016: part two

Originally published on December 29 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second part of my look back at the year in housing as seen on my blog kicks off with the fallout from the referendum result. We may still not know what Brexit means apart from Brexit but the consequences were profound.

6. New government, new approach

The most immediate impact was political as the departure of David Cameron triggered not just a change of prime minister, but a change of virtually every minister with any say over housing and a real change of political tone. The debate during the brief Conservative leadership campaign and the winner’s rhetoric about “a country that works for everyone” suggested some potentially significant changes in the drivers of policy.

Brandon Lewis was confident Theresa May would stay true to the agenda of Right to Buy and Starter Homes but he was soon moved to a different job. Gavin Barwell quickly proved himself to be a more consensual and thoughtful housing minister and in his first major speech signalled a shift in focus to housing of all tenures rather than just homeownership.

I speculated on what this might mean for crucial elements of the Housing and Planning Act that were still unresolved, including Starter Homes, but that’s still not clear.

Conservative party conference speeches from Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid suggested a new approach with housing as a “number one priority”, but the question was whether the reality would match the rhetoric. However, the Autumn Statement did partially reverse the skewing of investment towards ownership rather than affordable rental.

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JAMs and NOMADs

Originally published on November 23 on my blog for Inside Housing

Wednesday’s Autumn Statement by Philip Hammond is good news for housing on several different fronts.

First, at long last housing is being recognised as infrastructure. That’s important enough in itself but Mr Hammond went even further by pitching housing as part of the solution to the key economic problem of productivity.

Along with transport, digital communications and research and development, housing will be part of the chancellor’s £23bn National Productivity Investment Fund. In financial terms, accelerated construction, affordable housing and the new Housing Infrastructure Fund represent a third of the total cost.

Mr Hammond also named “the housing challenge” alongside the productivity gap and the imbalance in prosperity across the country as one of the economy’s long-term weaknesses.

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Manifestly without reason

Originally published on November 8 on my blog for Inside Housing

On a day when it was badly needed the judges of the Supreme Court obliged with some good news.

Yes, it was mixed with bad news in the judgement on the bedroom tax, as two claimants won their case and others were refused, but it was still a welcome vindication of the case put forward by the Carmichaels, the Rutherfords and their lawyers. In the words of the judgement, the decisions on their housing benefit were ‘manifestly without reason’.

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Cutting the cap

Originally published on November 1 on my blog for Inside Housing

You might think a policy that threatens more than 300,000 children with destitution and homelessness would be attracting more attention.

The reduction in the overall benefit cap starts in just six days’ time (Monday November 7) and will be introduced in different areas over the next few weeks. It is the first of a series of crucial events for housing this month that I blogged about yesterday. But only now is it getting much attention in the national media. That’s partly thanks to new analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which suggests that 116,000 families will be affected and a total of 319,000 children.

The cap is being reduced from £26,000 a year to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere (lower limits apply to single people with no children). The cap essentially works via housing benefit. The more children people have, the higher their non-housing benefits will be and the more their housing benefit will be cut. At the levels of the lower cap, widespread rent shortfalls are inevitable unless people qualify for one of the exemptions or a discretionary housing payment (DHP) from their local authority.

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