George Osborne has already capped benefits for out-of-work families at £26,000 a year, now he's proposing to go further and introduce a cap on total welfare spending. One of the most significant announcements in the Budget was that the Chancellor is planning "a new limit" on what's called "Annually Managed Expenditure" (AME). This is the area of spending concerned with non-departmental items such as welfare payments, debt interest and EU budget contributions (which account for around 50 per cent of all state spending). It is the automatic rise in the first two, in particular, that has made it so hard for the government to stick to its deficit reduction targets. Osborne is now proposing to end this fiscal irresponsibility (as he sees it) by introducing a limit on "a significant proportion" of this expenditure.
In practice, this will almost certainly mean even greater welfare cuts. Although Osborne said that the new cap would be set out in a way "that allows the automatic stabilisers to operate", he added that it would "bring real control to areas of public spending that had been out of control." And since the government has less influence over debt interest payments (the markets decide those) and EU budget contributions (the EU 27 decide those) than it does over welfare spending, it is benefits that will bear the brunt of the squeeze.
The Treasury is briefing that the new cap will not affect the government's plan to avoid further welfare cuts in this summer's 2015-16 Spending Review (a victory for the Lib Dems) but it is a signal that a future Conservative government (or a future Tory-led coalition) would seek to further curb welfare spending. What form could this take? Osborne is likely to extend the 1 per cent cap on working-age benefit increases beyond 2015-16 and to look again at measures such as the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s and the restriction of child benefit for families with more than two children.
Other policies trailed by David Cameron in his welfare speech last summer included:
- Preventing teenagers from claiming benefits as soon as they leave school.
- Paying benefits in kind (like free school meals), rather than in cash.
- Reducing benefit levels for the long-term unemployed.
- A lower housing benefit cap. Cameron said that the current limit of £20,000 was still too high.
I expect some or all of these are under consideration for the next Conservative manifesto.