One of the questions most favoured by media interviewers interviewing opposition politicians is: would you abolish this measure? I’ve heard it this week in relationship to the bedroom tax, the privatisation of the Royal Mail and the benefits cap. It asks people either to say that they would, making a commitment years ahead of any possible measure, or that they would not, assuming consent.
It’s not that easy. Whenever governments make changes to policy, they change the situation that has to be dealt with. A new government, reviewing the situation in two or three years’ time, would have to consider not only the cuts that have been made – for example, from working age benefits, Child Benefit, people with disabilities, local government, housing or public sector pay – but also the claims that will be made in the future, such as the claims for a living wage, minimum income standards, housing and health. Any policy which gives more to some people – such as the reduction in the top rate of tax – can only be reversed by giving those people less. Any policy which gives less – such as the cuts in benefits – requires funds to be found from somewhere to give more. In any allocation of resources, the case has to be made for that allocation rather than others; and what it is possible to allocate depends on the resources available at the time. And the next government, whatever its colour, will have to do what it can it from an economic base that has been flatlining for several years, and has still not recovered to the level before the crash.
The bedroom tax is awful, stupid and unfair, but it joins a long list of anomalies that need to be addressed in the benefits system. The model of tapered benefits, currently used in Housing Benefit, Tax Credits and Universal Credit, has never worked well, and as far as I can see it never will. Reversing the accumulated consequences of a host of bad decisions – such as the bedroom tax, the non-dependant rules, the cap, the adjustment of local housing allowances, the uprating rules, the changes to rent structures or the limits for younger claimants (and those are only the rules for Housing Benefit) – is going to be painfully difficult. Policy gets trapped on the tramlines: little can be done to make some people better off without making others worse off.
The way to reform is not to go back, but to move things forward. The bedroom tax cuts Housing Benefit, but it leaves rents where they were. I’d rather not build up Housing Benefit at all, which hasn’t worked for forty years. It would make more sense to control rents (and to guarantee security for tenants), to cap benefit payments to landlords, to relieve housing pressures by moving work to workers, to build houses for rent, to free up building land, to increase minimum wages, to offer direct subsidy to social housing providers and gradually to move to a household allowance rather than a rent allowance. (Most of these policies, however unimaginable they look now, were in force when I first worked in housing.)
In more general terms, reforming benefits needs to be considered in terms of the direction of movement. What we should want to see is a reasonable standard of living achieved with minimum personal intrusion or administrative complexity. (The effect of the bedroom tax, the cap, reassessments and sanctions has often been to reduce the standard below that minimum.) That would imply substantial change in the system of support for housing costs, disability and low wages. We may never agree on just how this ought to be done; there will always be the problem of balancing equity, incentives and personal need. It should be clear, however, that reforms under the last government and the present one have gone in the opposite direction, and the system needs to be rebalanced.