George Osborne and the capping of total benefit entitlement

The Chancellor’s proposal  to cap total benefit entitlement at average income is just too dispiriting for words. If any coherent thought lies behind it I’d be surprised. If it is nothing more than pandering to the more rabid elements of the Tory faithful at party conference then that would be a relief. Let’ s hope it sinks without a trace. My fear is that it won’t. 

The proposal  fails to demonstrate any real understanding of housing markets, labour markets, the way cities work, the benefit system and the hardship that many poor households already face. Layering it on top of the Budget announcements regarding restrictions in the Local Housing Allowance just adds insult to injury.

The announcement does, however, provide grist to the mill for those who wish to vilify the poor and construct the majority of those who are materially disadvantaged as scroungers. Just at a time when there are likely to be a lot more people in that category as a result of the imminent fiscal contraction. Convenient.

The government expects poor households who can no longer afford their current accommodation with the assistance of Housing Benefit to move to cheaper areas. This begs so many questions. It’s going to hit large families hardest. If such mobility is possible (and that’s a big if) then it will have significant implications for access to informal support networks, patterns of mobility (hence environmental impacts), and children’s educational and social development. It is also likely to have implications for public services in the areas that households are both leaving and entering. The knock-on consequences could well outweigh any savings in benefits. Councillors might wish to think about how voting patterns would be affected if a lot of poorer households migrate to their area.

Arguments about whether the poor should be expected to move to cheaper areas are not simply about individual circumstances and their local impacts. They also entail issues of social identification and cohesion. If policy manages to engineer increased social segregation then that increases the tendency for the rich and the poor to live entirely separate live, rather than just parallel lives with propinquity. This will exacerbate social closure, reduce any form of social identification and accelerate the pressure for further welfare state retrenchment. The rich can even more successfully disconnect from the undesirable ‘other’.

One of the most surprising aspects of the fallout from this announcement is the response from the Liberal Democrats. Some of the commentary that I’ve seen appearing on LD sites has been more supportive than I might have expected. This has been followed by a degree of soul searching among commentators about what, if anything, this tells us about where the party is currently at. This policy proposal may well crystallise the concerns of leftish LD supporters over the direction in which the debate is heading and the terrain on which it is being conducted. Concerns will no doubt be compounded by today’s Torygraph’s placing Nick Clegg at No 3 in its list of most influential right-wingers and claiming him for their own (those who sup with the Devil …).

However, if one were being optimistic, there are signs that the left of the party is finding its voice and starting to articulate more clearly why principles such as universalism and social insurance are absolutely fundamental. Perhaps we’re on our way to reclaiming a more civilised and enlightened approach.

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