Why Labour is right to consider a salary insurance scheme

A welfare system that provides greater support to people when they need it most offers an alternative to the divisive pose bring struck by the coalition.

On Sunday, the Observer reported that Labour are considering an IPPR proposal to establish a system of National Salary Insurance (NSI). This would offer working people who have contributed into the benefits system, but have lost their job, much greater income protection at the point they need it most. The twist on the proposal – which has provoked most reaction – is that to control the costs of the system, the extra money provided would be recouped once people are back in employment.

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.

In our original proposal, we suggested that the additional amount available might be £132.50 a week for six months, providing people with £200 a week in total, including their £67.50 in JSA (which has actually now risen to £71.70 a week). These numbers could be altered, but the core rationale is three threefold.

First, for anyone earning much above minimum wage, the benefits system offers very weak protection of their income for short-term, temporary periods of unemployment. For instance, social security provides just 38 per cent of the previous average wage for a single person who also qualifies for help with rent. This compares to an EU average of 58 per cent. For those not eligible for housing support, such as the two-thirds of homeowners, the replacement rate for average earners is just 13 per cent. And it’s not that the private insurance market is filling the gap: a survey published last week by Scottish Widows found that only 5 per cent of people own an income protection policy, which would pay out if they lose their job.

The second rationale for NSI directly flows from the first: the popular legitimacy crisis facing the welfare system is not only about the sense that it pays out too much to people who have not worked, but also that it offers so little protection to those who have. A decade and a half of welfare reform has focused on increasing the conditions attached to the receipt of benefits, but has neglected the erosion of any meaningful reward for the contributions of those who have worked (outside of the state pension). Labour is right to alight on this issue as part of developing a strategic alternative to the populist and divisive pose bring struck by the current government on welfare.

However, the challenge in seeking to improve income protection and rebuild the contributory principle is that it costs money. This is where the third rationale comes in. Deploying the income-contingent loan principle in NSI means that greater security at the point of crisis can be improved without imposing considerable extra net costs. In other words, the social security system would add a new function: smoothing household income to help people to cope with the loss of a wage, keeping them out of the hands of payday lenders and loan sharks, while reclaiming the money once they are back on their feet.

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. But over half of people who claim JSA leave the benefit within three months; 80 per cent after a further three months. Conditionality would continue to apply, so people would be required to take up job offers (or lose access to NSI) and if they hadn’t found employment in six months they would revert to the much lower level of JSA (a strong incentive to find work within that period). Fundamentally, this policy is explicitly aimed at people who have a good work record and so are motivated and job ready.

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). One option is redistributing money from within the existing social security budget, perhaps by lower disregards or sharper tapers on Universal Credit (or, of course, ending the protection of pensioner benefits). Alternatively, the costs could be met by extra departmental cuts, more borrowing or higher taxes. But it is highly unlikely that any party will cut public services or raise taxes to pay for a higher rate of JSA (especially with £21bn of welfare cuts that some want to see reversed potentially ahead of this in the queue).

Given all this, those of us interested in building up economic protection for working people should probably bank on having to be creative.

A National Salary Insurance system would provide people with £200 a week for six months after they become unemployed. Photograph: Getty Images.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

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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