The poor could be the losers from Labour's welfare cap

If measures designed to tackle low pay and reduce rents fail to make sufficient progress, the danger is that families will be further impoverished.

Ed Miliband was right in his speech on social security today to suggest that it is neither a decrepit structure, nor an underclass of lazy layabouts, which is the real source of stress in the system. Instead, an analysis acknowledging that it is the broader structural causes of need that are testing the workings of (or at least sympathy for) social security is clearly the right way to go. We all know that in part it is low wages that underpin a large tax credits bill, and rising rents that have to some extent driven up housing benefit in recent years.

Where Miliband went off track, however, was in then echoing coalition rhetoric on expenditure control, and in particular his suggestion that a Labour government would cap ‘structural’ social security spending on a three-year basis. The politics behind this move are clear– talking tough on spending - but does the proposal make good sense in policy terms?

To begin, there is a problem of definition. The distinction between structural as opposed to cyclical social security spending is not as neat as one might like. While unemployment benefits are clearly connected to the rise and fall of the economy, few other working-age benefits are immune from the vagaries of the cycle. It is underemployment alongside low wages that has driven up demand for tax credits, and a rising caseload that, to some degree, explains the growth in cash terms of the housing benefit bill since 2008.

In addition, the structural-cyclical dichotomy is from a decidedly pre-universal credit world. When in and out-of-work benefits, housing benefit and children’s support are rolled up into one from October this year the distinction will be even harder to fathom. While the practicalities of the coalition’s plans for capping annually managed expenditure have already been questioned, it’s hard to see how adding hazy distinctions into the exercise will make it any more workable.

That said, in the last three years the social system has been riddled with caps of one sort or another. While the overall benefit cap has attracted most attention, the coalition has also sought to hem in housing benefit in a number of ways: since April 2011, for example, support to claimants has been restricted to smaller sized properties, to more limited levels of rent, and if single, is cut according to age.

This tangle of new rules is designed to constrain housing benefit expenditure, albeit in an opaque and confusing manner. But has it? A quick look at housing benefit statistics shows that the increase in the average award since April 2011 is actually no different than that observed prior to these changes being introduced, suggesting that rents have not responded as anticipated.

Instead, to date, the squeeze from the various caps has been felt by claimants, not budget lines. Low income families and individuals have had to eke out already meagre budgets to cover shortfalls, make difficult decisions about whether to move and disrupt their and their children’s lives, or go cap (ha) in hand and apply for discretionary housing payments or charitable forms of support.

If Labour, or indeed the coalition, were to limit the overall social security budget, what we would see is this scenario writ large. It would be ordinary families who would bear the risk that programmes designed to tackle low pay, reduce rents, and connect the unemployed more effectively to the labour market fail to make sufficient progress; families whose lives would be constrained in ever-more oppressive ways; and families who would be further impoverished as a result. 

If Labour wants to rein in social security spending they have to do this by reducing need, not by rationing decency. But of course, whether social security expenditure really is out of control, as we are all incessantly told, is an entirely different question

A boy walks through the Heygate Estate in the Walworth area in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.