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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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