December 13, 2010 • 4:00 pm

ARTICLE UPDATED 30.10.2012 – see the DWP’s response to our FOI request.

A great deal of the debate on housing benefit reform seems to have hung on the fact that some households are receiving apparently excessive amounts of housing benefit.

It had a high-profile launch in the emergency budget in June, when Chancellor George Osborne said: “Today there are some families receiving £104,000 a year in housing benefit. The cost of that single award is equivalent to the total income tax and national insurance paid by 16 working people on median incomes. It is clear that the system of housing benefit is in dire need of reform.”

It is a surprising claim, and that is reflected by the reactions from across the political spectrum.

Former Disability Minister Anne McGuire sought to find out the basis for the Chancellor’s statement, but was told that “the information requested is not available.” She called for the Chancellor to rescind his statement.

Torcuil Crichton of the Whitehall 1212 blog and the Daily Record described the claim as “fake” while Alastair Campbell acted as the voice of moderation, saying it “may be a myth.”

(Full Fact can, incidentally, confirm from our own experience his tale that the Departmental press office referred callers to the archives of the Sun and Daily Mail for examples of families receiving so much in benefits.)

The Daily Telegraph took the trouble to check the numbers and, by contacting councils directly, established the truth of the claim but that “the numbers are tiny.” As not all councils responded, they were not able to be precise.

In early September, Chukka Umunna MP again tried to find official figures for how many there were, to be told that the first figures would only be available later that month.

That is because it was not possible to receive more than £100,000 per year in housing benefit until changes in June took the maximum available up to £2,000 per week. June’s data from councils was not available centrally until September.

The dramatic figures have not lost their political potency. In BBC Question Time last month, Theresa May quoted the £100,000 figure and today, Housing Minister Grant Shapps told the BBC, “What we want to do is get rid of the £30,000, £40,000 and £100,000 housing benefits cases, which are completely unfair on the taxpayer.”

Full Fact has now obtained the latest official national figures, which show that “there were fewer than 5 housing benefit recipients receiving over £1,916 per week (equivalent to around £100,000 per year assuming the recipient remains on benefit for a continuous year)” this August.

The Telegraph was right: it is true that such cases exist but the numbers are tiny. They may well be evidence that the system is “in dire need of reform,” as the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, but it is hard to see how such rare cases can be the best source of evidence as to what reform is needed.

Repeatedly quoting the £100,000 figure in such prominent contexts without pointing out that “the overall average Housing Benefit award is £84.36 per week, and for Council Tax Benefit recipients, the overall average award was £15.93 per week” is apt to give the wrong impression.

However, as Mr Shapps’s comments to the BBC demonstrate, the second front in this debate is other lower levels of housing benefit that still add up to big numbers. Last month The Sun “revealed” that: “MORE than a THOUSAND families rake in a whopping £800 a week or MORE in housing benefit,” and “twenty get over £1,500 a week” (emphasis in the original). £800 per week would be £41,600 per year, twice the proposed cap.

Apparently they “forced the Department for Work and Pensions to reveal the payouts under Freedom of Information laws.”

Full Fact put in a request for the same information, only to be told that “the Department has not been able to trace the requested information… it has not been possible to identify the specific request on which the article you mention was based.”

The whole debate evokes Peter (now Lord) Hennessey’s comment that: “Much of the raw material of informed political discussion is locked inside Whitehall departments or specialist pressure groups. It is released selectively to further political agendas.”

With the Welfare Reform Bill due to be introduced in January, Full Fact has decided to try to settle the facts once and for all. There are, after all, enough choices and principles for people to debate in that context without quibbling over what the numbers should be.

We have now requested from the Department a breakdown of how many households were in receipt of housing benefit at various levels from £0–£25 right up to £2,000+.

Follow us on twitter, or on facebook, if you want to know when we receive it.

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