So Nick Boles MP popped up at the end of Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and asked “Does the prime minister think that it is OK for people to receive over £100,000 in housing benefit alone”? Louise Mench MP immediately shouted “Shame, Shame” with all the right-wing vigour of a populist Daily Mail reader.
Now this figure is very eye-catching. As George Osboure MP found out in June 2010, Theresa May MP found out in November 2010 and Grant Shapps MP found out in December 2010 there is a lot of political mileage in a figure like this, as it gives the impression that housing benefit is out of control, paints a picture of housing benefit claimants living in mansions far beyond the means of most working people.
However, what Nick Boles MP and indeed the other MP’s guilty of trotting out these figures fail to recognise is the context.
In July 2011, it was determined that only five families in Westminster were claiming the maximum £2,000 per week, one family were claiming £1,461/wk in Lambeth and one rent payment was authorised for £850. So seven payments were authorised at such a high level, and only 5 were above the £100,000. Does this warrant a question at PMQ’s? Or would the most effective use of an MP’s time be working with other representatives to ensure that excessive claims are avoided and filtered out? I suppose that this approach does not continue the myth that these sorts of housing benefit claims are commonplace, ensuring that the Conservatives reap what they consider political rewards from the continuous assault on the welfare system.
Forget the fact that Westminster is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, forget the fact that Nick Boles MP used to be a councillor on Westminster Council. Forget the fact that a number of different changes to the housing benefit systems can help reap savings from the system.
What we get is that if you are unemployed, do not even think of living in Westminster or London at all. The rents are too high for you. It doesn’t matter if that is where you need to be to find work. It simply says that if you are unemployed and claiming housing benefit, you are a drain on the country and its resources. No context is required.