The sound of silence

The election result may be impossible to call, but there’s one prediction I’m comfortable making: voters are going to go to the polls without a clear sense of how a future government will protect them if they fall on hard times and face losing their home.

We’ve already set out our assessment of the parties’ manifesto pledges on welfare. But the real concern for us at Shelter lies in what’s missing. The Conservatives have said they want to find an additional £12 billion in benefit savings within the first two years of the next parliament. The other parties haven’t gone so far as to set a target for additional savings, but equally there are few guarantees to protect the housing safety net when ministers start scrutinising budget lines in the next spending review. For example, Labour have pledged to protect tax credits but are silent on housing benefit – even though over one million households rely on it to bridge the gap between high rents and low wages.  And the Liberal Democrats have said they would freeze working age benefit increase at 1% a year, even though rents are rising faster than this.

Perhaps this silence isn’t surprising. The coalition government announced plans to cut £2 billion from housing benefit shortly after taking office. But both parties had been silent on the matter in their manifestos and the coalition agreement gave little hint at the scale of cuts to housing support being thrashed out behind closed doors.

In fact, the silence really isn’t surprising if you think about the implications of further cuts. It’s hard to overstate what an additional £12 billion in cuts would mean. Leaked civil service papers give us some idea, with options including cutting support from people who had paid into the system but lost their jobs or fallen ill; taxing the much needed support given to people with disabilities; and axing child benefit after two children. And as the IFS starkly sets out, this still leaves more cuts to find.

Reforms on this scale begin to fundamentally change the offer of protection from the welfare state. And that’s when you run into difficulties if you’re a political party trying to win votes. Despite an often heated debate on welfare, the public still supports the overall aims of the welfare state and they’re not actually that concerned about total costs. Yes, people are very agitated by perceived abuses (and tend to over-state the extent of these), but they will happily support others they see as doing their best or the victim of circumstance – and of course want to know that protection will be there for them if they need it.

This reveals the bind of the Conservatives’ strategy in particular: they have set an extreme target for financial cuts but also want to play into public opinion with piecemeal changes that can only save a fraction of this. Big headlines like removing housing benefit from a small number of young people save little from the overall welfare budget – but chime strongly with where the public are concerned. The last Labour government did the same with fraud of course, pledging big populist crack downs on a relatively small problem.

We’ve spent a lot of time at Shelter talking to people about their views on welfare over the past few years and it’s notable how some odd-sounding, not very practical policies, such as the forced delay before someone can claim benefits, tap into a generalised concern about benefits being “too easy to claim”, for example. It’s a clever strategy – in the same way that it might be considered clever to put tomatoes in a fruit salad.

But has this strategy hit a brick wall? Lowering the benefit cap is the Conservatives’ second most popular policy, so you’d expect to hear politicians talking about it all the time. But to do so would invite the question of where the additional £12 billion cuts be found. And this is a question that’s made Conservative spokespeople very uncomfortable indeed.

There’s another reason that politicians sound a bit more muted on welfare than you might expect. At Shelter we’re sadly under no illusions about just how popular the idea of taking benefits away from the “undeserving” is. Many people will happily support a move that cracks down on that woman, who they’re sure is on the fiddle, who lives next door to their best friend’s cousin. But they get nervous when they find out that the nice teaching assistant has had her housing benefit cut. Or find out that they aren’t eligible for tax credits anymore because their employer has cut their hours. In 2010, the government had the privilege of launching its plans in the abstract; avoiding a public backlash on the principles and dismissing warnings about the impacts. Now they have to defend them while those affected tell their friends and family what the reality means.

Few of us have the privilege of knowing that we and the people we care about will be unscathed by a dramatic reduction in support. That’s why we agree with the IFS and say it’s vital the Conservatives spell out where the £12 billion will be found. It’s time all parties were honest about the housing safety net they’ll provide for the next five years.

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