Why the Welfare Uprating Bill deserves to be defeated

Osborne's plan to cut benefits will force more of the poorest families to choose between heating and eating.

After weeks of increasingly fractious debate, MPs will vote today on the government’s Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, which enshrines in law George Osborne’s plan to raise benefits by 1 per cent per year for the next three years, rather than in line with price increases. With the support of almost all Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, the bill will easily pass the House of Commons (Labour, to its credit, will vote against it) but here are four reasons why it deserves to be defeated.

1. It will force even more of the poorest families to choose between heating and eating

By raising benefits by 1 per cent, rather than in line with inflation, which stood at 2.2 per cent in September 2012 (the month traditionally used to calculate benefit increases), the coalition will leave the poorest families even more vulnerable to fluctuations in food and energy prices. Inflation is forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility to be 2.6 per cent in September 2013 and 2.2 per cent in September 2014, meaning that those families affected will have suffered a cumulative loss of four per cent of income by the end of the period. For many, this will mean being forced to choose between heating their home and feeding their family.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported yesterday, 2.5 million households without someone in work will lose an average of £215 per year in 2015-16, while seven million households with someone in work will lose an average of £165 per year. If, as in recent years, inflation rises faster than expected, these losses will be even greater.

2. It will damage the economy by reducing real incomes

When wages are stagnant and unemployment is high, benefit payments automatically increase in order to limit the fall in consumer demand. While government borrowing rises as a result, these "automatic stabilisers" have long been recognised as an essential tool of economic policy. In October 2012, George Osborne remarked: "We have never argued that you stop what economists call the automatic stabilisers operating - the lower tax receipts and extra government payments [such as higher benefits] that follow if, for example, the global economy turns down." Since those on low incomes are forced to spend, rather than save, what little they receive, they automatically stimulate growth.

But Osborne’s decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent will reduce the effectiveness of the automatic stabilisers as payments will now fall, rather than rise, in line with inflation, reducing real-terms incomes. As a result, Britain’s anaemic economy will be even more prone to recession.

3. Low wages aren't a reason to cut benefits

In seeking to justify the bill, the Conservatives have repeatedly highlighted the fact that in recent years benefits have risen faster than private sector wages (see their latest poster). Since 2007, the former have increased by an average of 20 per cent (in line with inflation), while the latter have increased by 11.4 per cent.

But this is an argument for increasing wages (for instance, by ensuring greater payment of the living wage), not for cutting benefits. Many of those whose wages have failed to keep pace with inflation rely on in-work benefits such as tax credits to protect their living standards. The government's decision to cut these benefits in real-terms (60 per cent of the real-terms cut falls on working families) will further squeeze their disposable income.

When Iain Duncan Smith says that benefits have risen faster than wages, he is really complaining that wages have risen more slowly than inflation (and are expected to continue to do so until at least 2014). But rather than prompting the government to slash benefits, this grim statistic should encourage it to pursue a genuine growth strategy that ensures more people have access to adequately paid employment.

Finally, while benefits have increased faster than wages in the last five years, this is a temporary quirk caused by the recession. Until now, their value relative to wages has plummeted. In 1979, unemployment benefit was worth 22 per cent of average weekly earnings. Today, it is worth just 15 per cent.

4. There are fairer ways to reduce the deficit

The coalition isn't wrong when it says the deficit, which stood at £121.6bn last year, needs to be reduced (although at a pace commensurate with the state of the economy). But there are fairer ways to raise revenue than cutting benefits for the poorest workers and jobseekers. While reducing welfare payments, the government is simultaneously cutting the top rate of income tax on earnings over £150,000 from 50p to 45p, a measure that will benefit the average income-millionaire by £107,500 a year. Were the government to reverse this measure, it could expect to raise around £3bn a year, more than enough to fund inflation-linked rises in benefits.

Even in the first year of the 50p rate, when temporary forestalling meant many avoided it (for instance, by bringing forward income to 2009-10, the year before the new rate took effect - a trick they could only have played once), the tax raised an extra £1.1bn. This alone is enough to meet the annual cost of increasing benefits in line with inflation (the government expects to save £0.9bn in 2014-15 by capping increases at 1 per cent). But rather than balancing the budget on the backs of the richest (just 1.5 per cent earn more than £150,000), the government has chosen to do so on the backs of the poorest.

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on 7 January 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.