3 July 2011

Better late than never, Mr Cameron....?

 I sometimes wonder what this country would do without its whistleblowers...

Last night the news broke that a letter from an official in the Department for Communities and Local Government, with rather startling revelations about possible consequences of a Housing Benefit Cap proposed by the Government. 

Eric Pickles Warns Cameron of Rise in Homeless Families Risk - Guardian

Full Text of Letter from the Office of Eric Pickles - Guardian

Welfare cuts 'could leave 40,000 families homeless', Eric Pickles' office warns

David Cameron has received a stark warning from within his own administration that the coalition's plans to cut welfare payments risk making 40,000 families homeless.

The media have taken up the story and have wrung every last fact out of it. It is being discussed on internet fora, Facebook and Twitter and has the country in a proper tizz!

But why only now? The details have been there for all to see for nearly a year! First suggested in the Emergency Budget and then fleshed out in the Spending Review.

So why the uproar now? Why is this such a matter of concern today and not when it was announced initially?


The real hidden consequences were realised and pointed out by the Labour Party and many important charities such as Shelter, but uptake and publicity from major news outlets has been very small. 

I have spent an unproductive afternoon searching press and TV archives for any substantial coverage of warnings of an impending crisis. I scoured Hansard, charities' websites and relevant blogs. 

In May 2010, Karen Buck MP, Labour, gave a speech in the House of Commons stressing that new benefit policy would cause great difficulties. A transcript of her speech can be found here .

So over a year ago, the Government were warned. 

On the National Housing Federation's Website, I found this:

'Helen Goodman, Labour’s frontbench spokeswoman on child poverty, childcare and housing benefit, said it was plain that the government had “rushed through the changes without thinking through the social consequences”. National Housing Federation Friday 23rd July 2010'

Further examples of articles and blogpieces expressing great concern:

'This cut is certainly going to hurt, particularly as the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed today the new cap will apply nationally. Labour MPs warn of a housing crisis in London and the South East, where rents are higher. For example, in parts of Hackney, the maximum housing benefit is £1,000 a week for a four bedroom house. Losing £600 a week would mean families currently claiming housing benefit would have to move to cheaper parts of London. Anti-poverty campaigners say that will entrench the divide between the haves and the have nots.' Ch 4 Factcheck 22nd June 2010
July 5th 2010

BBC News - Benefit Cuts: Your Stories - 3rd Oct 2010

In his speech at the Conservative Party Conference George Osborne announced the proposed new cap on Housing Benefit as reported by Channel 4, complete with Video:

Osborne Imposes Cap on Family benefits - Video - Channel 4 News - 4th Oct 2010 

Perhaps it would not not have been unreasonable to expect a flurry of articles in the mainstream press as well as programmes on TV following such an announcement? 

Nothing could have been further from reality! Many of the local papers did carry short pieces assessing the implications for their own areas. There were, on Channel 4 and the BBC valiant attempts to flag up possible problems. But what are considered the right-wing papers remained mostly disinterested in the possibility of many of the poorer members of society, the vulnerable amongst us, losing their homes.

There were a few journalists with an eye for balance and honesty who did occasionally try to highlight what may be about to happen:

South London Press Today - News - MP Warns More People Face Becoming Homeless - Chuka Umunna MP, Labour  - 5th Oct 2010

In its Spending Review last week, the government announced major changes to housing benefit - including cutting it by 10% for the long-term jobless.
Labour has offered to join forces with Lib Dem backbenchers to force the government to rethink the policy.  BBC News25th October 2010

'These measures, taken together with the removal of caps on the amount of rent housing associations can charge, has led critics to claim thousands of people will be made homeless across the UK.
'Scaremongering' Labour has warned the moves - which represent the biggest shake-up in housing policy in decades - are unfair and could lead to an increase in support for far-right groups.
Ministers have conceded that some families will have to move to less expensive areas - but have angrily rejected suggestions by London Mayor Boris that it could lead to "social cleansing" of poor families with long-established roots in the capital to the suburbs or the south coast of England.'
BBC News - 29th October 2010
BBC News - MPs Reject Labour Call for Housing Benefit Rethink (Video) - 9th Nov 2010

Independent on Homelessness - Housing Benefit Homelessness - 19th November 2010
'Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Douglas Alexander said: "Labour will maintain the pressure for further changes to this ill-thought through housing benefit package, not least their plans to punish people who have been unable, despite their best efforts, to find work for a year by cutting their housing benefit by 10%."'
BBC News  - 30th Nov 2010

Other journalists however were not so scrupulous and continued to grind their political axes at the expense of the truth both before and after Osborne's speech:

It beggars belief: How the fake homeless are raking in more than £20,000 a year
By Claire Ellicott

Last updated at 2:13 PM on 16th August 2010

For over a year, the facts about the proposals for capping the housing benefit have been suppressed by many of the right wing papers.
The public have been denied information which would have sparked discussion and debate. Instead it is left with a feeling that light-impenetrable wool has been well and truly pulled over the nation's eyes!

The nagging doubts remain, however.....what else is being kept from us?