London Mayor Boris Johnson faces calls to apologise for “appalling” comments about the housing benefit row, after vowing not to accept “Kosovo-style social cleansing” in the capital.
The Conservative mayor tried to calm anger sparked yesterday, claiming his comments had been taken out of context.
In a BBC radio interview Boris Johnson said he would not accept “Kosovo-style social cleansing” in the capital which would 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.
Employment Minister Ed Davey renewed government attacks on the mayor, accusing him of a flawed analysis of the changes and demanding he say sorry for “scaremongering”.
The National Housing Federation has said the planned cuts to social housing benefits will backfire and increase overall welfare bills.
Government plans to bring social housing rents closer to private sector ones will leave thousands of social home tenants “trapped” on benefits, the federation, which represents housing associations, said.
The row came amid reports that higher rate taxpayers could face non-compliance fines if they do not disclose that their partners earn child benefits.
It was reported yesterday that officials believed a move to strip higher-rate income taxpayers of the payout was “unenforceable” because mothers had no legal duty to declare partners’ incomes.
Ministers derided that as “nonsense” amid Labour claims they had “added incompetence to unfairness” over the implementation of the controversial measure.
Legislation would be used to force higher-rate taxpayers to declare – in tax returns or by reply to a letter – of any child benefit claim. Payments would then be clawed back via their income tax codes.
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.
Mr Johnson’s intervention increased pressure on the Prime Minister, who is already facing opposition from Tory and Liberal Democrat backbenchers over the housing benefit shake-up.
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.”
There are claims that around 200,000 people could be driven out of areas with high rents as a result of the drive to reduce the cost of housing subsidies.
The planned moves include a £400-a-week housing benefit cap for four-bedroom homes and a 10 per cent reduction for the long-term unemployed.
The Government estimates that 21,000 households will be affected by the cap on different size homes – 17,000 of them in London. But more than 750,000 claimants could be affected by changes to the way Local Housing Allowance levels are calculated.
Labour had already seized on the issue with Opposition leader Ed Miliband seeking to assemble a cross-party coalition of opponents to the cuts by appealing to disgruntled Liberal Democrats.
“They are honourable people. They are in politics for the right reasons. I hope they will vote with their consciences when it comes to issues like housing benefit,” he said.
Mr Cameron has made clear he intends to press ahead with the cuts, insisting it is not fair that claimants lived in properties many hard-working families could only “dream of”.