Freezing benefits is bad for the poor and for the economy

Osborne's plan to break the link with inflation is neither economically wise nor socially just.

With his deficit reduction plan increasingly off-track, George Osborne is reportedly considering breaking the link between benefit levels and inflation and freezing payments to claimants. It's a move the government discussed last year, although it ended up raising benefits by 5.2%, in line with September inflation (the figures traditionally used to calculate payments). But in his speech on welfare earlier this year, Cameron suggested that benefits could be linked to wages instead. He said:

This year we increased benefits by 5.2 per cent.

That was in line with the inflation rate last September.

But it was almost twice as much as the average wage increase.

Given that so many working people are struggling to make ends meet we have to ask whether this is the right approach.

It might be better to link benefits to prices unless wages have slowed – in which case they could be linked to wages.

Although pensions, which go up annually by either inflation, earnings, or 2.5% (whichever is higher), would be exempt from the move, it's thought that 90% of benefits would be frozen. Having already cut welfare payments by uprating benefits in line with the Consumer Price Index rather than the (generally higher) Retail Price Index (see James Plunkett's Staggers blog on the coalition's "£11bn stealth cut"), Osborne is preparing to squeeze the poor again. And, while the move would have saved an estimated £14bn since 2008/09, it makes little economic sense.

At a time of high unemployment (forecasters expect the jobless total to rise to 8.7% next year), freezing benefits will only further depress consumer demand. Unlike the rich, most benefit claimants can't afford to save, so they spend whatever they receive and stimulate growth as a result. In this regard, it's heartening to learn that, according to the BBC's Nick Robinson, Iain Duncan Smith believes the policy would be "bad economics" since the poor "spend not save". There's also, of course, a moral objection. Cutting support to the poorest means even more families having to choose between heating and eating.

But the poor, to their cost, can't employ armies of lobbyists to plead their case. There is no easier target for a right-wing government - and no less deserving one.

George Osborne is considering a two-year freeze on most benefits. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.