If the government wants to take on the idea of what people can expect the state to provide, it is probably only a matter of time before somebody points the spotlight on the people making the rules for the rest of us again, and asks: “Why should they get any more than us?”
“Are we happy to go on paying £30,000, £40,000, £50,000?”, asked David Cameron in PMQs. “Are constituents working hard to give benefits so people can live in homes that they can only dream of? I don’t think that is fair.”
This is the refrain of the government when asked about cutting housing benefits to the unemployed, and capping claims at £250 per week for a one bedroom flat or £400 per week for a four bedroom house. The fear of those opposing this proposal is that in certain expensive places such as London or Bath people currently getting more than that amount will be forced to uproot their families and move out to cheaper areas.
Rich London boroughs could be “cleansed” of the poor, they claim, evoking the war term most used in the former Yugoslavia of “ethnic cleansing”. Conservatives find the terminology offensive but many do not think the idea of being forced to move totally unreasonable, as they say this is what happens to people not on benefits when their incomes fall below their living costs. Of course very few people get the kind of amounts the Prime Minister quotes, but if any do at all it serves his purposes.
A friend of mine – we’ll call her Sam to spare blushes and save friendship – has a very nice small flat in a posh and trendy part of London. Ideal for a single person, it would probably be a squeeze for two but is right in the heart of a great place to live and close to the London Underground.
Most young people can only dream, as David Cameron might put it, of living in such a place. Sam’s hard-working and relatively affluent parents helped buy it a few years ago, and when she earned enough herself to move on to a slightly bigger place she decided to rent it out.
She now has a young woman living in it – despite the ludicrous London rent – who seems the perfect kind of tenant in many ways. She’s out at work most of the time, and looks after the place well. And little wonder, that despite these harsh times in the economy, she still pays the rent on time. Because the delightful tenant is claiming housing benefit.
So, over the occasional drink, Sam and I will laugh (her heartily, me resentfully) about the fact that my hard-earned tax goes, via a roundabout route, into Sam’s bank account while a perfectly decent and hard-working young woman gets to live in a cool flat in London she could never afford on her own salary. And Sam’s flat goes on appreciating in value, while the mortgage is paid for by the taxpayer feeding both house price rises and high rents. In an age obsessed by what is “fair” where does this sit in the spectrum?
For that matter is it ‘fair’ that housing benefit should be capped at £250 for a one bedroom flat in London when MPs can claim vastly more than that for their second home allowance? Under the new rules (although they are constantly being reviewed it seems) a single MP will be able to claim about £385 a week for a one bedroom flat.
Is it “fair” that normal people are expected to move to areas they can afford and travel in to work but MPs are not? Should we perhaps expect MPs under 35 years old to share London living arrangements, in the same way housing benefit claimants will be under the proposals?
Is it “fair” that lots of members of the Cabinet have not only claimed expenses to pay their mortgages on fast-appreciating assets but furniture to put in them too? In case you were wondering David Cameron claimed more than £1700 per month in mortgage interest for two years, and more than £82000 for his second home over four years. And for that matter is it “fair” that, while most people pay their own travel costs, MPs get the taxpayer to provide for theirs?
The MPs’ expenses scandal already seems like a dim and distant memory for many people, and MPs on all sides do not want it to come back to haunt them. But if the government wants to take on the idea of what people can expect the state to provide, it is probably only a matter of time before somebody points the spotlight on the people making the rules for the rest of us again, and asks: “Why should they get any more than us?”