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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage