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.

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.