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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.