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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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