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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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.