As the House of Lords voted down the benefits cap on Monday night, the TV evening news bulletins presented case studies of households who would stand to lose from a £26,000 welfare limit. Whilst the bulletins' editors seemed to be trying to garner support for these welfare claimants, I suspect the impact on viewers will have been to harden support for the cap and to increase public bafflement at the Lords' decision. Both Channel 4 News and BBC News at 10 opted to interview lone parents living in the south-east of England. Government data suggests that such case studies are representative: of the estimated 67,000 households who would be affected by the cap: more than half (52%) are headed by lone parents; 54% of the total live in Greater London.
Gary Gibbon of Channel 4 met Ayesha Hall, who separated from husband six years ago but continues to live in the rented matrimonial home in Surrey, with their five children. She receives benefits totalling around £28,000 a year, and works a few hours a week as a lunchtime school helper. Gibbon did not ask, nor did Mrs Hall volunteer, how much her husband contributes to the family budget. Yet this is surely a key question. Mr Hall's obligations to support his children certainly did not end with the couple's decision to separate. If his wages were insufficient to pay the rent on the matrimonial home as well as his own accommodation, then it seems Mrs Hall's wish to stay in that home was sadly unrealistic. Yet for six years the enforced generosity of taxpayers has enabled her to avoid facing the issue.
Mrs Hall provided a vivid illustration of Iain Duncan Smith's argument: that families like these are are trapped in houses they can't afford. And with all her children clearly above school age, it is difficult for Mrs Hall to argue that she is incapable of working longer hours. Again, it seems that the welfare system discourages her from earning more because she would risk losing her benefits; a further illustration of the urgent need for reform.
As opinion polls show, it's not just married families who resent paying for unlimited welfare for single mums. Divorced mothers working hard to support their offspring, and responsible dads paying maintenance and sharing the care of their children are also unlikely to condone Mr and Mrs Hall's choice of lifestyle.
Nor would they have much time for Luciana Sena, the single mother who appeared on BBC's News at Ten and who labelled the cap as “cruel.” Viewers didn't learn very much about Ms Sena: it was not clear whether she is in work, and once again no questions were asked about the father of her two children and his role in the household's finances. All we did learn is that she lives in south London; her home looked brand new and smartly decorated, so it was not hard to believe the rent is high. The only reasonable conclusion to this news item was that unless her ex-partner or husband is willing to pay her rent, Ms Sena needs to find a better paid job or move to a modest home in a cheaper housing area.
If, as it seems, the BBC and Channel 4 hoped to move the public towards compassion for the plight of welfare claimants, they chose the wrong case studies. The only point at which the opponents of the cap do succeed in striking a popular chord is when they speak of working families whose breadwinner loses his or her job unexpectedly and the family consequently becomes reliant on benefits for a time. No such families were offered up as case studies; according to the DWP, it is rare for them to breach the proposed cap. If they do, IDS has given general assurances that they will be offered transitional relief. But more details of the guidelines for this relief are now needed: the government should use the opportunity presented by last night's defeat to set out the principles before another vote is called.
The cap is a convenient shorthand for fairness which clearly has voter appeal and is easily understood. As Gavin Poole at the CSJ pointed out yesterday, it also sends out a clear message to the workshy.These are all important ingredients, but if it is to be successfully implemented, the cap must be underpinned by principles. The reassurances IDS has offered in his interviews to date imply that transitional support above the cap will take account of the claimant's work record and will be available for a limited period only. In other words, we are moving towards a more contribution-based system which also places time limits on payments.
Clarification and expansion of these guidelines could now provide a vital underpinning to welfare reform. The innate British sense of justice – so much offended by unlimited and indiscriminate welfare – creates an expectation that welfare should be commensurate with contributions. A safety net for those who have been in work, and who then expect a period of support in hard times, seems both fair and affordable. By placing time limits on payments, the state is also able to show that welfare is indeed a safety net and not a cage. Where families split up, time limits are especially important: temporary help for a deserted family should not turn into permanent support which relieves a father of his financial obligations.
David Cameron and IDS are enjoying popular support for their welfare reforms. They should continue to capitalise on that popularity by spelling out the principles of a fair and affordable welfare state which does not allow adults to become detached from the workplace or from their responsibilities towards their children.