Why it's unlikely benefits increases will be linked to earnings

Gloomy projections all round.

Following another Newsnight scoop, there must be debate in Westminster about whether the coalition are going to change their approach to uprating benefits - increasing them annually in line with inflation - for people of a working age. Coalition splits have already been predicted and then resolved before the pre-Autumn statement debate has even got underway.

This issue arises because the Coalition are on the hunt for welfare savings and playing around with benefit upratings is always one of the first places HM Treasury will turn to save money.  To start with it’s worth recalling that the Coalition has already changed its uprating policy from RPI (or the derived ROSSI index) to CPI for most working age benefits – generating significant savings, arising from lower living standards for recipients - than would otherwise be the case. So any further change in upratings policy comes on top of this.

A straightforward freeze in all benefits, as has been reported in some places, will of course save significant sums – though significantly less than the £10bn annual figure that George Osborne has said he wants. But it is also been reported that as part of the hunt for savings in the future, perhaps after a two-year freeze, benefits would be uprated in line with earnings.

Now, this is rather odd. According to the OBR, earnings are expected to outpace inflation from the start of 2013, with the gap growing to around 2.5 per cent a year from 2015. Based on these projections, an earnings link would be a very expensive policy indeed.

It may well be that HM Treasury no longer believes these sorts of earnings projections. Indeed a new report out today by leading labour market economists Steve Machin and Paul Gregg provides strong grounds for expecting a very slow recovery in wages. That’s because levels of unemployment are having such a chilling effect on pay – far more so than was the case when we were seeking to recover from previous recessions (this research also helps explain why we saw wage stagnation in the years prior to the recession). Indeed, today’s FT takes a bit of a leap by suggesting that the Treasury may seize on this report to pave the way for a much gloomier outlook for wages which would in turn justify linking benefits to earnings in the future.

My guess is that this won’t happen (although you wouldn’t necessarily bet against a freeze in benefits being followed by a move to a new approach of uprating benefits by the lower of either inflation or earnings). That’s because in order for the Treasury to realise any savings by linking benefits to wages rather than inflation they would have to produce some earnings projections that the OBR would need to verify.

These would have to be radically different from the existing OBR numbers. What’s more, they would need to show that typical real-terms wages – flat since 2003, falling since 2009 – are set to carry on falling throughout the next Parliament. That’s announcing that most working people are going to carry on getting poorer during the so-called recovery. Something tells me George Osborne isn’t going to do that. 

A man walks on pennies. Photo: Getty

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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The Tories have missed a chance to show that they care about student debt

After condemning Jeremy Corbyn for his "betrayal", the government has still raised the top student interest rate to 6.1 per cent. 

For weeks, the Conservatives have assailed Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged betrayal over student debt. The Labour leader told NME during the campaign that he would "deal with" the issue. But he later clarified that this did not amount to a "commitment" to wipe out student debt (which would cost around £100bn) and that he had been "unaware of the size of it at the time". For this, the Tories have accused him of Clegg-style hypocrisy. 

There is little sign, however, that the attack has proved effective. Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of student debt and Corbyn's language in the NME interview was ambiguous. "I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [student debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off," he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 as part of the coalition. Young voters still credit Corbyn for his vow to abolish tuition fees (were he to break this promise in power, it would be a different matter). 

A further problem for the Tories is that they have spotlighted a problem - student debt - without offering any solution. At present, graduates pay a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent on earnings over £21,000 (20 per cent income tax, 12 per cent national insurance and 9 per cent student loan repayment). This, combined with the average debt (£50,800), leaves them struggling to save for a home deposit, or even to pay the rent. The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, are unable to sell capitalism to voters with no capital. 

Yet rather than remedying this problem, the government has compounded it. The Department of Education has ruled out reducing the top interest rate on student loans from 6.1 per cent, meaning the average student will accrue £5,800 in interest charges even before they graduate.

By maintaining the status quo, the Tories have missed a chance to demonstrate that they have learned from their electoral humbling. Had they reduced student debt, or cut tuition fees, they could have declared that while Corbyn talks, they act. Instead, they have merely confirmed that for graduates who want change, Corbyn remains their best hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.