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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.