OK, I really, really, should not ever read the Daily Express. Or the Mail. Or the News of the World. Or – oh you get the idea. I think it was the great G.K Chesterton who observed that if you can get your readers angry enough they will write half your paper for you, and oh how true it was in a world without blogs. Today my wrath has been brought about by an unfortunate morning of disputes with my bank over a mysterious bank charge and an even more mysterious direct debit, and then being given a copy of the Daily Express to read by a friend. Given that I am of a fairly placid disposition, what caused my outrage today?
The Express headline today was “20.8 billion cost of Housing Benefit: Taxpayer’s fury as handouts hit all time high”.
Yeah, that’s a lot. It’s two thirds the cost of the the Law Courts, the Prisons, the Fire Service and the Police (33.4 billion). Our whole Defence budget is only 42.1 billion — twice what we spend on housing benefits. Unemployment benefits come out at 4.2 billion, pensions (including sickness and diability) at five times the cost of housing benefit at at 110.1 billion and the NHS was almost the same in 2009 – just 101.5 billion. Hell, we could have nine and a bit Afghanistan wars more for what we pay to benefit scrounging doley scumbags in Housing Benefit! Huzzah!
Christopher Chantrill has done an incredible job of producing a website (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk ) which lets you look at what both central and local government spends on, and it makes fascinating reading. I took my figures from there, and freely acknowledge my debt of gratitude to him. The DWP also produces spreadsheets on Housing Benefit payments, by local area – the bill was for example in 2002/2003 19.7 million in Cheltenham, and 3.8 million lost in revenues to Council Tax Benefit. Bury St Edmunds that year paid out 14.2 million, and lost 2.9 million to Council Tax benefit. Unfortunately they only go up tp 2007/8.
The Press Are Such Fun!
But there are perhaps wider issues at stake here. To start with, the Daily Telegraph tells us –
“The Government estimates it will pay out £19.6 billion in housing benefit during the 2009/10 financial year, according to figures slipped out on the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) website. “- from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financetopics/recession/6924122/Housing-benefit-bill-rises-to-nearly-20-billion.html
OK, slipped out by the DWP? What a sneaky bunch that DWP are, slipping out their statistics. (Remember that phrase a moment…) Slippery folks! Luckily the brave defenders of truth at the Telegraph and the Express have told all! Great — but in the same words?
“Fears of an explosion in welfare over the coming months were revealed in the statistical forecasts slipped out by the Department of Work & Pensions yesterday.” – that’s from today’s Daily Express, p.4.
So they just shamelessly copied a two day old Telegraph story and made it headline news, even using the same wording in places? That’s a slip up! Well the author of the piece was shown on Radio 2 to “sometimes put himself under a high level of pressure to live up to his high standards” – maybe this was actually written by a staff reporter under his by-line? Or more frighteningly, maybe the right press do actually usually refer to DWP forecasts as slipped out, and crib old articles for their headlines. Who knows?
Yet they could save so much time, for here are a few headlines that work even better –
WILL PAEDOPHILES MOLEST BRITAIN’S FARMERS?
COULD THE BBC HAVE SEX WITH YOUR PETS?
COULD YOBS INFECT YOUR PENSION WITH AIDS?
WILL CYCLISTS TURN YOUR HOUSE GAY?
WILL ASYLUM SEEKERS GIVE MIDDLE BRITAIN DIABETES?
Definitely things that concern us all, and I generated them by the wonderful Daily Mail-o-matic headline generator. Go have a go. It’s fun!
Back to Housing Benefit…
Both articles give the same quote from Theresa May, who always has something to say, blaming the government, and lots of stuff about fraud, wastage, and general condemnation of Britain’s benefit culture. The Telegraph quote her at length, and i’m pleased she acknowledges “Housing benefit can provide valuable help to people in work or pensioners” before continuing to attack Labour’s record. What I found really fascinating was this line form the Telegraph article –“Nationwide 17 per cent of households receive some form of housing benefit, but in areas of London the figure reaches more than 40 per cent.”
What?! Why?? How??? Well my guess is that in some ares of London 40% of people are jobless or on low incomes. Housing Benefit is means tested – the Rowntree Foundation Report back in 2003 highlighted the problems with it, and showed that actually on average it leaves a gap of £19 a week between what is paid and actual rent costs, leaving those on low incomes and the dole struggling: HB does not pay all the rent. Add to that the fact that most landlords want payments pcm, per calendar month, and yet councils pay on a 28 day/menstrual or lunar cycle, and you get 13 cheques a year all too small to meet the 12 payments of rent you might need to make. Might not sound like a problem, but budgeting is harder then I guess, as your HB payments are movable feasts, moving back a couple or three days each month except February. Just pray you have enough cash to make up the difference?
So who are the villains?
Doley scroungers? Immigrants? Single mothers? Henry the mild mannered janitor? Nope. The villains are you and I. Why? You like shopping at Tesco, Waitrose, Marks and Spencers, ASDA, Iceland? Go to Lloyd’s Pharmacy? WH Smiths? Expect a student pharmacy tech to make up your pills and drips when is hospital? Well as few of the staff are paid enough to actually be able to afford to rent at the market price, and there is hardly any council housing left as it’s all been sold off, what are they supposed to live in? the stockrooms? Cheap prices in your supermarkets are subsidized by wages not far above minimum legal wage, and certainly not enough to pay the whole rent in this town, or most others. Employers can pay these low wages because at the end of the day they can get away with it, knowing the taxpayer will pick up the tab, and pay for their workers subidised accommodation.
If wages were living wages, then perhaps people could afford homes without state handouts. Sadly all too often they are not. You cn earn £16,000 a year and still get housing benefit in a lot of the UK – because rent prices are so high. An average shop wopker round here can after a couple of years expect a take home pay of £936.60 a month. The rent for a place in these parts is about £600-£700, with single bedroom flats at c.£400 -£500. Add bills and Council Tax and hey, no money for food. So how do they survive? They claim Housing Benefit and Council Tax. Abolish those, make the Taxpapyer’s Alliance happy, and the unemployed might manage to find rooms in something like the dosshouses of the19 50’s, but the average shop worker and low paid NHS staff is going to need a serious pay rise: the only solution then would be is to raise the minimum wage to maybe £15 an hour – and then we will see the profits of the High Street dwindle, and prices soar. Or alternatively we can do it the other way – only employ people who already own houses and have mortgages which are dirt cheap in these days of low interest rates, creating a vast underclass of unemployable non-homeowners who can’t afford to pay rent? So Housing Benefit subsidises the lowest paid, not just the doley scroungers, and artificially keeps wages low.
And why our rents so high? Actually, they aren’t. They are fairly competitive, considering how much mortgages cost and house prices. It was the Middle England obsession with house prices, and the artificial bubble of ever increasing house prices which have put home ownership forever beyond the reach of a generation, like my girlfriend who works in a bank, is fairly well paid, but could never hope to actually be able to afford to buy even the cheapest of houses in her town based on what the banks would lend her. House prices are now so expensive that rents must follow — and the gap between home owners and those who rent, between the haves and have -nots, has opened up so much that now all that can be done is to subsidise our workers to keep a roof over their heads using taxpayer’s money.
The real tragedy of the last twenty odd years was not Housing Benefit: it was escalating unrealistic house prices, banks lending vast sums without proof of income to a credit hungry nation allowing the prices to go up and up unchecked in a bubble, and the fact no government would say no to Daily Express readers and actually try to end the housing market price rise. It’s not the landlord’s fault – it really is the entirely foreseeable outcome of a world were a one bedroom apartment in North London goes for £195,000,a nd you can buy a parking space in Stoke Newington for 15k, more than many shop workers earn in a year. If one day the poor do kill middle class home owners in their beds, it will be this gap between housing and salary, not housing benefit costs which causes it. 😦