Information about my work as a Labour Councillor for East Finchley in the London Borough of Barnet

Monday, 25 June 2012

Why Housing Benefit is vital

I hear that the Government plans on cutting housing benefit for under 25 year olds. I believe that this is a mistake and I urge them to think again. There are a lot of misconceptions that need to be challenged, so here I am to make a start.

Housing benefit is much maligned, and the Government have already put in place an unnecessary cap. There is much anger and misunderstanding about the allocation of housing, and what housing benefit really is. A few weeks ago the Sun fulminated about a Somali family getting a multimillion pound house to stay in. It is sensible and humane that empty houses should be filled, and if a large family are given a large house for a short period this should be welcomed. They are not getting the house for free, these measures are always temporary, and it gives them an opportunity to live somewhere decent, and mix with a different sort of community for a short time. It's also a very small number of houses that get allocated that way.

People often complain that immigrants jump to the front of the housing queue, or that the undeserving get it first. This is also inaccurate. It is always on the basis of need. The real problem is not the allocation, but the supply; there simply isn't enough housing to go around. People always claim knowledge of some undeserving allocation, but rarely do we know the full picture. There are of course always fraud and incorrect decisions, but in my experience, most of those asking for housing and housing benefit really do need it.

The benefit cap is wrong because it will not cover rents in the wealthiest parts of he country. Why, you might ask, should we subsidise people to live in wealthy parts of the country? Well it's about saying that we need cleaners, teachers, nurses, waiters and bus drivers to provide the services that we all use, and that we should live side by side with them to have a diverse community. Diverse communities are oftem the most successful, and policy should try to reflect that.

One of the reasons I think Boris Johnson is unfit for public office is because he appointed Stephen Greenhalgh to be his deputy mayor for policing. Mr Greenhalgh has already made a bad impression because of his hubristic and pompous arrogance in telling Bernard Hogan-Howe not to bother attending a question and answer session with the GLA's scrutiny committee. Mr Greenhalgh is the gentleman who is responsible for trying to cleanse Hammersmith and Fulham Council of estates and poor voters, in order to gerrymander the borough into a safer Tory one. The Tories policy is to ghettoise London by dumping all the poor into east London, which will produce a small number of super-safe Labour seats, with a larger number of Tory leaning wealthier seats.

But to the point of this post, which is the cuts to housing benefit for the under 25s. This Government, despite being propped up by a party which thrived on getting votes from young people, is destroying the hopes and aspirations of the nation's youth. It scrapped the EMA, cut the education budget, scrapped the New Deal, closes surestart centres, closes youth centres, reduces youth services and trebled tuition fees.

Stopping young people from getting support in the most expensive thing in this country, accommodation, which is also one of the most important, is anti aspirational. it isn't about helping the young with their future, it is punishing them through austerity for a mistake they didn't make. A common complaint is of the 16 year old who has a child, and gets a new house or whatever, but I would love to see the stats for that. I wonder how much of the total it is. As a Councillor, and before that a Labour activist, I have called upon many a council flat, and it's actually very rare. By the way, I have done this all over the country, and I still find it uncommon. My experience is anecdotal, but I wonder if you were able to sit in judgement on all cases what you might think about them.

The reality is that housing benefit is a lifeline to poorer people, and facilitates the kind of society we want to see, one of a community of rich and poor side by side. Vilifying millions of people who are only trying to get help covering accommodation costs is toxic and divisive from a Government that used to say that we were all in this together. Now it's a tax cut for the rich and less tax on profit, more hardship for those who did not cause the recession. This is not a fair Government, they don't have their priorities right and they are not governing in the interest of those who really need them.

It's easy to get into the frame of mind as a Labour supporter to oppose every cut, and support every bit of expenditure, even the indefensible. I have not done that. I do not support fraud, or those milking the system and the public of their hard earned money. But I do believe in investing in this country's young, and getting the best out of them. I also, perhaps optimistically, believe that the majority of the poor and those who ask for or receive help are not scroungers. The welfare state should be empowering people to attain that which they could not alone.