23 July 2013

Dear Paul Dacre,

This is an open letter which I am circulating as widely as possible. I am a member of the Haringey Housing Action Group lambasted by The Secretary for Work and Pensions in the Daily Mail on 16th July. We are all volunteers. We spend time with people who have been hit by the three caps imposed on housing benefit since May 2010, the LHA caps, Bedrooom Tax and the £500 cap. Having seen the impact on individuals, mothers and children we are deeply opposed to them.

On the 16th July you published the following article. I have inserted my comments in the text in italics where appropriate.


Iain Duncan Smith yesterday accused the BBC of using ‘politically motivated’ interviewees to criticise government welfare cuts.

I am a member of the Haringey Housing Action Group. We help individuals and families suffering under the housing benefit caps, which we oppose. That is no secret. We marched up Tottenham High Road in April with other North London organisations who oppose the caps, cuts and council tax on the 1000 Mothers March for Justice. We are as politically motivated against the caps, cuts and council tax as IDS is politically motivated for them, but without any party political allegiance.

The Work and Pensions Secretary spoke out after Radio 4 news programme Today featured a female protester who was planted by an anti-cuts group. He clashed with presenter John Humphrys on air as the BBC covered the roll out of the £26,000-a-year cap on benefits.

The claim that anyone was "planted" is ridiculous. I have been working with debtors impoverished by the benefit system since the poll tax in the 1990s. Over the years I have frequently been asked by journalists for cases who will speak up to illustrate the problems and successes of the benefit system. The Haringey Housing Action Group responded to such a request on Friday 12th July when the BBC interviews too place. It was entirely normal. It accurately exposed the misery being inflicted by the cap on decent people and their children.

Finding benefit claimants who will speak publicly is less and less likely the more papers like the Daily Mail and politicians like IDS tell people, who have never had to apply for any benefits to survive, that it is "scroungers (and other insults)" and who do. Mothers are afraid of their children being picked on in the school play ground as a result of your unbalanced reporting.

An interview with a mother-of-three called Susan (name changed) claimed she would be nearly £100 a week worse off. Yesterday it was revealed she is a 36-year-old from North London, who arrived in Britain from the Congo in 1998.

All that is true; it was never a secret. There are 740 families in Haringey hit by the overall benefit cap. 80% of them are single mothers with anything from three to seven children. One mother I have met has to find £282 out of her seven children's benefits, another £69 out of four children's benefits. It all depends on the level of the rent charged by the private landlords. If the mother with four children lived in a council house her total benefit income would have been less than £500.

The problem is the lack of affordable housing not large families or single mothers. They have received Discretionary Housing Payments for 12 weeks but still suffer the anxiety of what happens then.

The families were normally expected  by all the governments from the 1979 to have children; there was no complaint about how many as the demography became increasingly skewed towards the elderly.

Meanwhile the private landlords exploited a housing market in short supply by raising rents. The 1979 government had abolished rent controls and for the past 30 years the Treasury obligingly increased housing benefits. See Z2K Memorandum to the Prime Minister on Unaffordable Housing by the late Professor Peter Ambrose 2005.

Comes the political realisation, or panic, that paying the landord's rent had raised the cost to the taxpayer of housing benefits to £22 billion a year, and it is the poorest mothers and their children who are forced to pay the penalty.

It is the Taxpayers Alliance who have said that "landlords treated housing benefit like a cash cow". (ITV Daybreak 15th April) So why are the tenants being punished with caps and not the landords?

Yet there was no mention in the BBC report that the case study had been supplied by the pressure group Haringey Housing Action Group.

So what!

Mr Duncan Smith leveled the charge of bias as he was quizzed by Mr Humphrys about his claim that 8,000 people had already come off benefits because of the cap, which was trialled in four London boroughs.

There is a view current among those of us who loudly and politically oppose the caps that the BBC is biased towards the government. I was also interviewed about the £500 cap by The World this Week end on the 12th July. I challenged the Coalition's mantra "cutting benefits is fair on the tax payer". That is a very shallow moral judgement in that;

1. there has not been a policy to provide affordable housing for over thirty years and
2. a disproportionate and extreme burden to deal with the consequences of that neglect is being carried by our poorest fellow citizens and their children.
3. there is enough wealth in the UK to cope with the deficit without that impost.

This is damaging the health of the families and the education of their children creating billions of unnecessary poverty and debt linked costs for the taxpayer in the NHS and Schools. It is morally and economically unacceptable. I made these points in my interview by the World this Weekend, but I was spiked. I frequently listen to politicians of all parties being let off these key moral questions by the BBC. So I complained.

The BBC has now examined my complaint that "the report regarding the benefit cap was unbalanced as you believe that Andrew Selous MP was not challenged regarding his comments on fairness." The fact remains that his statement that the cap is fair to the taxpayer was not challenged. The BBC has replied "It is not always possible or practical to reflect all the different opinions on a subject within individual programmes". The issue of fairness is central to the balance between tax and benefits. The programme was repeated though out the Sunday and IDS repeated the moral spin, without challenge, again on the Today programme. I have now complained about that the claim by IDS that the cap is fair on the taxpayer was not challenged by John Humphrys.

Mr Humphrys said the UK Statistics Authority had found the claims to be ‘unsupported by the official statistics’.

But Mr Duncan Smith hit back: ‘You can’t disprove what I said either. I believe this to be right. I believe that we are already seeing people go back to work who were not going to go back to work until they were short of the cap.’

He added: ‘What you’re doing, as always in the BBC, you’re seeking out lots of cases from people who are politically motivated to say this is wrong.’

There are "lots of cases", 1000s of them,  and the BBC would be failing in its duty not to report them. IDS is a case of a decent man who is catastrophically wrong and cannot hear honest criticism without suspecting a plot. He should not abuse his powerful position by jumping on journalists who are doing their job allowing people to tell the truth about their circumstances or on volunteers who are trying to soften the damage being done to decent people by his policies.

The BBC last night insisted its political coverage is ‘fair, accurate and impartial’.

Yours sincerely,

Rev Paul Nicolson
Taxpayers Against Poverty
93 Campbell Road,
London N17 0BF
0208 3765455
07961 177889
also at
also at