The problems with Labour's benefit loan plan

A salary insurance scheme would disincentive work, penalise low earners and likely prove unpopular.

The Observer has reported that Labour is toying with a proposal from IPPR to give unemployed people loans to supplement their benefits. Under the plan, people who qualify for contributory Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) would get an extra 70 per cent of their previous pay, capped at £200 a week, which they would pay back like a tuition fee loan when they got a job. Here are four reasons why the plan isn’t a good idea.

It disincentives work

The proposal effectively increases the tax rate unemployed people face when they eventually return to work. Automatic deductions from salary to pay back a loan are, from the worker’s perspective, the same as an income tax. IPPR do not specify at what rate the loan would be paid back, but tuition fee loans, on which the proposal is modelled, deduct 9 per cent from graduates’ salaries past a £16,365 threshold. The unemployed could face what was effectively a substantial hike in the basic rate of income tax were they to find a job. This would have the opposite effect of 'making work pay' and potentially disincentive people from taking jobs. If redundant miners in the 80s had taken out these loans, structural unemployment in former mining areas could be even worse.

Loans are regressive

The longer you take to pay back a loan, the more you have to pay, and the more quickly you pay it back, the less you pay. This means people who go into high-paying jobs will end up paying a smaller amount back than people on lower incomes, because they accrue less interest. The opposite is true if the money is raised through progressive taxation. The IPPR proposal is to tie the rate of interest to inflation but with real earnings increasing at well below inflation, as a percentage of people’s incomes, the loan will continue to increase.

It will make over-leveraging worse

Households in the UK are seriously overleveraged on debt as a result of easy credit before the financial crisis. They are now in the process of paying down this debt. One effect of this de-leveraging is that the UK is facing a demand crisis because instead of people spending money on goods and services, they spend it paying down their loans. This has a knock-on effect on businesses, who do not invest because there is no one to buy their products, which all contributes to flat-lining growth. Encouraging unemployed people to take on more debt and forcing them to deleverage it when they get their job back will further exacerbate this problem and prolong the economic crisis.

It will be very unpopular

Once child benefit and housing benefit are taken into account, there would be thousands of cases where households who had not contributed were getting as much in non-repayable benefits as someone who had worked all their lives was getting in repayable benefit loans. The anti-welfare press would ruthlessly seize on this disparity as evidence that the system does not work for people who had paid in while giving people who never worked a free ride. The proposal has not been thought through and does not do what it sets out to do.

If Labour is going to pursue the contributory principle, it should do it properly and increase contributory JSA to 70 per cent of prior income, capped at £200 a week. IPPR estimates between 700,000 and 1,000,000 people are eligible for contributory JSA – roughly half of all JSA claimants. The total cost of all JSA is £4.9bn, so as a flagship welfare policy a substantial increase in the contributory element would have a cost in a similar region to the coalition’s £1.7bn a year Universal Credit. Labour will not convince people they are getting more out of the system unless they actually give them more.

Under the plan, people who qualify for contributory Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) would get an extra 70 per cent of their previous pay, capped at £200 a week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle