The government’s response to its defeat in the Lords last night over benefit caps has been notable for its lack of substance. Iain Duncan Smith has taken two lines: that the policy is enormously popular, and that Bishops and left-leaning peers ought to be as concerned by the people paying for the benefits as they are of the people who receive them.
The popularity argument is, well, true. But it is a pretty hollow one. It is hardly surprising that public attitudes have hardened following years of rightwing propaganda emanating from what passes for the British press and, given the small amounts of money involved, this is rather a bread and circuses argument. Throw a couple more Christians to the lions to keep the plebs happy.
They are on stronger ground when they argue that peers ought to consider the needs of hardworking taxpayers more. But this looks like crocodile tears from the Conservatives who appear only willing to raise regressive taxes like VAT, are pressing to cut the upper rate of income tax and won’t even consider the introduction of wealth taxes. The fact that Vince Cable’s Mansion Tax is considered radical within the cabinet, which would only be levied on properties worth over £2 million, shows you how far we need to go to make the case for a fundamental shift from income to wealth taxation.
Fundamentally, this cap saves very little (and may even cost money), applies only to especially large families and undermines the concept of a universal child benefit. It is ironic that Iain Duncan Smith, the great proponent of symbolic taxes designed to encourage marriage is attempting to force through a benefit change which would give the poorest a major financial incentive to break up their families. It is a complete distraction from the real debate which is needed about benefits reform.
One thing that appears to be getting lost in this debate about the benefits bill is how much money is being wasted not to help the poor but to subsidise the privileged. I touched on the way the welfare state subisidises large companies who refuse to pay decent wages – thus ramping up the tax credit bill – last week. When it comes to housing benefit, too few politicians seem prepared to question why we are shelling out so much money which goes straight into the pockets of private landlords and only propose to tackle this issue by forcing people into worse accommodation.
This blind spot isn’t limited to the coalition; after all the housing benefit explosion continued unabated throughout the Labour years. The only justification for it appears to be that policies designed to tackle this problem at the landlord end of the telescope might harm property prices. And property prices help drive the economy.
There is some truth to this: no-one doubts that a collapse in property prices would damage growth. But it does rather bring all this talk of “ethical capitalism” into perspective. Because who is actually benefiting from this racket? Not taxpayers, who have to pay inflated housing benefit bills. Not the poor on welfare, who don’t see a penny from this spending. Not hard working people struggling (and mostly failing) to get onto the first rung of the property ladder. The beneficiaries are, once again, the very people who have managed to insulate themselves from every other aspect of the economic downturn.
If the introduction of land value taxation – which would discourage the speculative ramping up of rents – is not to be contemplated, then the very least we should be considering is the return of rent controls. The introduction of such a policy would mean many more winners than losers. The only real barriers to doing so is dogma about distorting the housing market (which one could argue has already failed chronicly) and fear about how the financial sector might react in its customary intimidatory way.
Instead, we seem hellbent on driving through policies designed to stigmatise the poor and provide everyone with less security. Until politicians on all sides are prepared to take on this beggar-thy-neighbour form of rentier capitalism, I won’t be getting too excited by this ‘new ethics’.