On 13 February, the Guardian splashed a report that the Labour council of Camden, in north London, was “singling out more than 700 families to be moved up to 200 miles away”.
The report exaggerated what’s set to happen in Camden, but understated what’s set to happen across London.
In April the Tory/Lib-Dem government will start to impose the “benefit cap”, a rule that working-age couples and lone parents can never receive a total of more than £500 a week in all benefits combined. (People on disabled benefits, and people working enough hours to get Working Tax Credit, are exempted.)
At the start the cap will be enforced in four council areas: Bromley, Croydon, Enfield, and Haringey (not Camden). All others will follow at some time before September 2013.
The cap will be imposed by cutting housing benefit. On the Government’s own figures, 56,000 households will lose an average of £93 per week. Half of them will be in Greater London, because rents are higher in London. And most of them, obviously, will be large households, with many children, who have to pay higher rents. The average private rent for a two-bedroom home in Camden is £450 a week.
Camden council was told by the government last year that 761 households in its area will lose. Other areas in London — Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets, and Westminster — have more than 1000 households each losing. Westminster has 2,327.
These are households which at present are just scraping by on benefits. They have lost out already from other government measures. £93 a week is a catastrophic, impossible loss for them.
Many are likely to be evicted and become homeless. The Camden numbers are far from the worst, but include 1887 children, or about one child in 25 in the borough — roughly speaking, one child in every school class.
Camden council is planning to contact the households, once it gets a detailed list from the government, allocate advisers, and move some money out of its other budgets to help.
According to council leader Sarah Hayward, “households... with a number of children will not be in a position to afford rents in London. Labour in Camden will do everything possible to ensure that as few people as possible have to move away from their established communities...
“Labour in Camden have also seen some success in negotiating private rents down with landlords... But there is only so much we can do to protect... residents from this heartless Government policy”.
The fault of Camden council is not that it is “singling out families”, but that, like other Labour councils, it is passing on the cuts imposed by the Government, limiting its own role to minor patchwork alleviation. It is not fighting back.
It is not using the council chamber as a platform to mobilise the local labour movement and community to save homes, services, and jobs by forcing the Government to backtrack on its cuts.
In Hull, in Manchester, in Southampton, and elsewhere, a growing minority of Labour councillors are speaking out against this compliance.
Just a few Labour councils taking a stand and rallying a struggle could stir a storm of resistance, as Poplar did in 1921 and Clay Cross in 1972-4.