How a salary insurance scheme would work

The unemployed would receive a higher level of support and pay back when they return to work.

On yesterday's Newsnight, James Purnell made two big argument about how we could make people trust and respect the welfare state again. First, that it should provide fewer, bigger things that would really make a difference to people's lives, rather than many smaller ones that are marginal in the good times and insufficient in the bad. And second, that the principle of contribution should be revived, so that people get something out in return for what they put in.

This would reverse the approach of successive government over recent decades, which has been to maintain a permanent rear-guard action against the threat of a taxpayer rebellion by making the welfare state tougher for those on benefits. Conditionality has an important role to play, but this is an essentially defensive tactic, rather than a positive strategy. For those of us who see a strong welfare state as essential to advancing social justice and full employment, this won't do. The solution is to not only make welfare more demanding, but also more protective too.

This insight opens up the potential to develop a popular, majoritarian agenda for welfare. As a first step along that road, IPPR is today publishing a report proposing National Salary Insurance (NSI). This would offer anyone who had made enough national insurance contributions but became unemployed up to 70 per cent of their previous earnings in non-means tested support for up to six months, capped at a maximum of £200 a week.

NSI would incorporate the existing £67.50 a week of contributory JSA, trebling the amount of support available to working people when they lose their job - while not affecting their entitlement to other benefits or tax credits. This would help protect people from the dramatic drop in income they face on losing their job, which can often trigger a spiral of further (costly) problems, like losing their home, relationship breakdown or racking up unaffordable debt. Based on recent JSA flows, we estimate that between 700,000 and one million people each year could be entitled to NSI.

To make the scheme affordable, the extra amount in NSI - up to £132.50 a week - would be repaid once people were back in work and could afford to do so, charged at a zero real rate of interest. There would be a cap on the amount that people could borrow at any one time, equivalent to the maximum support for the full six months (£3,445). Eighty per cent of people claiming JSA get back to work inside six months and as people paid back, they would become entitled to the help again.

In short, NSI would offer much greater security to people when it is really needed, without imposing significant new net costs on the state. Based on the design of the student loans system, the net liability to the state of NSI would be between £180m and £520m a year - though because people would be able to borrow less and have to pay back sooner, there are good reasons for thinking it would be even cheaper.

For much of the 20th century unemployment benefit was paid at reasonable levels of generosity to people who had lost their job after having paid into the system. Over the last three decades, however, the contributory principle has been eroded (with means testing becomingly increasingly dominant), while the real value of the jobseeker's allowance (JSA) has declined significantly relative to average earnings. Today, the average 'replacement rate' for British workers - the proportion of previous earnings they can get if they lose their job - is 54 per cent, compared to 70 per cent or more for many of our European neighbours, including some with higher employment rates than ours (like Denmark and the Netherlands).

So people not only worry to others are taking advantage of the system unfairly, they also feel - often rightly - that the system won't really be there for them if they need it. In response to this problem, NSI would significantly provide real income security in a more risky world, while reinforcing the principle that people are rewarded for contributing to the system.

NSI contributes to the big task of rethinking the centre-left's approach to welfare in a post-crash era. Alongside ensuring that people on benefits fulfil their obligations to look for work in return for the support they receive, this reform can help to make the welfare state popular again - by showing that it demands more and protects better.

Graeme Cooke is Visiting Fellow at IPPR

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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