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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.