• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Pity poor MPs with their own housing benefit challenges ...

According to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and his local paper, Lincolnshire's Boston Standard, Mark Simmonds claimed £173,436.96 in expenses in 2013.

That was getting on for twice his £89,435 salary as a junior Foreign Office minister and close to £17,000 more than the MP required in 2011-12.

Much of the money seems to have been spent on hotel bills. Mr Simmonds says - and he has quit his ministerial job because of the hardship - that it is impossible to keep a family in decent private accommodation in central London on the sums granted to MPs. For the sake of his home life, he refuses to consider living anywhere else while attending to his duties.

Many Londoners would sympathise, no doubt, at least in theory. Rents at the heart of the English capital's property bubble are crazy. On the other hand, few victims have access to a rental allowance of £27,875 - an allowance Mr Simmonds has never attempted to claim - plus £2,500 for each of three children. What would £35,375 get you in the Great Wen these days, even if you were employing your wife on a wage of £20,000 to £25,000 at public expense?

Strangely enough, a quick look at a property website says that Mr Simmonds could have a pleasant-sounding "two bedroom apartment in a portered Victorian mansion block close to Buckingham Palace" for £2,708 a month. Or how about a flat in Vincent Street, just a stroll from the Commons, if memory serves, and only £1,712 a month? Both would leave change from £35,000.

It appears these are not the kinds of properties Mr Simmonds has in mind. A mere two bedrooms when you have three kids to think about? How many people have to tolerate that kind of privation, least of all in a second home? Perhaps Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, has an inkling. He might even have an insight into the hardships faced by MPs struggling with their very own housing benefit.

Sarcasm will get us nowhere. Like a lot of parliamentarians irked by the restrictions introduced after the expenses scandal, Mr Simmonds seems to feel, sincerely, that he has been hard done by.

The irony of also being part of a coalition encouraging and endorsing Mr Duncan Smith in his reforms of "welfare" has passed the Boston and Skegness MP by. Austerity has been at the heart of the programme for these men. Mr Simmonds sees no need, though, to contrast and compare.

The Work and Pensions Secretary reports, meanwhile, that his work is going splendidly. The housing benefit bill he was supposed to be tackling continues to increase, thanks mostly to the ever-climbing rents that cause Mr Simmonds so much grief, but Mr Duncan Smith asserts, in a speech in London, that a "dysfunctional" system is being repaired. His universal credit scheme has cost £12.8 billion without coming close to being fully operational, but never mind. Some £130 million has been written off thanks to yet another IT botch. The evidence that a brutal sanctions regime has forced people off benefits and into work is thin, where it exists at all, but the minister presses on. By August last year, in fact, better than 42 per cent of the unemployed were not claiming Jobseeker's Allowance. Is this a victory?

Mr Duncan Smith hasn't explained how these people are managing to exist. Economists claim to be mystified. "Demand-driven" foodbanks might just, conceivably, be part of the answer. The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, drawing on work by Dr David Webster at Glasgow University, nevertheless says that - for one example - 513,360 jobseekers were "referred for sanction" in the second quarter of last year.

The suspicion must be, then, that the minister's entire reform strategy, as with the bedroom tax, as with his treatment of the disabled, amounts to making people disappear. It's not something most of us would boast about, but most of us are not IDS. The reality of his work is clear enough. George Osborne, the Chancellor, has another £12bn of spending cuts in mind. Once again, he has nominated "welfare" as the only tolerable source of savings. Once again, Mr Duncan Smith has volunteered the poor.

Labour has, let's say, an interesting attitude towards all of this. Rachel Reeves, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, denounces the chaos over which the minister allegedly presides, but pledges to stick with a "rescued" version of universal credit. The party would persist with the attempt to merge a half dozen "working-age benefits", but adhere to Tory spending limits. There would be a "pause" in Mr Duncan Smith's programme, but pilot schemes would continue.

Labour has meanwhile committed itself to a so-called welfare cap. Given the chance, Ms Reeves means to "make work pay", as all parties do, but also to "get social security spending under control". For good measure, the shadow minister has recently said that migrants should be refused benefits until they have "contributed to the system". You can stack the arguments as you like: Labour is competing with IDS to push through big spending cuts. Its selling point is efficiency.

But why not? A party determined to eradicate poverty and joblessness would surely have no difficulty in bringing down the social security bill. Labour would increase the minimum wage, do something - up to a point - about zero hours contracts, and address the housing crisis with a building programme. Yet with £9bn in housing benefit already ending up in landlords' pockets, the opposition means to have spending "under control" no matter what.

Simultaneously, Labour proposes that the Holyrood Parliament should have full control over housing benefit, attendance allowance for carers, and the work programme. So how does Ms Reeves see that working, given her commitment to universal credit, if Edinburgh is less punitive than London on the issue of housing benefit? How would a unified tax and benefit system work, in a better together and UK, if the Scots took up the offer of "more powers"?

The Westminster parties talk of welfare because they mean dole, an unearned and (probably) undeserved largesse. They no longer see a progressive purpose in the social security system. Whatever is spent is always too much, always out of control, and always ripe for cuts. But the question applies, in this as with the NHS: how would the UK hang together, socially and politically, if a devolved parliament chose to be a little less barbaric than London departments?

Does IDS fancy having holes punched in his grand designs? Does Ms Reeves believe that her proposals should stop at the border? How is devolution done, in short, within one of those imposing integrated and universal tax and benefit systems?

UK government spending is to be cut over the coming decade, inexorably and repeatedly, no matter who wins the next Westminster elections. We have their word on that. The fact provides the only context for any ineffably vague offer of "more powers" to Scotland.

Mr Duncan Smith has a great many cuts in mind. Ms Reeves is not so far behind. Poor Mr Simmonds and his oppressed family will probably not be homeless, no matter what.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

254240