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Politics

Published on July 22nd, 2013 | by Eleanor Newis
Image © Tiswas01 2008

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Overall Benefits Cap Is An Overall Publicity Stunt

To an electorate facing an ongoing economic crisis, there are few things more frustrating than the thought of someone, somewhere getting something they don’t deserve. British taxpayers are being increasingly informed that benefits are just this: someone, somewhere getting something they don’t deserve from the public purse. The Overall Benefit Cap roll-out began on Monday 15th of July after testing in Bromley, Croydon, Enfield and Haringey. Also on Monday, YouGov reported, that 79% of voters supported the plan. This included 71% of Labour voters asked, illustrating the distaste for benefits is not simply partisan, but more universal. So, the benefit cap of just below £26,000 – about average UK earnings – is politically a good move. However, whether it justifies the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith’s recent claim of “I believe I am right” is another story. Specifically, a story of policy churned out to maximise electoral appeal through playing the blame game with benefits.

The economic instability of the plan is demonstrated by the reality that despite its wide publicity, only £110m will be saved. This is far lower than the government’s original estimate of £275m, and barely a drop in the metaphorical ocean compared to the £201bn benefit total. According to critics, the cap might even lose taxpayer’s money, by raising local authority costs. A leaked letter from Eric Pickles’ office to David Cameron stated “the measure does not take account of the additional costs to local authorities (through homelessness and temporary accommodation)” and foresees “practical issues” with the cap. Pickles goes further, saying that “we think it is likely that the policy as it stands will generate a net cost”, and outlining the rather frightening figure of 20,000 more homelessness acceptances which will result.

Ironically, this letter begins with the assertion, “we support the principle of the Overall Benefits Cap on the grounds of fairness”. Despite clear economic objections to this policy – that it is essentially more trouble and money than it is worth – it is still supported “on the grounds of fairness”, because it is “a principle”. If the objections of Pickles – notably a Conservative MP and State Secretary, hardly an enraged activist – are to be taken anything like seriously, then the UK is in danger of 40,000 more people being homeless. This is the result of an Overall Benefit Cap combined with the coalition’s changes to Housing Benefit. Another economic reality: the government has set aside a budget of £120m over two years for “discretionary housing payments” to attempt to combat this problem. So, that saving of £275m – no, wait £120m – is looking all the more doubtful. Also looking doubtful is the coalition’s commitment to combating the housing crisis and homelessness. Duncan Smith’s response on Radio 4’s Today Programme, “the homeless figures have hardly moved at all” is not encouraging. Surely, as a direct result of government policy, homeless figures shouldn’t move at all?

So, if the Overall Benefit Cap is a political feat rather than a serious attempt to reform the benefit system, the opposition are surely having a field day. Or maybe they aren’t. Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne declared “ministers have bodged the rules so the cap won’t affect Britain’s 4,000 largest families and it does nothing to stop people living a life on welfare.” Labour in fact proposes a slightly vaguer, slightly fluffier version of the Conservative’s benefit cutting; a plan dubbed as “vacuous” by the Conservatives themselves. In a speech outlining – and distinctly not filling in – his new welfare policy, Ed Miliband fell into using the same rhetoric bandied about by his peers. He said peoples’ faith in the welfare system had been shaken by the appearance that some were getting “something for nothing and other people nothing for something”. Miliband’s “contributory principle” of jobseeker’s allowance mirrors the “principle” of fairness in Pickles’ letter. Once again it is clear that the issue of benefits has become one where political clichés and rhetoric tap into the electorate’s notion of “fairness” and beat workable policy hands down.

So, this “someone” somewhere who is getting something they don’t deserve appears to be luckier than most of us, especially those affected by the Overall Benefit Cap. If that “someone” is reading please get in touch; your existence would be appreciated. Until that existence is proved, however, we are led to the conclusion that both government and opposition are using those on benefits – some of the most vulnerable in society – to pander to a desire for a “quick fix” on the economics of welfare. Whatever your views on the use and abuse of benefits, and whatever your place on the political spectrum, this cannot be a good thing. The worst thing about the recent developments in the Overall Benefit Cap debate is that they expose the flawed approach to benefits policy by UK parties. Rather than presenting workable, economically viable – never mind ethically sound – strategies for tackling benefits in an economic crisis, they are playing a political game. And no one, whether right, left or anything-else-wing, would agree that benefits policy is a game.

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About the Author

Eleanor Newis

Eleanor is studying English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, she is particularly interested in UK politics. Her interest is mainly in welfare policy, social integration, freedom of speech, human rights and also environment policy. "I enjoy writing as it is a great way of starting discussions, developing my own opinion and raising awareness around issues, as well as interrogating those in authority. It is important to question our politics, and equally important to question ourselves."



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