Living under this government is starting to feel a bit like being the wife or mother in a certain kind of family sitcom. Marge Simpson, Lois Griffin, Jill Taylor, all the way back to Alice in The Honeymooners and probably beyond – throughout the decades, these ladies of the small screen have made the mistake, decade after decade, of leaving their husbands and/or children unattended, and come home to find the kitchen on fire, a holiday resort opening in the garden, a nuclear reactor in the airing cupboard. Opening the paper (by which I of course mean ‘browser’) or switching on the Today programme can feel a lot like this – pushing the front door open to see what harebrained scheme the ministerial gang has dreamed up in your absence.
“You said you were going to fix the education system! Fix it! Why is it all over the kitchen floor?”
“Hey honey, check it out!” he says, “I’m bringing CSEs back!”
“Oh, Michael,” you wearily sigh, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Yesterday, as it so often is, it was the Prime Minister, excitedly announcing to his long-suffering nation his plans to scrap Housing Benefit for everyone under 25. I almost hate to spoil his fun. I can even convince myself, sometimes, if I squint, that he means well. But it’s one of those moments where, as a country, we have to put on our best Marge Simpson ‘hrmmmm’ noise and say “David – sweetie – are you quite sure you’ve thought this through?”
Trailing a wider, long-term plan for welfare benefits slash-and-burn announced today, D-Cam told the Mail on Sunday:
‘A couple will say, “We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents. But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?”’
We are sending out strange signals on working, housing and families. Take two young people: one who has worked hard, got themselves a reasonable job and is living at home thinking, “Can I afford to buy or rent a flat?” whereas another has got himself on to Jobseeker’s Allowance and then gets housing benefit.
‘One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.’
‘We are still spending nearly £2 billion on housing benefit for under-25s – a fortune. We need a debate about welfare and what we expect of people.
‘The system currently sends the signal you are better off not working, or working less. It encourages people not to work and have children, but we should help people to work AND have children.’
Meanwhile in his speech today he is to say:
“For literally millions, the passage to independence is several years living in their childhood bedroom; while for many others it’s a trip to the council where they can get housing benefit at 18 or 19 – even if they’re not actively seeking work.”
Now, I’d love to go into more detail about everything that’s wrong with those last 250 words, but I’ve been keeping a sort of mental time-sheet and it’s becoming clear that I spend almost as much time criticising the Prime Minister while wearing pyjamas as I do on other, more essential life tasks, such as waiting for buses and worrying about how I’d defend my flat against zombies. So let’s all take a moment to shout “HOUSING BENEFIT IS AN IN-WORK BENEFIT!”, move on and have a look at how this is going to work in practice.
Cameron is clear about what ‘doing the right thing’ is. You leave school or university, move back in with your parents ‘in your childhood bedroom’, get a well-paid job immediately and save up enough money to move out, preferably into your marital home, where you and the new Mr. or Mrs. You can get to know each other while decorating the nursery. (Remember, your children will be expected to live in there until they hit thirty, so best to avoid the Noddy wallpaper.)
Let’s consider a few situations where that might not apply:
You can’t move back in with your parents. Maybe you’re a care leaver, or your parents threw you out (accounting for nearly 10,000 homeless households last year, with many more who won’t have shown up on the statistics).
Result: you’re homeless.
You don’t have a childhood bedroom. Maybe – rents being what they are – your parents simply downsized while you were at university. Or maybe a younger sibling now has your childhood bedroom. Yes, the Tories are coming up with policies to restrict the number of children poor people can have (and “David Cameron wanted you aborted!” would certainly have added an interesting flavour to our sibling rows as children, dunno about you), but what about families that already exist?
Result: Best case scenario, you’re on your parents’ sofa.
You don’t find work. Answering all the above cases with “Get a job!” is all very well – I mean, it doesn’t necessarily solve any problems, but it’s a snappy 3-word slogan, and that’s the main thing – but unfortunately it can be countered with the even snappier ‘What job?’ Back in April there were an average of 20 applications chasing every vacancy.
Result: If you’re lucky enough to still be living with your parents, by the time you’ve found a job and saved up enough, you could be there until you’re forty. If you’re not, you’re homeless.
You do find work. You’re living on your own, or with a partner, and/or with kids. You’re working, but your wages don’t pay the rent, so you get housing benefit to top it up. But you’re still under 25, so that housing benefit is taken away.
Result: Time to head back to the childhood bedroom, taking your own kids with you. Except that, of course, since you moved out, your parents were assessed as under-occupying their home and have been forced to move themselves. Hope there’s room for all of you on that sofa.
Your circumstances change. Congratulations! You’ve done the right thing! You’ve met the love of your life, you’ve got married (because spending £21000 on marquee hire and cake is all part of Doing The Right Thing, in this age of austerity), you’re living together, you have any number of beautiful children and you almost always know where they all are. Or, if it turns out that your mum’s sofa didn’t bring all the potential partners to the yard, you’ve worked and managed to save up and move out on your own. And all before you’re 25! Well done! Mr. Cameron awards you the Olympic gold medal for the 100-metre Right Thing sprint. Until your partner dies. Or leaves you. Or you get made redundant.
Result: see above.
Now, it’s tempting to think that exceptions will be made for the cases above. The Prime Minister has already promised an exemption in cases of domestic violence – he’s not a monster! He just wants to tackle the feckless youths!
But he seems to be ruling these exceptions out. Shelter have been crossing their fingers that these proposals won’t apply to parents under 25 – but Cameron has expressly criticised the benefits system for ‘encouraging people to have children’, which is his way of saying ‘ensuring that if people are not in a well-paid job, their children will still not starve’. Unless he goes back on this by retaining HB for households with children – thus undermining what he has set out to achieve – he’s going to need such a complex system of exemptions that the entire policy will be unworkable. Or he’s going to go ahead and make children homeless. It’s his call.
The problem successive governments, including our own, have failed to grasp is that there is no test for fecklessness. No feck detector, if you will. These rules are made crudely or not at all. If you decide to hurt single parents because you believe that having a child before you get married is morally wrong, then you are making a decision to hurt children. If you want to punish people for not looking for work, then you will punish people for whom there are no jobs to be found.
The Prime Minister is making his vision clear today – not another harebrained scheme, after all, but a very scary long-term plan, including the undignified jettisoning of the Liberal Democrats. We can hold all the policy forums we want about how to win the next election by courting the middle ground and the floating voters and the South – Cameron plans to win it by hurting kids and the vulnerable and the poor.
Our challenge is to beat him while remembering to defend those who need defending – not just to win, but to make winning worthwhile. Cameron’s vision for Britain means dividing our disadvantaged kids up between the streets and the sofas. We need to offer them something better than that.