Housing benefit cuts and ‘troubled families'

By Savi Hensman
October 26, 2012

The son-in-law of Baron Cottesloe plans to punish those who do not limit their families to two children and at some time require welfare benefits. UK Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith controversially proposes in future to limit housing benefit and other state assistance to the first two children only.

At the same time, claims that a report by ‘troubled families’ tsar Louise Casey breached ethical standards have highlighted the flimsy ‘evidence’ behind the government’s attacks on welfare recipients.

Since anyone of working age who is not very rich or fortunate could become unemployed, sick, disabled or a carer, this would mean in practice that any family which had more than two children could end up destitute. Even those in jobs would be at risk: for instance, given the high cost of housing in many areas, many rely on housing benefit. According to the National Housing Federation, 417,830 more working people need housing benefit than three years ago – an 86 per cent rise – and the numbers are growing by almost 10,000 a month.

Presumably, under this system, a woman in a low or middle income household, if she had a child, became pregnant again and found she was carrying twins, would be expected to have an abortion. However, in practice, some families might still have three or more children who might – if parents were made redundant, too sick to work or experienced a steep rent rise – end up in care, at considerable human and financial cost. Ironically, Duncan Smith himself has four children.

Iain Duncan Smith claimed that it was unfair that parents in work had to weigh up how many children they could afford while the jobless could have as many as they liked. But child benefit is paid to employed and unwaged parents alike, and tends to fall well short of the cost of raising a child.

He is fond of depicting those less privileged than he and who need to draw on, not just pay in to, National Insurance and tax as feckless types who have lots of children and make no contribution to society. To do so he ignores evidence and relies instead on smears, backed up by sections of the media.

The lack of evidence on which such policies are built was highlighted when University of Glasgow lecturer Nick Bailey claimed that a report by Louise Casey, head of the Troubled Families Unit, breached ethical guidelines on research. Her report, Listening to Troubled Families, had received wide media coverage, since it supposedly revealed how screwed-up the lives of these families were, and the need for firm measures to take them in hand.

The ‘troubled families’ concept had been strongly criticised because it bundled together those who were involved in offending and anti-social behaviour with others who happened to be poor and disabled or carers. If, say, a woman finds that she is dying of cancer and becomes depressed, her husband gives up his job to care for her and their teenage daughter helps out, including taking her younger brother to school, it is grossly insulting to imply that this makes them 'neighbours from hell'. But the report helped to reinforce stereotypes of those in need.

When Bailey complained to the Department for Communities and Local Government about breaches of research ethics, including lack of free and informed consent from the families interviewed, he was told that officials did not regard this as "formal research". Instead the "report falls more properly within the description 'dipstick/informal information gathering'".

Government policy on welfare is largely justified by selective use or distortion of the facts. As more people wake up to the dishonesty, injustice and cruelty involved, pressure may grow on politicians to make their plans more fair, humane and realistic.


(c) Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious issues. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate.

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