Campaigners accused the welfare secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, of “losing his cool” after the cabinet minister launched an extraordinary attack against a charity for challenging the government’s proposedhousing benefit reforms in the courts, describing the action as “ridiculous … irresponsible behaviour (and) an ill-judged PR stunt” which resulted in “a massive waste of taxpayers’ money and court time”.
This article titled “Iain Duncan Smith accused of ‘losing his cool’ in housing benefit outburst” was written by Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 14th October 2011 11.28 Europe/London
Campaigners accused the welfare secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, of “losing his cool” after the cabinet minister launched an extraordinary attack against a charity for challenging the government’s proposed housing benefit reforms in the courts, describing the action as “ridiculous … irresponsible behaviour (and) an ill-judged PR stunt” which resulted in “a massive waste of taxpayers’ money and court time”.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) had sought to overturn the government’s cap on housing benefit, arguing in the high court that such a move would result in the “social cleansing” of expensive areas of the UK.
The caps mean that benefits paid to the poor to cover rents cannot exceed £250 a week for a one-bedroom property, £290 for two bedrooms, £340 for three bedrooms and £400 for four bedrooms. The government’s own assessment shows that groups affected include people with disabilities, teenage mothers and ethnic minority families.
Charities had argued that the effect would be felt first in the capital, saying 9,000 London households facing would have to leave their homes as a result of the caps – and about 4,600 would be unable to find anywhere else to live “locally”.
This could mean upwards of 20,000 children having to move, 14,000 out of their local area, resulting in disruption to education, health and social services. The Social Security Advisory Committee advised the government not to proceed with the changes, arguing that the risks – of increasing levels of homelessness, crime and serious disruption to poor children’s schooling – outweighed any financial savings.
However the judge dismissed CPAG’s claim – essentially agreeing with the government that the purpose of housing benefit was not to prevent homelessness, but to help claimants with their rent while also protecting the public purse. Ministers were within their rights to cut back spending.
Duncan Smith said: “CPAG’s challenge to our housing benefit reforms was an ill-judged PR stunt, and amounts to nothing more than a massive waste of taxpayers’ money and court time.”
He added: “The cost of housing benefit has spiralled completely out of control, and this judgment is further vindication that our reforms will ensure support is in place for those who need it, but stop the crazy excesses we have seen in recent years of people on benefits living in houses that those in work could not afford.”
He warned that campaigners should “think twice” before challenging the government. “I sincerely hope CPAG will think twice before repeating this ridiculous and irresponsible behaviour in future,” he said.
Anti-poverty groups were “shocked” by the outburst. Bob Holman, the community activist who has known the former Tory leader since he toured Glasgow’s Easterhouse scheme with him in 2002, said the cabinet secretary had cracked under the “pressure of daily criticism”.
“It’s CPAG’s job and duty to challenge the government when it thinks that poor children are losing out. Going nuts is a sign of [Duncan Smith] cracking under the pressure of criticism. He’s just had the Institute of Fiscal Studies tell the world that there’ll be half a million more kids in poverty in this parliament. Unemployment is 2.5m. He’s losing his cool over CPAG. But he’s wrong.”
Housing benefit provides means-tested support for the housing costs of 4.8 million poor families. Duncan Smith claimed that expenditure on housing benefit would reach £24.7bn by 2014/15 and that the new measures, amounting to £2.4bn in savings, were necessary.
CPAG’s chief executive, Alison Garnham, said that she was “surprised” at the minister’s outburst. The case had been accepted as being valid in law back in July by the judge, the charity’s lawyers acted for free and the trial took a little over a day. “CPAG has a right to use the courts and we will continue to challenge government policy we believe to be unjust and unlawful,” Garnham said.
She pointed out that it was not just the unemployed who would suffer. “This is not about jobless versus working families – it is precisely working families that will be hardest hit by this measure. For example, 80% of those claiming housing benefit in London are working. Savings may not be made either because, as has been pointed out by the office of the secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, an expensive burden is going to be placed on many Greater London authorities by increased homelessness and the relocation of families.”
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