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.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.