Housing benefit row latest strain on coalition government

LONDON Thu Oct 28, 2010 3:40pm BST

Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Downing Street to attend parliament in London October 20, 2010. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Downing Street to attend parliament in London October 20, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

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LONDON (Reuters) - The country's ruling coalition is facing internal tensions over planned cuts to housing benefits that have been labelled draconian by one senior legislator and likened to "Kosovo-style" social cleansing by London's mayor.

As part of a round of steep public spending cuts aimed at shrinking a record deficit, the government announced this month that payments made by the state to help low income families with their rent would be capped at 400 pounds a week.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron argues working people should not have to fund, through taxes, rent payments for welfare recipients in areas where the working households could not afford to live.

But the plan is causing concern among the Liberal Democrats, junior partners to the Conservatives. Some LibDems agree with government critics the cuts could drive low income families from central London and create poor ghettos on the periphery.

It is unlikely the government would face a parliamentary rebellion over housing, but it would be embarrassing if a significant number of LibDem legislators opposed the measures.

The LibDem deputy leader, Simon Hughes, has called the housing benefit plans "harsh and draconian" and warned the government that it may not get parliamentary approval for them.

Several other Lib Dem legislators have made their opposition known, and even one Conservative legislator representing an area of central London, Mark Field, has expressed reservations.

LONDON MAYOR OPPOSED

Other measures will include 10 percent cuts in housing benefits for people who have been getting jobseekers' allowance for more than a year, and a requirement that single people under 35 who claim housing benefit live in shared accommodation.

Adding to the tensions, the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, came out strongly against the government.

"I'll emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together ... We will not accept any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London," Johnson told BBC London radio.

Cameron's official spokesman dismissed the comments.

"The prime minister does not agree with what Boris Johnson said or indeed the way he said it. He thinks the policy is the right one," he told reporters.

Johnson is well-known for being outspoken and has openly disagreed with Conservative policies in the past.

After his comments drew widespread attention, he issued a statement watering them down and said he was having good talks with the relevant ministry about special measures for London to reflect high rents and high demand for homes in the capital.

(Editing by Ralph Bouton)

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