The welfare system is already stacked against the young

The decision to remove housing benefit from the under-25s is just another item on the list of ways our welfare system is penalising the young.

David Cameron wants to take housing benefit away from under-25s, arguing the move would save £2bn a year. Housing benefit is mainly claimed by those in work, with 93 per cent of new claimants and 80 per cent of total recipients in a job, so the plan would largely be a redistribution from young low-wage workers to elsewhere.

Thirteen major charities have attacked the proposal, arguing it would take a vital safety net away from young people. What is rarely mentioned is that the welfare state is already stacked against young people in other areas, with the housing benefit plan simply another item on a list.

Working tax credit

Low wage workers over the age of 25 can get their wages topped up by working tax credit by as much as £1,450 a year. This wage subsidy makes working more attractive, and allows businesses to pay a lower rate; these combined means it probably has a positive effect on employment. But despite much political disquiet about record-high youth unemployment, which is bucking the slight downward general unemployment trend, young workers are exempt from this subsidy, leaving many jobs paying very little.

National Minimum Wage

Though now largely forgotten, when the National Minimum Wage was introduced some argued it might have an impact on jobs. While successive governments have been happy to exclude young workers from Working Tax Credit despite the possible resulting unemployment, the opposite is true with the NMW. So, a 20 year old worker only has a wage floor of £4.98, compared to £6.19 for a 21 year old, while those who leave school at 16 and go into work can expect to be paid as little as £3.68 – nearly 60 per cent less than the adult rate. 

Work Programme

When questioned on their strategy to tackle youth unemployment, the Government points to its Work Programme, which Jobcentres usher young people onto three months before their older peers. What is not usually brought up is that the Work Programme is structured in a way that values youth jobs less than jobs for older people, with fewer incentives for providers to find under-25s work. The total payment made to providers who find work for someone over-25 is £4,400, while each young person found a job only nets them £3,800, a full £600 less per case: providers have a built-in financial incentive to focus on helping older claimants, which could help explain why young people are disproportionately unemployed.

Jobseekers’ Allowance

If someone under 25 finds themselves out of work, as nearly a million across the country do today, they don’t get the £71-a-week JSA payment afforded to those over 25 – instead they get £56.25, a full 20 per cent less. Since the amount of money paid from JSA doesn’t cover anything more than subsistence levels, and prices in shops are the same for everyone regardless of age, this almost certainly affects the standard of living of the young unemployed who have to fend for themselves.

Defenders of the set-up might argue that young people are less likely to have a family or other commitments and so have lower costs. But the welfare system already takes these things into account through situational payments like child benefit. Moreover, it would be difficult to imagine such restrictions imposed solely on the basis of age at the top end. It’s not clear that further sanctions on the young is consistent with the Government’s claim to want to share the pain of austerity equally, when they already get significantly less out of the system.

Under-25s on Jobseekers' Allowance receive a full 20 per cent less. Photograph: Getty Images

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear