28 Oct 2010

Boris Johnson joins housing benefit row

London Mayor Boris Johnson has joined the housing benefit row, saying he would resist “Kosovo-style social cleansing”. Housing Minister Grant Shapps tells Channel 4 News his language was not sensible.

David Cameron faces more pressure over housing benefit cuts as Boris Johnson enters the fray (Getty).

Speaking to the BBC, the Mayor used the phrase to stress that he would not see poorer people forced out of London as a result of the housing benefit cap.

“What we will not see, we will not accept, is any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing. You are not going to see on my watch thousands of families being evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots,” he said.


His intervention came after Channel 4 News FactCheck revealed that a number of urban MPs were concerned that reducing housing benefit payments would force the poor out of major cities, and after Prime Minister David Cameron promised to divert £70m to calm the row.

The Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes, MP for Southwark in London, told Channel 4 News at the weekend that the cuts would not get through Parliament as the first cracks in the coalition over housing benefit began to show.

We will not accept any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing. London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Mr Johnson said: “I will emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London in which the rich and poor cannot live together. We are going to ensure that we mitigate the impact of this housing benefit cap in London.

“People will always try and say I am at war with David Cameron…the fact is we are in detailed negotiations with the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions), with Iain Duncan-Smith, and his officials about how to make sure that a sensible attempt to reform housing benefit does not hit poor families and low income groups in London.”

Benefit cap

The Government plans to set a £400 a week housing benefit cap for four-bedroom homes and a 10 per cent reduction for the long-term unemployed. Ministers estimate that 21,000 households will be affected by the cap on different size homes – 17,000 of them in London.

FactCheck: Who's right on housing benefit? 

Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman made it clear that he did not agree with the Mayor.

He said: “The Prime Minister doesn’t agree with what Boris Johnson has said or indeed the way he said it. He thinks the policy is the right one and he doesn’t agree with the way (Mr Johnson) chose his words.”

‘Ludicrously inflammable’

The Housing Minister Grant Shapps told Channel 4 News the language used by Mr Johnson was not “sensible”. The Business Secretary Vince Cable went further, saying: “This is ludicrously inflammatory language that does not really help. We need to reform housing benefit.”

Mr Johnson backed down in the ensuing furore, sending out a statement which read: “My consistent position has been that the government is absolutely right to reform the housing benefit system which has become completely unsustainable.

“I do not agree with the wild accusations from defenders of the current system that reform will lead to social cleansing. It will not, and if you listened carefully to what I said, no such exodus will take place on my watch. But the point I was making this morning is that London has specific needs due to the exceptional way in which the housing market works in the capital and it is my job as Mayor to make the Government aware of these.”

Commons debate

In the House of Commons, the Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter said: “The cumulative effects of the Government’s housing policy on security of tenure, near-market rents and cuts in capital expenditure, as well as housing benefit, is the greatest threat to social cohesion in this country in a generation.

“While I wouldn’t go as far as the Mayor of London in describing this as ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’ for fear of upsetting the Deputy Prime Minister, can we have a debate here in this chamber on social cleansing and gerrymandering in our inner cities?”

The Government is also facing problems over its plans to reform child benefit. Read more on how the child benefit cuts could be unenforceable here. 

The Commons Leader Sir George Young said he did not think the Mayor of London’s warning of “Kosovo-style social cleansing” in the capital was “appropriate, nor do I think it’s going to happen”.

‘Unfair and unacceptable’ proposal

Labour’s Clive Betts wanted to know what would happen to a couple in their 50s living in their three-bedroom council house which their children had left.

“In future because they’re deemed to be under-occupying it, if they lose their job or go to short-time working, the rent will not be covered by housing benefit, they face the prospect of becoming homeless, they won’t be covered by the homeless legislation. This proposal is unfair and it’s unacceptable,” he said.

The Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Douglas Alexander called on the Government to think again.

The risks are real and it’s time for David Cameron to think again. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Douglas Alexander.

“Even Boris Johnson has not been convinced by these ill thought-out polices that risk higher homelessness and higher costs,” he said.

“It is clear that the Tory party is increasingly in revolt on this. The risks are real and it’s time for David Cameron to think again.”

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who had complained earlier this week when a Labour MP used the “cleansing” metaphor, said: “In London there are hotspots of very high property prices which create particular dilemmas and difficulties.

“But I disagree with what Boris Johnson has said on the policy and I certainly and very strongly disagree with the way in which he has expressed his views.”

Watch: Housing Minister Grant Shapps interviewed by Jon Snow on housing benefit.