I’m sitting here typing this having just seen that the government has been defeated by the Lords in a vote on its plans to cap benefits for a household to £26,000 per year. The amendment to exclude child benefit from this cap proposed by Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the Rt Rev John Packer, was backed by the other bishops, Lib Dem and Labour peers. It was passed 252 votes to 237 so it’s back off to the commons to be considered further.
I’m not a great follower of proceedings in the House of Lords, but over the last couple of days it’s been hard to get away from hearing about it. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, the cap will affect 67,000 households with an average loss of £83 per week. This is only a tiny proportion of the households that receive benefits and yet it’s caused something of a media frenzy. When you get all three major parties agreeing in principle to a proposal, then change is definitely in the air. However, the first I heard of anyone challenging this concensus, was a group of bishops writing a letter of opposition to The Guardian back in November. For once, the bishops in the House of Lords were getting ready for a fight.
Ever since, I’ve been grappling on and off with the question of if and how such a cap should work. The bishops’ opposition to the bill is based on a report by the Children’s Society drawing attention to the likely outcome that 75% of those affected by the outcomes of this bill will be children, especially those from larger families (the DWP estimates it will affect 220,000 children). However, the overwhelming public opinion seems to be against them. The thought of those on benefits receiving any more than £26,000 per year (the average median household income after tax) is not a pleasant thought for most people, especially those earning less than that, which by definition is roughly half the country. So for the bishops to be asking for more on top puts them squarely against most public opinion.
I really believe that as a country we need to do as much as possible to ensure that children are supported and protected as they grow up in as stable an environment as possible. They don’t choose to be born and they have no say whether they are born into a strong supportive family or a dysfunctional one. Is the risk of some having to move home and their parent/s receiving a reduced income enough of a reason to oppose the government’s plans?
It is hard to understand the claim by the bishops that many of these children will be thrown into poverty and/or homelessness by this bill. If £26,000 is not enough to live on then how are many families in our country coping? Plenty of families get by on less than this without ending up on the streets. Most families cannot afford to live in expensive parts of our country such as London where 54% of those on benefits over this amount live. So why should the state be paying for some families to be living in expensive accommodation if cheaper alternative accommodation can be found, even if it is in a different place?
The problem is that we should not have allowed this situation to develop in the first place. When times were good no one appeared to take too much notice of it, but now in leaner times we can’t afford to carry on as we did. The government has realised this and those on benefits need to too. Those living in expensive properties who have been on benefits for years are unlikely to be able to find work that will provide them with sufficient income to continue living where they are. They are trapped in the system with very little incentive to change. This is not good for society as a whole and the government needs to make sure families are not allowed to fall into this dependency by subsidising them to live in unaffordable accommodation.
However, for those children who are facing disruption and change to their lives, the government has a responsibility to minimise the potential pain of these changes. They are living in their current circumstances because government has allowed this to happen and it now must make sure that the rug is not pulled from under their feet. As housing benefit has increased so have rents and so has housing benefit again. Landlords who have done very well out of this arrangement over the last few years need to realise they also have a part to play in easing the burden by adjusting their rents. Whether many would be willing to do this, though, is another matter.
What we’ve ended up with today is a position where the bishops have a valid moral point, but so too do Ian Duncan-Smith and the government. We need to pray that the best outcome can be achieved. I would like to suggest two ways this might happen, even though I doubt it will make any difference. Firstly I would propose that children should not be forced to move schools, and so families should be allowed to stay in their current home until more affordable accommodation is found, with the necessary housing benefit continuing as long as is it is needed. Secondly I would propose that the cap is reduced below £26,000 p.a. but that it excludes child benefit. This would lessen the impact to welfare costs whilst providing protection to larger families.
Update: Tuesday 24th January
This was a really tough piece to write, as my natural inclination is to go with what the government are proposing, but I also wanted to try to see things from the bishops’ perspective. Having mulled things over since posting this, I’ve decided that the idea of children being allowed to remain in their schools with their families able to stay in the same house would be unfeasible. Having said that, the government really needs to make sure that this transition phase is handled carefully with the education and well-being of those children affected being disrupted as little as possible. School is one of the few areas of stability for many of these children and to uproot them is going to cause a good deal of upset and pain.