"Sadly this is the system we have inherited. A system that allowed some families who were living in areas with incredibly high rents, to claim over £100,000 a year in housing costs."
Lord Freud, Welfare Reform Minister, 31 October 2012
The Government's cap on the amount a single household can claim in Housing Benefit remains among the more controversial of its welfare reforms, drawing criticism from Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson, among others.
This morning, the Guardian reported that London councils were preparing to rehouse tenants outside the capital as they could no longer find enough accommodation locally that fell within the £400-per-week limit.
However Department for Work and Pensions Ministers have repeatedly stated that the move was necessary to combat excessive claims, often adding as Lord Freud did last week that some families cost the state £100,000 in Housing Benefit alone. But just how many of these families are there?
When Full Fact first came across this claim nearly two years ago, while we found that the average claim - at around £85 per week - was some way below the figures being used by Ministers, there was no detailed breakdown of the distribution of claims.
Since then we have put in a Freedom of Information request to the Department to try to get some more information to put these claims in more context. We've now had a response, and it is clear from what we've unearthed that the extremely large claims highlighted in the media are also extremely rare.
These figures show that over four out of every five Housing Benefit claims are below £100 per week (the equivalent of £5,200 per year) according to the September 2010 figures, while only 70 out of over 4.5 million recipients claimed over £1000 per week, around 0.001% of the total.
Even this is likely to overstate the number claiming £100,000 per year however, as a family would need to claim over £1,900 per week to hit this total. Previous FoI responses from the Department have suggested around five families benefited by this amount.
While Ministers may well feel that those families which do fall into that bracket should be tackled nonetheless, it is not necessarily helpful to the public understanding of the issue to repeatedly highlight what is such a small number of the total, without putting this into a wider context.
While the evidence suggests that there are a small number of Housing Benefit claims of more than £100,000 per year - perhaps around five - these cases are very much the exception rather than the rule. Focusing exclusively on these outliers without first putting them into context, where over 80% of claims are below £100 per week, could distort the debate around this important topic.
Other information drawn out in our FoI request found that larger claims tended to come from larger families, and the average household size for people claiming over £40,000 was six. For more details, do check out the numbers in the request itself, which is available here.
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