Why aren't we talking about the "disability tax"?

The Chancellor presented some pretty unconvincing reasoning in the Autumn Statement.

As Jonathan Portes writes, the Chancellor's explanation for using the Autumn statement to cut spending in real-terms (which includes the "mummy tax", as well what we might call the "poverty tax", "disability tax", "unemployment tax" and "civil servant tax") doesn't stand up.

The Chancellor said:

With pay restraint in businesses and government, average earnings have risen by around 10% since 2007. Out of work benefits have gone up by around 20%. That’s not fair to working people who pay the taxes that fund them.

Portes responds:

The numbers are correct: but they are highly selective… The value of out of work benefits relative to average earnings (and more broadly the incomes of those in work) has fallen steadily over the past three decades, until the recent slight uptick resulting from the recession…

Unless we are stuck in permanent depression, even a modest recovery will in time lead to earnings rising significantly faster than prices, and the relative value of out of work benefits will decline again. No policy action is required to ensure this (although economic recovery would help!).

The Chancellor was also incredibly sneaky in conflating out-of-work benefits with the other, in-work benefits, which he is also cutting, including local housing allowances – a key part of housing benefit – and "elements" of the child tax credit and the working tax credits.

The child tax credit cut is the one which has been dubbed the "mummy tax" – but focusing on that change to the exclusion of others does damage to the point. Even in the Mail's mummy tax story, for instance, the case-study they present is of a woman who stands to lose far more from the housing benefit cuts than the child tax credit ones. And the idea, implicit in the selective complaints, that it is worse to hurt "mummies" than it is to hurt, say, the disabled is distasteful.

While Osborne may have been sloppy in conflating in- and out-of-work benefits, he was smarter than many commentators in not implying that the change was because such benefits were in some way "unsustainable" – a charge levied by, among others, the Sunday Times' David Smith.

Given 53 per cent of welfare spending goes on pensioners (table 3), the real unsustainable change was made in the last budget. In the spring, Osborne announced a "triple lock" for pensions, guaranteeing that they would be uprated by the higher of CPI, average wages or 2.5 per cent. And sure enough, the Autumn Statement saw the state pension uprated by more than either CPI or average wages.

The Chancellor isn't chasing sustainability. He's just attacking the poor.

Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.