Labour promises higher benefits for older people, but who will pay?

Having pledged to stick to Osborne's spending limits, more generous benefits for some will need to be paid for by cuts or tax rises elsewhere.

In a speech later today, Liam Byrne will rightly highlight what he calls "the scandal of the silver scrapheap". Nearly half of all unemployed people in their 50s have been out of work for longer than a year and the over 50s now spend longer on Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) than any other age group, an average of 32 weeks. 

As Byrne will argue, the social security system currently fails such people. Having paid an average of £100,000 in National Insurance, they find they are entitled to just £71.70 a week in contributory JSA and will lose all support after six months if they have savings of £16,000 or a partner who works more than 24 hours a week. While the welfare system is often accused of offering "something for nothing", for these people it's more like nothing for something. "It makes you wonder why we bothered paying in all those years" Byrne quotes one man as saying, "they don’t bother to look at our skills. They tell us to apply for anything. It’s just banging square pegs into round holes". With this in mind, the shadow work and pensions secretary will reaffirm Labour's commitment to examine a higher rate of JSA for those who have contributed more. He writes: 

I think social security should offer more for those that chipped in most either caring or paying in National Insurance. Our most experienced workers and carers have earned an extra hand. We should make sure there something better for when they need it. That’s why we’re looking at just how we put the something for something bargain at the heart of social security reform, starting with a new deal for the over 50s.

In addition, he suggests that the UK could follow countries like Japan, Canada and the US in developing specialised support services for older workers, such as training grants. In the long-run, he argues, such measures would pay in part or in full for themselves, nothing that "if we raised the employment rate amongst our over 50s to the level enjoyed by Japan, they’d be 438,000 more people in work, and £3 billion in extra tax flowing into the Treasury". 

But what Byrne doesn't say is how more generous benefits for older people will be paid for in the short-term. Having pledged to stick to George Osborne's 2015-16 current spending limits, any new spending promises will have to be funded by cuts or higher taxes elsewhere. In his recent speech on welfare, Ed Miliband suggested that the qualifying period for contributory JSA could be extended from two years to five years. In other words, the young will pay for the old. But not only is it questionable whether it's right to reduce support for the young at a time when so many suffer spells of unemployment (or to create a benefits system that favours the fortunate), it's also unclear how much money this reform would save. Young people are far less likely to have savings of £16,000 or more and/or a partner in work, meaning many will continue to qualify for means-tested JSA. If Labour wants to build a social security system that genuinely offers what Byrne calls "a new deal" for the over-50s, it will need to spend a significant amount. Until it makes it clear who will pick up the bill, the Tories will be able to charge Labour with promising more of the unfunded spending that "got us into this mess". 

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne argues that "social security should offer more for those that chipped in most". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.