Welfare cuts: how they could have been even worse

David Cameron has already outlined the draconian cuts a Conservative majority government would make.

The left has rightly expressed its outrage at the welfare reforms introduced this week but it's worth remembering that they could have been much worse. Were this a Conservative government, as opposed to a coalition, ministers would be imposing even deeper cuts. As George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith noted in their joint article in Monday's Telegraph, "The Prime Minister has already set out some of the things that a Conservative government [emphasis mine] would do to create a fairer system and move people into work." 

The speech in question, delivered by David Cameron last summer, was one of the most detailed he has given since becoming Prime Minister. Among the measures proposed were:

  • The abolition of housing benefit for under-25s.
  • The restriction of child-related benefits for families with more than two children.
  • A lower rate of benefits for the under-21s.
  • Preventing school leavers from claiming benefits.
  • Paying benefits in kind (like free school meals), rather than in cash.
  • Reducing benefit levels for the long-term unemployed. Cameron said: "Instead of US-style time-limits – which remove entitlements altogether – we could perhaps revise the levels of benefits people receive if they are out of work for literally years on end".
  • A lower housing benefit cap. Cameron said that the current limit of £20,000 was still too high.
  • The abolition of the "non-dependent deduction". Those who have an adult child living with them would lose up to £74 a week in housing benefit.

What all of these policies have in common is that they would further squeeze those on low incomes, while doing nothing to address the deep structural reasons for the rising welfare bill, such as the lack of affordable housing and falling real wages. As I noted yesterday, while complaining about the surge in housing benefit payments, George Osborne made no mention of the causes, preferring to concentrate his fire on the (five) families who received £100,000 or more in landlord subsidy. By prioritising housebuilding and ensuring more employers pay the living wage, Labour can argue that it, rather than the Conservatives, is best placed to reduce the benefits bill in a responsible and sustainable way.  

David Cameron and George Osborne have signalled that the Conservatives would be making deeper welfare cuts were they not in coalition. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.