The Government traps itself in a generational war

AME must be cut, but if pensions are protected, then working-age people will be hit.

Research by the Social Market Foundation suggests that the increase in welfare spending over the next five years won't come from working age benefits, but instead will be due to the growing number of elderly people claiming things like the state pension and free TV licences.

This is will end up biting harder than it needs to, given a set of artificial constraints introduced by the government. Firstly, David Cameron pledged in 2010 to protect the universal elderly benefits like free bus passes and TV licenses, at the cost of £4bn. Then, Osborne announced a "triple lock" for old age pensions, promising that they would rise by the highest of inflation, wage growth, or 2.5 per cent.

Those two policies clash with the Chancellor's plan, announced in the budget, to set a cap on Annually Managed Expenditure (AME), a measure of public spending which includes social security benefits like the pension. The Social Market Foundation writes that:

While working-age welfare has been the biggest element of the rise in AME in recent years, it is set to fall in the future as the economy recovers and government cuts take effect. In contrast, pensioner benefits will continue to rise rapidly as the population ages, meaning that further cuts to working age benefits are likely under a cap unless the Chancellor is planning to cut pensioner entitlements.

The Conservatives have managed to engineer a situation in which they are forced to choose between working- and old-age benefits; and rather than trying to balance that obligation, they are cutting working-age benefits while boosting old-age ones, which is what the triple-lock ensures.

The Chancellor has also said that he will attempt to avoid cuts which impair automatic stabilisers – categories of spending which automatically increase in a recession and decrease in a boom, which is true of many of the working-age benefits at risk – but that appears to be a constraint too far.

As the SMF's Ian Mulheirn says, part of the problem comes from the bizarre focus on AME:

The only real virtue in a cap on AME is rhetorical: it lumps together different elements of unrelated spending, which facilitates cuts to some when others rise. This serves to obfuscate rather than clarify public policy choices about the shape of the welfare state at a time when the Chancellor himself is calling for an open debate about welfare.

By talking about pensions, Jobseeker's Allowance, and disability payments in the same category, the government avoids elaborating a coherent vision for the future of the welfare state. Punishing decreases in unemployment benefits hide the fact that there is no real plan to deal with the demographic problem that old age pensions will become; while disability benefits, which exhibit little natural variation, soak up an extra amount of the cost.

The SMF argues that the government should mirror its discussion of the "structural deficit", and cap cyclical changes in spending differently from permanent ones. But whatever the solution, the government is hiding the effects of its welfare policy behind a wall of statistics.

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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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.