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.