Osborne puts housing benefit for under-25s first in line for cuts

The Chancellor says he will prioritise further cuts to the housing benefit budget before making any changes to universal pensioner benefits.

Depending on who you believe, David Cameron is either preparing to withdraw benefits from wealthy pensioners after the next election, or is set to pledge to ring-fence them again. Cameron's refusal to promise to protect universal benefits such as Winter Fuel Payments, free TV licences and free bus passes on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, in contrast with his pledge to maintain the triple lock on the state pension (so that it rises in line with inflation, earnings, or 2.5%, whichever is highest), was widely interpreted as preparing the ground for a U-turn. But a Downing Street source tells today's Daily Mail that the PM is "minded to repeat the pledge" (which has seen pensioner benefits protected throughout this parliament) and that he remains personally committed to preserving the benefits for all pensioners, not just the poorest. 

It was left to George Osborne, who is more open to cuts in this area than Cameron, to try and provide some clarity in his first interview of the year on the Today programme this morning. Osborne refused to rule out the withdrawal of benefits from some pensioners, repeatedly stating that he was "not writing the Conservative manifesto today", but offered an important indication of his priorities. There would certainly be further welfare cuts (Osborne has previously declared that he hopes to cut "billions" more from the budget), but pensioner benefits would not be first in line. The Chancellor suggested that reducing their scope would save only "tens of millions", adding that "it is not where you need to make the substantial savings required". Instead, he singled out housing benefit for the under-25s as the first target for cuts and took aim at those "on incomes of £60-£70,000 living in council homes". 

Osborne is right to point out that means-testing pensioner benefits would not raise the sums that many suggest. Last year the government spent £2.2bn a year on winter fuel payments, £1bn on free bus passes and £600m on free TV licences. Compare that to the £23.8bn annually spent on housing benefit (owing to extortionate rents and substandard wages) and the £27.2bn spent on tax credits (owing to inadequate pay) and it becomes clear where the real savings are to be made. Labour's pledge to withdraw Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5% of pensioners is expected to save just £100m.

But Osborne's preferred approach of salami slicing the welfare budget, rather than addressing its underlying causes, will not raise significant sums either. For all the human misery they have caused, the household benefit cap is forecast to save just £110m a year by the DWP, while the bedroom tax will raise just £490m (and both, as analysts have warned, may end up costing more than they save by increasing homelessness and other social ills). 

Throughout the interview, Osborne repeatedly referred to his "values" and the state's duty to ensure "dignity and security in old age". But in this instance, his motives (as so often) are nakedly political. While spending on the NHS and the state pension is among the most popular (and the over-65s are the most likely age group to vote), few will object to the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s (the least likely age group to vote). With the Tories increasingly focused on chasing the grey vote, the question facing Labour is whether it is prepared to speak up for the young. 

George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will the collapse of the EU/Canada trade deal speed the demise of Jean-Claude Juncker?

The embattled European Comission President has already survived the migrant crisis and Brexit.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the embattled President of the European Commission, is likely to come under renewed pressure to resign later this week now that the Belgian region of Wallonia has likely scuppered the EU’s flagship trade deal with Canada.

The rebellious Walloons on Friday blocked the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The deal for 500 million Europeans was at the final hurdle when it fell, struck down by an administration representing 3.2 million people.

As Canada’s trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, walked out of talks in tears and declared the deal dead, fingers were pointed at Juncker. Under pressure from EU governments, he had agreed that CETA would be a “mixed agreement”. He overruled the executive’s legal advice that finalising the deal was in the Commission’s power.

CETA now had to be ratified by each member state. In the case of Belgium, it means it had to be approved by each of its seven parliaments, giving the Walloons an effective veto.

Wallonia’s charismatic socialist Minister-President Paul Magnette needed a cause celebre to head off gains made by the rival Marxist PTB party. He found it in opposition to an investor protection clause that will allow multinationals to sue governments, just a month after the news that plant closures by the world’s leading heavy machinery maker Caterpillar would cost Wallonia 2,200 jobs.

Juncker was furious. Nobody spoke up when the EU signed a deal with Vietnam, “known the world over for applying all democratic principles”, he sarcastically told reporters.

“But when it comes to signing an agreement with Canada, an accomplished dictatorship as we all know, the whole world wants to say we don’t respect human right or social and economic rights,” he added.  

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was due to arrive in Brussels on Thursday to sign CETA, which is backed by all EU leaders.

European Council President, Donald Tusk, has today spoken to Trudeau and his visit is currently scheduled to go ahead. This morning, the Walloons said they would not be held to ransom by the “EU ultimatum”.

If signed, CETA will remove customs duties, open up markets, and encourage investment, the Commission has said. Losing it will cost jobs and billions in lost trade to Europe’s stagnant economy.

“The credibility of Europe is at stake”, Tusk has warned.

Failure to deliver CETA will be a serious blow to the European Union and call into question the European Commission’s exclusive mandate to strike trade deals on behalf of EU nations.

It will jeopardise a similar trade agreement with the USA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The Commission claims that an “ambitious” TTIP could increase the size of the EU economy by €120 billion (or 0.5% of GDP).

The Commission has already missed its end of year deadline to conclude trade talks with the US. It will now have to continue negotiations with whoever succeeds Obama as US President.

And if the EU cannot, after seven years of painstaking negotiations, get a deal with Canada done, how will it manage if the time comes to strike a similar pact with a "hard Brexit" Britain?

Juncker has faced criticism before.  After the Brexit referendum, the Czechs and the Poles wanted him gone. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban muttered darkly about “personnel issues” at the Commission.

In July, it was reported that Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, was plotting to oust Juncker. Merkel stayed her hand, and with German elections looming next year is unlikely to pull the trigger now.

When he took office in November 2014, Juncker promised that his administration would be a “political Commission”. But there has never been any sign he would be willing to bear the political consequences of his failures.

Asked if Juncker would quit after Brexit, the Commission’s chief spokesman said, “the answer has two letters and the first one is ‘N’”.

Just days into his administration, Juncker was embroiled in the LuxLeaks scandal. When he was Luxembourg’s prime minister and finance minister, the country had struck sweetheart tax deals with multinational companies.  

Despite official denials, rumours about his drinking and health continue to swirl around Brussels. They are exacerbated by bizarre behaviour such as kissing Belgium’s Charles Michel on his bald head and greeting Orban with a cheery “Hello dictator”!

On Juncker’s watch, border controls have been reintroduced in the once-sacrosanct Schengen passport-free zone, as the EU struggles to handle the migration crisis.

Member states promised to relocate 160,000 refugees in Italy and Greece across the bloc by September 2017. One year on, just 6,651 asylum seekers have been re-homed.

All this would be enough to claim the scalp of a normal politician but Juncker remains bulletproof.

The European Commission President can, in theory, only be forced out by the European Parliament, as happened to Jacques Santer in 1999.

The European Parliament President is Martin Schulz, a German socialist. His term is up for renewal next year and Juncker, a centre-right politician, has already endorsed its renewal in a joint interview.

There is little chance that Juncker will be replaced with a leader more sympathetic to the British before the Brexit negotiations begin next year.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.