Why benefit loans still aren't the answer to Labour's welfare problems

A salary insurance scheme that would impose a 9 per cent tax on jobseekers after they return to work isn't worthy of the name.

I think it’s important to clear up some of the arguments made by IPPR’s associate director Graeme Cook in his response to criticisms of the think-tank’s idea for benefit loans. If you haven’t been following, you can read my original criticism of the plan here.

Graeme says:

To clear up one thing straight away: this proposal is in addition to existing entitlements to Jobseeker's Allowance (we do not want to turn JSA into a loan). This means that, contrary to one claim, it wouldn’t mean people who hadn’t worked get more than those who had.

People who hadn’t worked wouldn’t get access to this scheme, because access is based on NI contributions, so clearly they’re not getting more within the confines of the proposal – that’s not up for dispute. The point is that when looking at welfare benefits as a whole there would be people who hadn’t contributed and who were on benefits who got more in non-repayable benefits than people who were on repayable benefit loans and who had contributed. This would create resentment.

If it’s not immediately obvious why this would be, consider a typical staple of negative press welfare coverage – a workless household with a large family receiving child benefit for each child, and on housing benefit.  There are plenty of examples of this kind of piece, and it is these intensively reported, atypical outliers that shape the negative public perception of welfare.

Yes, these articles are unfair and ridiculous for countless reasons. But now consider sums like £30,000 being banded around for supposedly 'feckless' families in the context of other people who find themselves unemployed, receive less than that because they’re not eligible for housing benefit (maybe they have a mortgage) or child benefit (maybe they don’t have any children) and are then told they have to repay most of their benefits - unlike the person they’ve been told is a 'scrounger'. If Labour are planning to successfully explain to the public why this isn’t as unfair as it looks, they’re in for a shock.

If the policy is aiming to destroy the notion that the welfare state "pays out too much to people who have not worked, but also that it offers so little protection to those who have" (Graeme’s words), treating contributors as second class will not help. This policy has the potential to create a whole new genre of articles about how the welfare state is on the side of the wrong people, even if its intention is to do the opposite.

Graeme:

Some have argued that repayment will create a disincentive for people to return to work. Clearly this risk should be monitored on implementation, and the point at which repayments began and the repayment rate could be amended to reduce this concern.

Apart from this being a bit of a cop-out, I think it seriously misses a wider point: even if there was no deterrent to work from a 9 per cent hike in your tax rate, it’s just not fair to tax people for losing their jobs. To paraphrase Tony Benn: you don’t tax people because they lose their job, you tax people because they can afford it. The fact that it’s probably economically the absolute worst situation you could levy a tax on someone is probably secondary.

If you thought the ‘bedroom tax’ or the ‘jobs tax’ were politically toxic, wait until you hear about the ‘unemployment tax’. It’ would be the Poll Tax and the 10p rate rolled into one, and for good reason.

Graeme:

Critics of this idea have questioned why the extra income protection provided by NSI cannot be attained simply by increasing the level of contributory JSA. The problem of course is where the money would come from (we estimated the upfront cost at somewhere between £1.8bn and £2.6bn, though it is hard to be precise).

The first thing to say to this is that if you’re not prepared to actually spend any money on a group, don’t expect them to actually thank you. There are no free political lunches here: If Labour or IPPR are merely trying to address the perception that some people don’t get enough out of the welfare state, rather than the fact, then they haven’t learned the lessons from the empty, headline-grabbing, initiative-driven spin years of New Labour.

But this needn’t be a problem. The £2bn or so a year needed to substantially increase contributory JSA is roughly what the coalition is planning on spending on the Universal Credit, so it’s hardly a fanciful sum of money for a flagship welfare policy.

IPPR also misses that someone is going to pay this money, it’s just a question of who. Under their proposals, it’s funded by a 9 per cent tax on people who have lost their jobs. A fairer approach would be for everyone to pay before they were made unemployed, as is conventional in any kind of insurance scheme I’ve come across. Why is the think-tank calling this an insurance scheme if the costs are borne by the person who suffers the accident? It’s not really worthy of the name. In its current form it’s more of a bank than an insurance policy.

But the killer here is that the policy doesn’t need to be – and indeed ought not to be – deficit neutral. Businesses are not investing because there is no demand in the economy; putting money in the hands of consumers is a good thing because it creates demand, which allows businesses to invest, which results in growth. There are better and worse places to spend a demand stimulus, and giving it to the unemployed as disposable income one of the best: unemployed people have low incomes, therefore they spend all their money and have a very low propensity to save. This means the money has what is called a "high velocity" in that it changes hands very quickly and has a multiplier effect throughout the economy.

Labour has to some extent been talking the language of stimulus, but politically is scared of committing to spending anything. It should be jumping at the chance to combine Keynesianism with a politically savvy commitment that would restore the political reputation of the welfare state.

A man stands outside the Jobcentre Plus on January 18, 2012 in Trowbridge, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.