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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.