When countering claims from charities and campaigners that the government’s proposed benefits cap would push people into homelessness, Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, made a fairly eye-catching claim. He told the Today programme:
The [definition of homelessness] that’s used by the pressure groups is that certain children would have to share rooms.
Well, most of your listeners would find that astonishing. For them homelessness is not having any kind of accommodation, reasonable accommodation, to go to and being on the street. I can guarantee that is not going to happen.
This was surprising: did charities such as Shelter really think homelessness means children sharing bedrooms? The answer to that is no – as Shelter’s strongly-worded riposte makes clear. Campbell Robb, their chief executive, said this afternoon:
This is simply not true.
Shelter uses the same definition of homelessness as the government, as set out in the Housing Act 1996, passed by the last Conservative government.
We are disappointed that these comments are creating unnecessary confusion and deflecting from the real issues we should be focusing on today, namely the significant impacts these proposals will have on the lives of those in the 67,000 affected households.
So where did IDS get his claim from? It seems that one definition of homelessness under the 1996 act is “living in conditions of severe overcrowding”. But this does not simply mean children having to share bedrooms, at least not in the way Shelter has used it.
IDS may be right that no one will be forced out onto the streets because of this measure: they are more likely to have to move into worse accommodation in cheaper areas. But his nimble footwork, attacking campaigners who oppose his measures on fairly spurious grounds, is a classic example of how well coalition ministers (mainly IDS himself and George Osborne) have played the politics of this measure.
As I revealed in my last post, the way they have framed the debate in terms of cracking down on feckless, overpaid benefits claimants, has left the opposition in a quandary about how they can oppose the cap.
And still the ratcheting of the pressure continues. After I wrote about how the Labour leadership is worried that their peers are falling foul of public opinion by opposing popular measures in the Lords, a Treasury source got in touch to say:
If Ed Miliband can’t even control his own frontbenchers in the Lords, it shows his words were just posturing from a weak leader.
All of this political posturing deflects attention away from the impact assessment that the department for work and pensions has just produced, showing 67,000 families would be affected by the cap – not 50,000 as first expected. And in a sign of how politicised this measure has become, there is no mention at all of how many people might be pushed into poverty because of it.