Osborne's welfare super-cap is a frightening prospect for families

The new limit on "Annually Managed Expenditure" could mean even less support for the unemployed and the working poor.

The Budget was nothing but underwhelming for low income families: cancelling the rise in fuel duty and a penny off the price of a pint of beer do little to offset the increase in living costs that low-income families have had to contend with in recent years. Gains from the much-vaunted rise in the personal allowance all but evaporate for low-income families, who simply see their benefits reduced as their earned income increases. And as many commentators pointed out earlier this week, the winners from the new childcare scheme will be those some way up the income scale.

But perhaps the biggest worry for low income families is not the lack of policies that would help them today, but the threat of what might hurt them still further tomorrow. Tucked away in the Budget statement, the Chancellor made some seemingly technical comments about reforming the spending framework, and the need to put a limit on demand-led Annually Managed Expenditure (AME) in the future.

Critically, a large part of AME is spending on social security, which is supposed to protect us all in times of need. But putting a nominal limit on AME would mean that as these needs increase – in times of rising unemployment, for example, or as a result of growing housing costs – there would be no commensurate rise in social security provision. Consequently, benefits would either need to be spread more thinly, or restricted in some other way.

The Chancellor presented the idea of a limit on AME as necessary to rein in a run-away social security budget. However, as usual, the figures he provided show only part of the picture. While the Budget document speaks of "welfare spending rising in real terms by 20% in the decade before the financial crisis", it fails to mention that social security spending as a percentage of GDP was broadly static during this period.

The only glimmer of hope, perhaps, was the Chancellor's rather cryptic comment that he would establish a limit for AME "that allows the automatic stabilisers to operate". As the International Monetary Fund recently pointed out, social security payments form a critical part of these stabilisers. Clarification from the Chancellor as to how he will square this fact with a limit on AME is clearly necessary.

Of course, the idea of disconnecting state support from assessed need is not a new one for this government: the overall cap on benefits, which will be rolled out from April this year is a perfect example of this model. But the idea of a 'super-cap' on total social security in the future is a genuinely frightening prospect for families already struggling to get by with diminished support from state. 

The balcony of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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