I had a cracking cold at the weekend so didn’t post on the YouGov/Sunday Times poll, hence there are a couple of interesting findings in there that really got overlooked. Most interestingly on the so-called “bedroom tax”. As the government gets a thorough kicking on the subject, it would be easy to imagine that the majority of people are up in arms against it. Actually, people supported the idea by it by 49% to 38%.

As one might imagine from a policy that has been a political football for the last few months, answers have aligned along party partisan grounds – three-quarters of Tory voters said they supported the policy and a majority of Labour voters say they oppose it… but a substantial minority of Labour voters (34%) say they support the policy.

Why? Regardless of whether or not is actually is a good policy or not (which is outside the remit of this blog) parts of the media have spent the last two months happily banging on about the evils of the bedroom tax and how it will affect the disabled, or children, or foster families or whatever… yet people say they support it. There are two obvious reasons, not by any means mutually exclusive. One, people really don’t pay much attention to any of the media coverage of the changes and are unaware of what impacts it might have. Two, that they are aware, but support it anyway – either people they think it is more important to cut spending and hard choices must be made, that downsides are exaggerated, that the basic principle outweighs the negative effects to some people or just, when push comes to shove, many people generally support cuts in benefits.

The same poll asked people to pick areas they think SHOULD be prioritised for cuts, and which areas people thought should be PROTECTED from cuts. The top answers to both questions were as you’d expect and saw little crossover between wanting cuts and wanting protection. So, a large majority of people want NHS spending protected with hardly anyone wanting it prioritised for cuts, over half of people wanted education protected with hardly anyone wanting it prioritised for cuts, the picture is similar for crime and pensions. On the other side a large majority thought overseas aid should be prioritised for cuts with hardly anyone wanting it protected.

Welfare benefits are more interesting. 39% of people think that welfare benefits should be prioritised for cuts, including 62% of Tory voters. For a lot of people this is an area where they positively want to see cutbacks. However, unlike overseas aid where the traffic is overwhelmingly one way, there is also a substantial body of people – 16% – who think welfare benefits are one of the area that most require protection from cuts. Benefits are, therefore, an area where there really are totally contrasting views out there amongst different parts of the electorate.

Polling does tend to show that the balance of the opinions is hostile towards welfare benefits. For example, about a year ago Peter Kellner did some polling for Prospect looking at attitudes towards the principles of welfare benefits. Overall 74% agreed that the government paid too much in benefits, and that welfare levels should be decreased. A different YouGov poll carried out for the TUC at the end of last year found 42% of people thought benefits were too generous, compared to 28% who thought they were about right and 18% not high enough. 59% thought that Britain had a culture of benefit dependency that needed radical change, as opposed to 29% who thought that welfare benefits were far from generous and the least a civilized society could do to help people avoid abject poverty.

However look below the surface and it isn’t a blanket opposition to welfare – it is hostile towards welfare for particular groups, supportive of particular cuts. So the YouGov/Prospect poll found people were happy to see support for disabled people and for the elderly to rise (even if it meant higher taxes), the areas where they think welfare is too generous and should fall are those Daily Mail favourites “single parents” and the unemployed. People are more evenly divided over support for low-paid people in work, with marginally more people thinking support should be cut than think it should rise. There is a similar picture when it comes to specific government policies – polls do show strong support for things like the benefit cap, for stopping benefits for those who refuse working, support for limiting benefit increases to 1% (although there appears to be an online/offline mode effect here – online polls show people more supportive than telephone polls)… but opposition to policies like stopping housing benefit for under 25s.

The reason that people tend to be supportive of benefits cuts in general is likely to be related to the fact that they perceive an awful lot of benefits as going to those groups they don’t want to pay for, or indeed for outright fraud. For example, the YouGov polling for the TUC found that on average people thought that 41% of benefit spending went to the unemployed and that just over a quarter of it was claimed fraudulently. The YouGov/Prospect poll found that 29% of people thought that half or more of benefit claimants were lying or deliberately refusing to take work, and a further 39% thought a significant majority were. The general perception is also that benefits are more generous than they are – on average, people think that Jobseekers Allowance is £147 a week (it’s actually £71 a week).

This is not to say that attitudes to benefits are unusual in someway in being based upon a poor understanding of the issues. I expect this is typical and we’d find it in almost any policy subject we cared to ask about. Most people don’t waste much of their time worrying about the details of how the country is run, what the government spends, how policies work and so on. Our views of policies are based not on a detailled understanding of the issues, but on crude impressions and heuristics. In terms of welfare benefits, those crude impressions are, for many people, that a large amount of benefits go to the workshy or the dishonest and therefore it is a good place to save money, rather than on public services like hospitals and schools.

I should finish by taking it right the way to electoral politics. As in most cases, the important thing won’t be whether people actually support individual policies, it is how they feed into wider, longer term perceptions of the parties. For the Conservatives many of the policies are popular in themselves, but they need to avoid them playing into and entrenching perceptions that the party are heartless or nasty or uncaring towards those struggling (it’s not necessarily impossible – remember that the low income person seeing their own tax credits frozen may also be someone who believes that benefit claimants are mostly scroungers and layabouts who deserve their benefits cut – people don’t fit into nice neatly defined boxes of us and them). Labour meanwhile will want to oppose many cuts without allowing the Conservatives to paint them as a party that cares more about benefit recipients than they do taxpayers funding them – in short, despite the ridiculousness of the rhetoric, whether they are on the side of skivers or strivers.

127 Responses to “On “bedroom taxes” and benefits”

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  1. A great analysis Anthony.

    What this site excels at.

  2. Anthony,

    good post and worth discussing… hope the cold is better.

    One or too general comments.

    Firstly just as the press has had a lot recently about the particulars of the “Bedroom Tax” the same press has spent years running stories often on the front page about People with huge families living it up on welfare.

    I wonder what poling has been done on what level of this kind of so called abuse of the system actually happens as opposed to what people perceive.

    Secondly It would be interesting to look at the income breakdowns for these changes to see to what extent the numbers saying benefits should be cut are from people who are unlikely to be receiving any.

    As with protecting health over overseas aid, most people in the UK use the former and no the latter so any pain would be elsewhere.

    As ever the other problem with the health v aid debate trying to plug a whole while preserving or raising a huge budget while slicing bits off a small one really doesn’t add up.

    Although I suspect I can guess the answer did the YouGov polling happen to show by any chance that the over fifties are the most in favour of preserving pensions?

    A lot of this is really “Turkey’s and Christmas”.


  3. Peter –

    That was largely the point of the TUC polling I linked to from the article – it asked a series of questions about people’s knowledge of the benefits system (how much went to the unemployed, how much is jobseekers, how much is fraud, etc) so they could compare to the actual figures and see that people do think there is more fraud then actually happens (or at least, than actually gets picked up), more goes to unemployed people than actually does, benefit levels are higher than they actually are, and so on.

  4. Though to repeat my warning in the article (I’m sure some people never bother to actually read what I write and just come here for the comments!), don’t go away with the idea that such misunderstanding is unique to welfare – I bet we’d find just the same on any other subject.

    Take, for example, the public’s unshakeable belief that crime is rising when it has been falling for about 20 years.

  5. I think too good polling questions would be…..

    Do you believe you work hard?

    Do you believe that others work hard?

  6. RiN- there is a lovely bank of questions that we asked a while back that asked people if they thought they personally were above average, below average, or average on things like intelligence, fitness, being hard working, being a good driver, in bed(!), etc, etc.

    Obviously people tend to all think they are better than average, but it’s not even. On some things people are more willing to say they are below average than on other things.

    I’ll have to dig it out

  7. AW

    A true brit would always be modest about their personal qualities! Lol

  8. AW Given that views of policy reflect perception rather than reality (unless that is perception has come to reflect reality) is there any evidence on how far a sustained effort to get across the reality is likely to have an effect?

    Presumably the degree to which this is so will vary with the issue and also with the way it is presented. But you might have some general ideas on this nevertheless

  9. R in N
    True Brits, I wonder who they are – the Southport Orange Parade marchers possibly? (I mean, Southport?).

    Gezondheid Anthony. Mrs H is suffering too, which means that I am, vicariously, as well. Writing the above analysis does not indicate you are permanently damaged, at least where it matters.

    I suppose the commentary could have been headed ‘are Brits more hypocritical than other nations’? But for that we would need the polling results of similar contradictions of opinion with facts.

  10. @ RiN

    Many years ago there was a research on family planning in Mexican villages. One question asked whether the respondent had sex before wedding. Overwhelming “no” which didn’t match the statistics from birth and wedding certificates. The question was changed: “Do girls around here have sex before wedding”. The results matched the statistics much better.

  11. Anthony,

    First sorry about the spelling and grammar earlier, I needed to do the school run so no proof reading.

    A while back I was at an investment seminar where they revealed that research showed that 75% of fund managers thought they were in the top 25%!!!

    Peoples perceptions can and are fairly skewed at times. As a former Councillor I was never short of having people tell me things about the way local government worked that had little basis in reality including fellow Councillors.

    My favourite was that when they complained that “Officers are supposed to work for Us”, no matter how often you pointed out that they worked for the Council and that you couldn’t tell an officer to ignore a democratically agreed policy just because you didn’t like it, they would just rage and go off in the huff.

    I once told a taxi driver on an icy morning, who was taking my daughter to school ( she is in a wheelchair and can’t use buses) that it it looked dangerous I phoned the Council and they sent a car for me as a joke.

    Not only did he believe it but it took me five minutes to convince him that it wasn’t true.

    As a psychologist my wife has done a fair amount on Emotional Literacy and Intelligence and my own favourite “Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory” peoples innate tendency to rearrange the facts to suit the outcome they want.

    It’s powerful stuff and shows just how focus groups and polling can discover what people believe even if it isn’t true and how to turn it into vote winning policies.


  12. The poll shows that most people are rather selfish – they are much more likely to support public expenditure from which they personally benefit. This might overall be more of an advantage to the centre-right, but the snag for them is that certain specific altruistic or targeted expenditure such as overseas aid or even job seekers allowance is very strongly supported by groups of electors who might well punish a Party which cut them eg traditional Christian Tories who care about global poberty or Tory-voting Ds and Es losing semi or unskilled public sector jobs in their mid 50s (dinner ladies?).

  13. I wonder whether opinions on welfare benefits are affected by the perceived economic background of the country.

    If these questions had been asked in the middle of Browns “boom”-say 2003/4-would the answers have been different?

  14. AW
    What was the actual polling question on bedroom tax?

    I think the problem with issue polls is that the way the question is framed. It is very difficult to have a neutral question and that is why the answers are sometimes illogical,

    For example – Should people on benefits have bigger houses than those that work hard?

  15. Colin

    I doubt it, it fact I would think the opposite but weather it was inportant or not might have changed with more folk being concerned in these cash straped days

    But what do I know

  16. Couper

    Of course folk on benefits should have bigger houses than those that are working hard. They spend more time at home!!! Folk that are working hard really only need a bedroom!!

  17. RiN

    I wouldn’t presume one way or the other.

    If there had been a poll in times of perceived plenty it would be interesting to compare.

    If there hasn’t been such a poll, I suppose it suggests that when the taxes are rolling in Governments don’t worry about welfare costs-so polling companies don’t ask questions about them.

    UKIP MEPs voted ( with Labour I believe) against the EU budget deal.

    European Parliamentarians clearly have “interests” in Brussels which overide any which their parties effect to espouse back in dear old Blighty.

  18. COUPER 2802

    @”What was the actual polling question on bedroom tax?”

    It was :-

    “From April 2013 housing benefit will be decreased for people who live in council housing or housing association properties that have more bedrooms than the government think they require. This means a couple living in a house with two bedrooms, or a couple with one child but three bedrooms would have their housing benefit reduced by 14%. This is called the “under occupany charge”, but some people have
    referred to it as a “bedroom tax”.
    Do you support or oppose this policy?”

  19. ” for many people, that a large amount of benefits go to the workshy or the dishonest”

    It’s probably fair to say that perceptions like this are asa result of screaming headlines in redtop news(?)papers.

    The press influence readers in many different ways & lurid headlines talking about benefit cheats is common particularly just before controversial benefit changes are announced by govt.

  20. @ Colin

    UKIP MEPs voted ( with Labour I believe) against the EU budget deal.
    I think you may have read a report or tweet which misinterprets the EU budget vote.

    Labour List is reporting that: The Tories, UKIP & Labour MEPs all voted against changing the budget from the one agreed by the EU governments i.e. their vote was FOR the budget plan which Cameron, Merkel etc. agreed & AGAINST the budget being increased.

  21. Wow a south american Pope

  22. @PeterCairns – ” …focus groups and polling can discover what people believe even if it isn’t true and how to turn it into vote winning policies.”

    That is unfortunately true.

    If you were cynical you might think that pollsters sometimes act as quality control for propaganda.

    I don’t know… I suppose it’s not the pollster’s job to correct impressions picked up in the media or from a pub bore. The false assumptions (half the unemployed lie and cheat to get their benefit) seem to build one upon another (JA is twice its actual value).

    The language employed does not always help:

    “Thinking about taxpayers in general, and people who receive welfare benefits honestly and legitimately… ”

    This appears to reinforce the idea that honest benefit claimants should be considered purely as a subset, whereas taxpayers (“our taxes are used to support the following groups… “) are presented as a separate category, one which should be taken at face value.

  23. This sort of thing is fascinating, and, Anthony is quite right that the public often knows a good deal less about issues on which it has a strong opinion than it thinks.

    I do quite a bit of research work for documentaries, and one I was involved in went out on Radio 4 (I think) looking at the public’s attitude towards the pay of certain professions – most specifically how much they thought people should get paid against how much they actually do get. Without exception, the public thought that the professions in question were better paid than they actually are – because few people in the UK really know what people get paid to do jobs different from their own.

    The Internet hasn’t helped this – indeed some fascinating research around the MMR scare showed that all the Internet had done was allowed the educated middle classes to access more data that they didn’t properly understand, and they didn’t even realise that they didn’t understand it properly (a form of the now-famous Dunning-Kruger effect). This has troubling implications for a lot of online information portals that they are trying hard not to think about.

    It’s all extremely interesting.

  24. Bloody hell the new pope is as old as the last one, this is just a stopgap appointment

  25. @COLIN

    On the bedroon tax question.

    The question only puts the government point of view it would be fairer if it included the opposition contention that people would get in to debt or homelessness.

    If the question read:
    From April 2013 housing benefit will be decreased for people who live in council housing or housing association properties that have more bedrooms than the government think they require. This means a couple living in a house with two bedrooms, or a couple with one child but three bedrooms would have their housing benefit reduced by 14%. This is called the “under occupany charge”, but some people have
    referred to it as a “bedroom tax”.
    The opposition believe that this will cause homelessness, suffering and increased levels of debt.”

    The answer would possibly be different.

    Like a previous poll about Austerity in which the question excluded the possibility of spending for growth. You Gov do seem to state the gov’t pov in their questions.

  26. These Italian opinion polls are useless. They called this one even worse that the general election.

  27. RiN

    They just did it to piss off the Falklanders.

  28. Roger

    Any idea who this guy is. Or should we just wait for chris lane to fill us in

  29. Oldnat

    Yes that thought occurred to me as well, its a bit like a consolation prize

  30. if voters are so much in favour of the bedroom tax,and other benifit cuts,why do n ot they support a mansion tax

  31. RiN

    Rather liked this comment.

    “Looking forward to the new Pope’s visit to the Scottish Parliament. Frankie Goes to Holyrood.”

  32. @ Kentucky

    The public do support a Mansion Tax.

    21 February, 2013 Majority of Brits support Lib Dem ‘mansion tax’ plan
    Nearly two thirds of Brits support a plan being pushed by the Liberal Democrats for a 1% annual levy to be charged on the value of homes above £2m, according to a recent YouGov poll.

    David Cameron and the Conservative party are opposed to the plan, however last week Labour came out in support of the mansion tax.
    The poll reveals that 65% of people in Britain support introducing a mansion tax, while 22% are opposed and 13% are undecided. A plurality (49%) of Tory voters support plan, while 41% are opposed and 10% aren’t sure. Labour and Lib Dem voters are strongly in support of the mansion tax, at 79% and 74% respectively.
    Support for a 1% tax on homes worth more than £1m is considerably less than for the £2m benchmark that is being proposed, although a majority (53%) would still be in favour of this being introduced.

  33. AMBER


    I took the UKIP vote from a tweet-yes.

    But the nature of the EU Parliament resolution as reported by BBC doesn’t tie with your understanding :-


  34. COUPER2802

    @”The answer would possibly be different.”

    I think it certainly would.

    Actually I heard an opposition view stated on DP this morning -by Hilary Benn.

    Put into the HB polling question in the manner you suggest-it would read something like :-

    “…..the opposition think that the spare bedrooms of social housing tenants should continue to qualify for housing benefit, because grandchildren might visit & use them “

  35. @COLIN

    That is a good point – grannies need extra bedrooms so their grandchildren can stay over. If this government try to stop grannies seeing their grandchildren then they are in big trouble.

  36. COUPER2802

    It is a good point.

    UK taxpayers must pay for these rooms -and those people who are not claiming HB, should just shut up and pay the Granny Tax which Osborne devised specifically for this purpose.

  37. @RIN
    “Wow a south american Pope”

    And a Jesuit. Also an interesting choice of name. I have a feeling this Pope will ruffle some feathers.

  38. First Jesuit Pope.

    “He is known for his strict views on morality — having staunchly opposed same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion. He has called adoption by gay parents a form of discrimination against children — a stance that was publicly criticized by Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
    Still, Bergoglio has shown compassion for HIV and AIDS patients, visiting a hospice in 2001 to kiss and wash the feet of some of those affected by the disease.
    “This is a man who goes into the shantytowns and cooks with the people,” said Gerard O’Connell, CTV Vatican specialist. “I think the world is going to discover a very new style of being pope.”
    Pope Francis chose his name from St. Francis of Assisi, who communicated and cared for animals.”


  39. COUPER2802

    It could probably be argued that Labour did something similar by introducing a bedroom tax for housing benefit in privately rented properties.

    However, I would guess that most grannies on housing benefit would be in council/HA houses, rather than in private tenancies.

    I can understand why Lab & Con want to move people around to maximise best use of housing in the overcrowded SE of England – but it’s a stupid idea in many parts of the UK. Try moving to an appropriately sized house on Lismore!

  40. That is a good point – grannies need extra bedrooms so their grandchildren can stay over. If this government try to stop grannies seeing their grandchildren then they are in big trouble.
    If by grannies you mean pensioners who receive HB & live in social housing, are they not exempt from the under occupancy charge already?

    Younger grandparents will, of course, have the 14% deduction applied.

  41. @ Colin

    But the nature of the EU Parliament resolution as reported by BBC doesn’t tie with your understanding
    I see nothing in the BBC report which contradicts my understanding. It simply tells the story from the viewpoint of the UK Conservatives & adds a paragraph about how super David Cameron is.

  42. AMBER

    Fair enough then.

    The way I read it-they want something different-ie more dosh.

  43. RiN

    “A true brit would always be modest about their personal qualities!”

    Absolutely. If there is one thing that we Brits are superbly, supremely, outstandingly, world-beatingly simply fantastic at, it’s being self-deprecating. I, for example, am quite magnificent at it.

  44. Polling on subjects such as benefit cuts always gives the impression that the British public are somewhat heartless or at least unempathic when it comes to considering those less fortunate than themselves (what happened to “there but for the grace of God go I”?). It always paints a sad and rather shameful picture of a selfish nation that gives rather too much credence to Daily Mail poisonous populism, and is happy to settle on the all-too-easy notion that everyone requiring benefits to make ends meet is in fact a lazy layabout, conning the government out of their hard-earned tax £s that they could otherwise have used to by a nice motor, or something.

    This selfishness also reveals itself in people’s willingness to preserve, in contrast, generous pensions and non-means-tested benefits for the elderly – “those skivers don’t deserve a penny, but I’ll be retiring soon, and then I want everything that’s coming to me, by Jove!”

    Proof if any were needed that ‘direct democracy’ could never work – it’d end up as tyranny by majority, without a doubt…

  45. @Colin

    Jesuits are an intellectual order and their mission involves working for human rights, social justice and education. I was assuming the Pope took the name of St. Francis of Assisi who was against money and power but it is possible that he chose the name because St. Francis Xavier was a Jesuit.

  46. The Onion of course has got the most accurate instant papal coverage.

  47. THE LATEST IN AN OCCASIONAL SERVICE TRANSLATING EUROPARL TO ENGLISH. TODAY: European Parliament resolution on the European Council conclusions of 7/8 February concerning the Multiannual Financial Framework

    The European Parliament,

    – having regard to yadda yadda…Rules of Procedure,


    1. Takes note of the European Council’s conclusions on the MFF, yadda yadda of certain essential conditions;


    2. Stresses its willingness to enter into fully fledged yadda yadda negotiations with the Council;


    3. Declares its determination to exercise fully its legislative prerogatives yadda yadda no more than political recommendations to the Council;


    4. Reiterates the view that the MFF for 2014-2020 should ensure the successful implementation of yadda yadda international commitments;


    5. Denounces the lack of transparency in the way the political agreement was reached by the European Council yadda yadda on the revenue side of the MFF;


    6. Strongly opposes the current accumulation and rollover of outstanding payment claims yadda yadda;


    7. Is therefore determined to prevent any further shifts of payments from 2013 yadda yadda all legal obligations due in 2013 will be paid out by the end of this year;


    8. Gives a strong mandate to its negotiating team to conduct yadda yadda for the management of EU funds;


    9. Firmly believes that, in order to ensure full democratic legitimacy yadda yadda Article 312(2) of the TFEU;


    10. Requests that the agreed MFF ceilings for commitment and payment yadda yadda individual flexibility mechanisms above the MFF ceilings;


    11. Stresses the importance of reaching an agreement on an in-depth reform yadda yadda rebates and correction mechanisms;


    12. Reiterates its support for the Commission’s legislative proposals yadda yadda genuine own resource;


    13. Insists that the principle of the unity of the EU budget be recalled yadda yadda citizens and adequate parliamentary control;


    14. Stresses that yadda yadda‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’;


    15. Recalls that if no MFF has been adopted by the end of 2013 yadda yadda all EU policies and programmes by 2014;


    16. Instructs its President to forward this resolution yadda yadda other institutions and bodies concerned.



  48. Lol Martyn, that was rather good. I enjoyed that. ..

  49. Martyn

    Your skills as a translater are incredible

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