On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion


Such is the hostility in this country towards the poor and the unemployed — a sure sign of the distressing decline of empathy and compassion in the last 30 years — that a poll conducted by Channel 4 News this week found that 58 percent of people thought that the govermment’s proposed welfare cuts should have been more severe, or were “about right,” and 66 percent of people answered yes to the question, “Should there be a maximum limit of £400 a week on the amount of housing benefit that people can claim, even if this means people are forced to move house?”

In the last few months, as the coalition government and a disgracefully compliant mainstream media has stoked the scapegoating of the unemployed as a replacement for the “waves of immigrants” targetted by my mean-minded fellow citizens under the Labour government, the narrative that has emerged has persistently painted the unemployed as workshy scroungers, ignoring the complexity of the issues involved, and also, in particular, avoiding the uncomfortable truth that, as I keep explaining, according to the government’s own figures, there are currently 2.45 million unemployed people, and just 459,000 available jobs.

On housing benefit, the antipathy towards the unemployed has been stoked by misleading stories focusing on a handful of extreme examples of people living in luxury homes, which has been interpreted as an open invitation for journalists, newsreaders and citizens alike to openly complain, in envious terms, about how unfair it is that unemployed people are living in houses that they could not afford to live in, and to follow this up by endorsing the plans for their forcible removal, so that they can feel better about not losing out somehow.

Behind these manipulative headlines, the truth about the government’s assault on housing benefit is that — for a net result that will either not save money or, more probably, will cost £120 million extra a year — they are happy to preside over what London’s Mayor Boris Johnson correctly identified as “Kosovo-style social cleansing,” with that cap on housing benefit mentioned in the Channel 4 poll — at £400 a week — almost certainly meaning that, throughout London, for example, thousands of households in wealthy boroughs will be unable to pay their rent, and will be obliged to move to poorer boroughs, which are already struggling to cope with providing for their existing poor as the government’s swingeing cuts to council budgets also take root.

While I understand that rents of over £400 a week are expensive, what is almost entirely ignored in all the assaults on those living in these properties is that they do not pocket the money themselves, and the blame for such exorbitant rents is for a variety of the following reasons: either because their landlords are greedy, unscrupulous people who are milking the public chest as much as possible; or because of the knock-on effect of an overvalued property market (Labour’s greatest gift of greed and divisiveness to the British people); or because of the scandalous under-investment in social housing since Margaret Thatcher starting selling off council houses and prohibited councils from using any of the proceeds to build new homes (a policy that, in case anyone has forgotten, was maintained by the Labour government).

George Osborne’s answer to the problem of the shortage of social housing has, of course, been typically unpleasant. Instead of accepting that the government might think about a massive social housing programme, he has scaled back investment in new affordable homes by 30 percent, and has decided to fund new social housing by raising the rents for new social housing tenants to 80 percent of existing market rents — an unprecedented assault on affordable housing to which he added another horrible innovation: ending secure tenancies for all council house tenants.

In light of all this, it seems particularly cruel and counter-productive to force as many as 134,000 households to move to poorer areas (according to research conducted for Shelter), or, as councils in Londons have warned, 82,000 households, or 200,000 people in London alone, where, as well as putting a burden on those councils and their already strained services, they will probably find that they have relocated to ghettoes of worklessness.

In addition, of course, the plans will also lead to a greater incidence of homelessness, as other families and individuals — perhaps those who are not workshy, but have other problems that require support (mental health problems, or physical disabilities, for example) — are tipped out onto the street, obliging councils to deal with an increase in homelessness, and to spend even more money rehousing them elsewhere — in seaside towns that have been a dumping ground for the unemployed for many years, or perhaps even from the south to the north of England, where, again, the opportunities for work are minimal to non-existent.

As well as all this, another contributory factor to homelessness will almost certainly be the government’s decision to cut benefit claimants’ housing benefit by 10 percent if they are unemployed for a year. Given the unemployment and job figures cited above, and the government’s avowed intention to add another 1.3 million to the ranks of the unemployed, this is another witlessly cruel plan, as those unable to draw on savings will also end up on the streets, where they too will join the queue of unemployed people being forced onto a coach and relocated to Hastings or Hartlepool.

A final unpleasant change is an amendment to the existing “single room rate,” which currently applies to the under-25s, providing them with housing benefit only if they live in shared housing. The government has now raised the age to 35, which prompted Jim Jepps of Liberal Conspiracy to state, “So if you’re currently working for the public sector and living in a small flat a redundancy notice will mean you’re out on the street as well as out of work.”

In contrast to all this misery, the government has the nerve to claim that private rents will drop when the cap is introduced, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that private landlords have ever done so willingly, or are likely to do so now.

All of this adds up to a horrendously ill-conceived policy, which, sadly, has already overcome a hurdle erected in the House of Commons by Labour MP Douglas Alexander, who proposed a motion stating that, “whilst housing benefit is in need of reform, the Government’s proposals will mean significant losses for hundreds of thousands of working families and pensioners and risk spending an additional £120 million on the cost of providing temporary accommodation.”

Alexander’s  motion, which was defeated along party lines this week, with the Liberal Democrats voting en masse with their Tory colleagues to reject it, also called on the government “to bring forward revised proposals for the reform of housing benefit which do not penalise those who have been unable to secure employment within 12 months, and which ensure that any proposals are implemented on a revised timetable which allows councils, tenants and landlords to adjust, allows the impact on rents to be observed and understood, and avoids additional spending on temporary accommodation.”

Too little, too late may well be the verdict on that Labour challenge, which was defeated by 61 votes, but it leaves me wondering who can challenge these dreadful policies, in an attempt to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people do not suffer unnecessary hardship before — some years from now, perhaps — there is either an awakening of compassion or, more bleakly, a point is reached where the coalition government can brag that it has succeeded in its malignant attempt to remove the safety net that a caring society provides for the poor and the vulnerable.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

35 Responses

  1. Miranda says...

    Thank you for your article on the disgusting cuts, you have summed up why they are wrong extremely well.

    What I find very frustrating & upsetting is that the vast majority of people are not angry about the cuts & the gulf between the rich & poor! It just shows how brainwashed by the mainstream media (Daily Mail, Sun, BBC, etc) they are 🙁

  2. Tweets that mention On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, paulstpancras, Steve Gardiner, Steve Gardiner, janette williamson and others. janette williamson said: RT @ilovechomsky: In the UK the haves hate the have nots http://bit.ly/aYhjiH link by @GuantanamoAndy why? It should be the other way r … […]

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Miranda. Welcome — and your comments are much appreciated.

  4. SeaClearly says...

    Your article on British cuts directly corresponds to the U.S. Deficit Commission’s recommendations – as well as the “Austerity” push across the world. The only stage/step left in their overall boldness is to end the facade of various “proposals,” as if rational debate will follow (wherein a possibility of the measures being rejected exists) – and then, just start notifying everyone of what was already decided/what will be.

    Further, what we are witnessing/experiencing worldwide, is a coordinated attack (based on lies and ideology) as a means of setting up a new, permanent, order after the weeding. As written yesterday, “If FDR and his related Congresses had reacted as Obama and the last Congress, what is going to be, shortly (within two decades, maximum), would have already been – by 1945.” http://wp.me/phRi4-zu

    For those who have merged into/sold out to this global corporate mentality, there will never be “an awakening of compassion.” Once the current goals are completed, there will be no road back – and their primary goals will be fulfilled.

  5. Paul says...


    Have you read Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”? Con/Dem policy seems to be a direct, idealogically driven application of Chicago Boys* economic doctrine – as she describes having happened in many countries.

    I’m doubtful that current policy’s primary purpose has anything to do with getting the U.K. back on a firm financial basis, and I suspect it has everything to do with forcing home every radical right-wing economic policy they can; before anyone notices what the real agenda is (or attempts to do anything to stop it). If so, it is a continuation (or more likely a ramping up) of New Labour policy. This is worrying because, if right, it means there is no political opposition to it left in the U.K; both Conservatives and New Labour are following neo-liberal policy, and under the coalition the LibDems seem to have bought into it wholesale.

    It seems likely that what will happen is, over the next few years, Con/Dem policy will do a great deal of damage to the U.K. Then we will be told that the solution to the problem is the implementation of even more extreme neo-liberal policies – and the handing over of just about everything to an almost entirely unregulated free-market system. Neoliberals (in government) rarely choose to wear that label, or be open about their intent (outside of the U.S) so we can expect an apparently contradictory bashing of the poor, students, immigrants, the low paid (including teachers and nurses), whilst simultaneously cabinet ministers will label their policies as ‘progressive’ and ‘fair’.

    Possibly, and hopefully, there will be a later reversion to (something more like) Keynes economics, but in the meantime a *lot* of harm could be done, and a lot of people could suffer – as happened in other countries that have had extreme neo-liberal policies foisted on them. (And anyway, whatever happened to the ‘we’re all Keynesian’s now’ mantra of a year or so ago?) But if not, the end result – if not derailed by public opposition – will be education-for-profit, privatised health care and health insurance, and the end of services as a public good. Government of, by and for the wealthy and powerful – on of the consequences of neo-liberalism is that these are increasingly the same people (or, nowadays, corporations).

    Education may go first (in fact, with recent announcements, this has just been pushed on a long way).

    Health will follow, possibly by the stealth tactic of first paying private companies from the public purse to manage, run and provide treatment in hospitals whilst pretending they are still ‘publicly’ run. And then later, to steadily transfer National Insurance to private insurers. In the end, we may find we are paying insurers directly for our health care who then pay private corporations to deliver it (when they can’t get out of it). Also, on health, anyone who has talked to a nurse or ward-level NHS employee recently, will probably already know that the ‘ring fencing’ of funding for the NHS is merely smoke and mirrors: retirees are not being replaced, specialists moved back to more general work, and a great long list of other actions weakening care provision. There is general confusion all around caused by the plethora of ‘providers’ – who are simultaneously meant to cooperate in providing healthcare whilst also competing against each other (as a good market based system requires). Yearly the pointless, idealogically motivated program of the NHS ‘internal market’ wastes millions (and has done for years).

    I fear for the future of my country, and the only hope is the people in the streets – if only they would look up from their Suns and Daily Mails long enough to see what is being stolen from them.


    *Chicago Boy’s economics, neo-liberalism, globalization, neo-conservatism, Friedmanism, Thatcherism/Reagonics – an idealogy with many cloaks.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the detailed commentary, Paul. Much appreciated, and sadly all too accurate.
    I’ll see you on the streets … The next opportunity is Saturday’s anti-war demo, which I hope, like all protests now, will be part of a much bigger movement.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are some comments from Facebook:

    Michael Bentley wrote:

    What with tuition fees, incapacicity benefit changes and other policies, and the lack of a real opposition party in Parliament (although Caroline Lucas is doing her best!), it all adds up to a frightening future for many of us. And yes, I agree, the lack of empathy and kindness in so many of the public is very worrying and distressing.

    Thanks as always for writing and posting, Andy.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    Many thanks for yet another excellent article on this subject. I wish more folks would read your and Johann Hari’s research on this rather than putting on the comfy blinkers handed out free with the Daily Mail.
    I’m renting privately at the moment and the rent is due to go up in January. While my landlord has good reason for the increase (higher service charges etc), there are many private landlords who keep increasing the rent every 6 months for no good reason at all.
    The Condems live on their very own little Etonian planet from where they cannot see these facts.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Bentley replied:

    Or if they do see them, they don’t care!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel replied:

    Probably not. It goes back to Maggie Thatcher’s ideology and thinking of “only losers take the bus”.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Ruth Gilburt wrote:

    thanks, again Andy x

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush wrote:

    Whilst we all know there has to be some reduction in public spending; we must beware of reshaping of policy. You can do so much more in crisis than in normal circumstances. You tend to get a new fridge when the old one breaks down. New ideologies can come the same way.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    Shame then that the ConDems stick to old ideology which is even harsher in its implementation than anything Thatcher did. There are plenty of public spendings which could be cut from bonuses to the fat cats to Trident. No need to make the poor pay for a crisis the bankers and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq got us into.
    Why are Vodafone excused from paying their 6bn tax while small businesses are suffering?
    It’s not the poor who caused the crisis, but like immigrants and refugees they are an easy target.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Patricia Plunkett wrote:

    Shame on the British govt, for allowing Rothschild’s to dictate our economy. Their media mates stir up controversy and false polls. I wonder where C4 got its poll from, it certainly wasn’t a council estate.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I hope to see you on the anti-war demo on Saturday, and on the next student protest on the 24th. And in the meantime, keep talking to anyone who will listen, circulate my writing if you feel it’s useful, and get involved. Start a blog!

  16. Tashi Farmilo - Marouf says...

    While I do not live in Britain, I think this growing gap between rich and poor is a world wide problem. The rich guard (or hoard) their wealth, and then complain about rises in crime and political unrest. As long as there is injustice, there will be unhappy people. And people will go to any lengths to feed and shelter their families. There have been other points in history where such problems have lead to revolutions or wars. If we humans continue to act unfairly or unkindly towards one another, then we are only pushing the possibility for a peaceful and prosperous life, for everyone, out of the picture.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, Tashi. Thanks for the comment.

  18. earwicga says...

    Did you see Don Paksini’s post about ‘How IDS misled parliament about housing benefit cuts’ http://don-paskini.blogspot.com/2010/11/how-ids-misled-parliament-about-housing.html

    It is amusing in a grotesque way to see Labour opposing these punitive measures. They were doing the same for the whole of their reign and allowed the tories to do what they are doing today. They are all scum.

  19. earwicga says...

    And also Justin’s comment on the post when it was cross-posted to LibCon http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/11/17/how-ids-misled-parliament-on-housing-cuts/#comment-199042

  20. On Anti-Cuts Protest In London, 500,000 Say No – OpEd « Eurasia Review says...

    […] The welfare state — from the working poor to the unemployed, the disabled, and the countless organizations providing essential support to the most vulnerable in society, who had seen significant and necessary investment until the Tories took charge, as I discussed in my articles, Critics Attack UK Government’s Cruel and Ill-Conceived Assault on Welfare, The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms and On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion. […]

  21. On the Anti-Cuts Protest in London | Amauta says...

    […] The welfare state — from the working poor to the unemployed, the disabled, and the countless organizations providing essential support to the most vulnerable in society, who had seen significant and necessary investment until the Tories took charge, as I discussed in my articles, Critics Attack UK Government’s Cruel and Ill-Conceived Assault on Welfare, The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms and On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion. […]

  22. Andy Worthington’s Blog: ‘Brutal Benefit Cuts for the Disabled Are Leading to Suicides in the UK’ | Black Triangle Campaign says...

    […] Note: For reports on “The Hardest Hit,” a protest in central London by and for disabled people on May 11, see this Guardian article by campaigner Jody McIntyre. Also see this article and these opinions (also from theGuardian). For further information about the government’s cruel notions of welfare reform, and my despair at my fellow citizens, see the following articles that I wrote last year: Butchering the Poor, the Ill, the Weak, the Dispossessed and the Marginalized: Welcome to Cameron and Osborne’s Heartless Britain, Critics Attack UK Government’s Cruel and Ill-Conceived Assault on Welfare, The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms and On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion. […]

  23. Roshea says...

    Just got news of my 6.7% cut in HB. Am I in London??…….No North Devon, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
    I currently get the lower rate mobility rate, although am trying for full rate, having now lost the use of my feet and my hands are going the same way, as several consultants just watched and told me “see you in 6 months”, after 18 months of this I am disabled. Worked all my life, raised 3 children, all workers, paid my taxes.
    Nothing in return. Gov’t says I need just £67.85 to live on. My rent £475. per month, I have to pay £175. top up ??????. HOW>

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Roshea,
    Thanks for getting in touch. That’s really depressing, and, presumably, something that’s being repeated across the UK. I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been targeted by the heartless, cynical and hypocritical Etonians who claim to be running the country.

  25. damo68 says...

    england once was a great country im affraid now were a mealy mouthed ,mean spirited,spitfull bitter little nation with basically nothing going for it like a little pug that thinks its a great dane,lol what happened to us,were did this spitfull mentality of mental nimbyisum come in,we used to be great…no wonder all our talent and bright sparks leave who would want to stay here,lol.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    I suppose that small-minded conservatism has always been there, Damo. It’s what I rebelled against when I was young, and it’s part of what drives me still – I really don’t ever want to end yup like that! But although there was no golden age when British people were kind and tolerant, there was a healthier sub-culture than there is now, an there were times when utopian ideals were espoused by the more interesting people in society. I guess that, between Thatcher’s destruction of industry – and destruction of the travellers – and the psychic cosh Tony Blair wielded as he embraced the stupefyingly selfish world of neo-liberal economics, that hope was almost extinguished, and the Western world has, of course, seen a decline in wages in real terms for everyone except the very rich in that whole 30-year period, with only easy credit – now almost extinct – creating the illusion of economic buoyancy. Plus, of course, culturally we have become self-obsessed and materialist to a degree previously unknown – and actually, it’s that I blame more than anything else, as individuals can be free, poor and happy, but that has become a kind of fringe, outlaw way of life.

  27. damo68 says...

    andy do you think we are in the age of hypercapitalisum ,i think we are its madness unsustaineable madness i watched the battle of the beanfield video my god the travelers didnt stand a chance police brutality for the sake of brutality ..vile..christ andy wot do they want anyone who isnt a productive machien to be destroyed anyone who thinks ,acts or is in anyway differant must be hounded down and destroyed..its getting scarey andy…very scarey

  28. damo68 says...

    by the way andy ive had to use a differant computer dongle as my t mobile has blocked your site deniying me access .adult content WHAT……..

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes it is scary, Damo. People’s lives are being judged as worthless by those in charge, who are simultaneously trying to work out how to deprive those people judged as worthless of any state support. Logically, this story ends in the gas chambers – or, at the very least, with the return of poorhouses. Realistically, the streets will be awash with homeless people, those hovering around the level of abject poverty will increase severely, and we’ll have to see whether enough people care to cause a backlash. Nominally, the Christian core of this country ought to care, but those impulses are challenged by the angry selfishness of contemporary society, Charities might be left to apply sticking plasters to a problem too huge for them to deal with, or common sense might prevail. I think a lot also depends on how homelessness is dealt with legally. If the obligation to provide shelter for the homeless is removed at a council level, then it becomes a private problem, and one that the public sector can wash its hands of. I do, however, doubt whether it will be possible to remove all protections from homeless people if, for example, we’re looking at families – children – living and dying on the streets. I certainly hope we don’t reach a point where poor people are comprehensively blamed for their poverty by society as a whole, rather than just by Iain Duncan Smith and the trashy media that constantly urge people to be mean-spiritied, envious and intolerant. Dark times …

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    What, indeed. That’s ridiculous. I hope this isn’t some sort of infection of the site. May need to check it out.

  31. damo68 says...

    hi andy ok ill come out the closet i am unemployed and yes im looking for work there isnt any ive just come from the job center this morning ,we were all called in as there is a new sighning on procedure you dont now have any human contact with staff you put your job search form and your sighning coupon into a slot and if there satified then you will get a payment..ANDY THIS HAS DISASTER AND CHAOS WRITTEN ALL OVER IT ..IT IS GOING TO LEAD TO PEOPLE STARVING IN THE STREETS..its nuts we tryed explaining this to the manager that this is not going to work that people will have there benefits stopped for the slightest reason becouse theres allways some creep who likes to fuckup your claim..wot are we gonna do for fucks sake people wake up.

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very worrying, Damo. I hadn’t heard about the automation of claims, but I agree – it is open to abuse, as well as being fundamentally, and intentionally, a system that sidelines human accountability. It needs looking into.

  33. damo68 says...

    god andy it gets worse reading the headline that cunt camoron says its the end of compationate conservitisum basicaly he,s trying to rush through scrapping all houseing benefits for the under 25s they can live at home with there parents and also for large familys..why do the tories just ..kill the poor thats wot they realy want

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    The only good thing about it, Damo, is that it was a manifesto promise for 2015, for if the Tories get back in power, which, of course, really ought not to be possible after their sustained and counter-productive hatchet job on the economy. Interesting that this is the type of speech Cameron had to give to keep his nasty party sweet. They’re such uncompassionate scumbags on a permanent basis that it’s a wonder anyone ever believed any sort of lies about “compassionate Conservatism.”

  35. The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion | Andy Worth… […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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