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.

Getty
Show Hide image

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