The news that Newham Council in London was considering sending some of its poorest residents to another part of the country broke on Tuesday morning. They justified this by saying that caps on housing benefit made it impossible to find affordable housing in Newham.
The housing minister, Grant Shapps, speaking on Radio 4's Today, poured scorn on this notion, claiming that a cursory search of property websites showed "thousands" of properties in a 5-mile radius. He claimed that "up to £21,000 a year" in housing benefit was available to Newham families. He based this on the HB rate of £400pw for a family needing a 4-bedroom home.
But it turns out these figures are wrong. The figure for Newham is actually £300pw - the higher figure is for central London, which does not include Newham. If you match the correct figure to advertised properties, there are virtually none available at the Newham housing benefit level.
Worse, the media largely faithfully reported Shapps' figure without checking for much of the day. On Tuesday evening the BBC 10.00 News repeated the error yet again.
It was also clear from looking at public comments on the story on websites that many people were misled into believing that central London rates are the rates everywhere. Someone commenting on the Guardian site was angry that "someone on benefit could get a 2-bedroom flat for £1150 per month whereas he could only afford £775". In fact in his area (Edinburgh) the HB rate for 2 bedrooms is only £620. Yes, you've guessed it....it was the central London rate he was quoting.
I don't know whether Shapps was trying to mislead or whether he was just badly informed himself. But in any case he was able to get away with creating a wholly false impression by a media too lazy to check.
Needless to say, James Naughtie on Today never even raised the idea of capping rents rather than housing benefit.
None of this means that I think it is right for Newham to effectively exile hundreds of its poorest residents. But neither is it credible for Shapps to claim that this is some conspiracy to gain political advantage for Labour on Newham. Firstly the people being moved are rather unlikely to include many Tory voters. Secondly, they are far more likely to blame the Council rather than the government - people invariably do blame the local power base in the first instance.
Rather than make the poor pay, Labour councils should be commandeering empty properties and building homes. If Labour actually came out and said that, they would clean up in Newham and in working class areas everywhere.
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