George Osborne stands with his Treasury team before the Budget. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The coalition's welfare cap puts politics before policy

Osborne has failed to design the cap in a way that will advance structural reforms to housing and wages.

As expected, today’s Budget included further details about the long-trailed "welfare cap". A rough calculation suggests it will cover over 90 per cent of benefit and tax credit expenditure, excluding the Basic State Pension, with only those most cyclical elements, linked to Jobseeker's Allowance left outside. Interestingly, the extra childcare support announced by the government yesterday will fall within its scope.

Most significantly, the Chancellor set the level of the cap, which in the first instance will simply track the current OBR projections for spending on those benefits and tax credits in scope (starting in 2015/16 and extending over the following five years). This reflects coalition reality: the Liberal Democrats have long signalled their unwillingness to sign off further social security cuts that would have been required to set a cap below the forecast. This means that, for now, the "cap" has no policy effect: the government is simply committing to operate future policy on the basis of not overshooting the (current) estimate for welfare spending over the coming years.

Of course the real political impact of today’s announcement will come as the general election draws closer. It is a racing certainty that the Conservatives will pledge to lower the cap in their manifesto, to make room for tax cuts, faster deficit reduction or even (if they wanted to make life particularly difficult for Labour) an increase in NHS spending. They will hope to paint both the other main parties as defenders of higher welfare expenditure, which polls tell them is unpopular with large sections of voters.

Labour has already taken steps to protect itself against this well-telegraphed political move, by highlighting how working families would be in the front line of further assaults on benefits and tax credits and that a plan for generating genuine savings (not just arbitrary cuts) requires reforms that address the structural drivers of social security spending – like unemployment, low pay and an inadequate supply of affordable homes.

Given this goal – shifting the balance of expenditure from the "costs of failure" to productive investments – the principle of a "welfare cap" should not be dismissed out of hand. The Chancellor is right to say that there is currently little strategic decision making about social security spending and little attention is paid to (or action following from) expenditure overshooting the forecast.

To take the most egregious example: the large rises in Housing Benefit expenditure in the twenty years before the financial crisis, at a time when the number of households receiving help to pay the rent stayed broadly flat, should have triggered a major focus on those trends, leading to serious reform of policy and spending. It did not – and the consequence was extreme vulnerability of the benefits system to an economic shock, with large numbers of people in more expensive private rented accommodation. When the crisis hit, Housing Benefit shot up and in response we have seen a series of arbitrary attempts to hack back costs (like the "bedroom tax") which are entirely unrelated to the causes of rising expenditure in the first place.

Given the medium-term pressure on the public finances, forcing more strategic decision making about welfare spending is essential. But in this context, the Chancellor has today lent too heavily on the political dividing line and not enough on designing the cap in a way that would advance structural reforms. While set over five years, on a rolling basis, the government’s cap will "bite" on an annual basis, with an OBR warning about overshooting in an Autumn Statement requiring compensating action in the following Budget. This will drive emergency cuts, not long-term savings. Also, what was sorely lacking today was any serious analysis from the OBR about the trends and drivers of welfare spending, which is vital for policy makers and the public to understand the factors underpinning why expenditure is rising (or falling).

Two other points are worth noting. First, the cap has been set in nominal (cash) terms. This means that higher expenditure driven by inflation will trigger policy action, which risks locking in lower living standards for those reliant on benefits. General prices rises, feeding though into uprating decisions, does not count as a structural driver of spending. The Chancellor set out a "margin of error" of two per cent around the forecast which will not trigger action. This is in line with forecasts for CPI over the forthcoming years.

Second, the cap makes no distinction between contributions-based and incomes-based benefit spending, consistent with the drift of social security policy over the last three decades. However they are different and should be treated so. Entitlement to contributory benefits should stand outside the mainstream of government revenues, with its financing secured by National Insurance Contributions. Taking National Insurance benefits out of the cap and strengthening the integrity of the National Insurance Fund could play a big part in advancing political aspirations to restore the contributory principle in the years ahead.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

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Why don’t we talk about the pain of friendship break ups?

Breaking up with a friend is hard to do – society should give more weight to the process.

Countless songs have been written about heartbreak; we recall the disintegration of our romantic entanglements as pivotal moments in our lives; being "dumped" by a boyfriend or girlfriend is understood as a kind of trauma that requires "healing" and a "mourning period". But what of the friendship break up?

It's only recently that we've begun to have public conversations about the difficulties of losing a friend, and those conversations aren't even very good ones. A new web series, Ex-Best, explores the issue in a jokey way, exaggerating awkward situations among ex-friends who still work together or are – gasp – invited to the same dinner party, and a couple self-helpy articles will come out every year, offering advice on "How to Break Up with a Toxic Friend," but the actual impact of ending a friendship remains mostly unacknowledged.

This strange cultural silence around the sadness and, yes, grief one can experience after being rejected by a friend makes what can be a confusing situation feel even more disquieting.

I'd known my friend Will since I was a teenager and, while our friendship had waxed and waned over the years, as most do, I considered him one of my dearest friends. We'd spent countless evenings drinking wine at the beach or watching Drunk History, drunk (to fully appreciate the experience, of course), ranting about feminism and gossiping about friends. We'd shared a mutual friendship group for almost two decades. So after months of being brushed off and noticeably not invited to gatherings that had always been social staples, I couldn't ignore the fact that something was up. But what?

This is the thing with friend break ups – there is no social expectation of "processing" or that the "dumper" must offer an explanation for their sudden departure. Ghosting, something seen as a terrible faux-pas in the context of a long-term romantic partnership, is a perfectly acceptable way to end a friendship.

Friends don't go to couples counselling, they aren't expected to offer a legitimate and logical explanation for wanting to "break up", there is no effort to "work things out", and no "we have to talk". The dumpee is left only with an awkward series of unreturned texts, a few half-hearted excuses for being unable to meet up for drinks on any single evening for six months, and a mysterious missing invitation to the annual Christmas party your friend has thrown every year for a decade.

Was Will angry with me? Was it something personal? Now he had a wife and child, maybe his childless, single friends like me no longer fit into his dad lifestyle? It was strange not to know. Had Will been a boyfriend, we would have had a number of explosive arguments, teary counselling sessions, promises to do better, to communicate more honestly, to stop eating all of my yoghurt in the middle of the night, don't use my expensive moisturiser, and why can't you ever ask me about my life? I'm interesting.

When our romantic partnerships end, we usually know why. If not, it's at least expected that words will be exchanged: "We've grown apart." "I want to see other people." "You have no interests." "For the last time, it's 'mannerism,' not 'aneurysm'." "Are you literally 12?!" Etc. But with friends, for some reason, it's different.

What's strangest about the subject matter is how long it's gone unexplored. Surely we've all experienced the ending of a friendship. In fact, most of us will have more friends in our lifetimes than boyfriends or girlfriends and more friend break ups than divorces – yet we don't treat this particular kind of heartbreak with anywhere near the same kind of compassion we do our intimate partnerships.

There is no widespread social understanding of the pain we're experiencing, no "Nothing Compares 2 U, BFF" or "You've Lost That Buddy Feeling" songs to wallow in, and no "Ten Ways To Get Over A Friend Break Up" articles in Cosmo. Our other friends don't spend hours processing the break up with us, saying, "she probably just loved you too much and it scared her" or "you'll forget all about him as soon as you make a new friend".

It's as though we're expected to feel nothing at all. Which is a pity because losing a friend can be far more painful – and certainly more bewildering – than losing a lover.

The feelings of rejection are all there, but tenfold. When romantic relationships end, it often makes sense. We place expectations on our intimate partnerships that are incredibly high, often unrealistic, and that foster codependence. You end up having the same fights over and over again, often related to the fact that you've decided to live in the same house with this person for the rest of your life, and to share money as well as tiny, stinky, screaming humans. It's not exactly a recipe for success.

But when a person you've known and chosen to spend time with for 20 years, by choice – no contracts, no shared property or beds, no children to raise, no money issues to fight over, no sexual or domestic expectations, no attempts to control who the other befriends or spends time with – suddenly wants nothing to do with you and offers no explanation? That's hard.

I mean, you were friends for a reason, and the reason was simple: you liked each other. So what does it mean when a friend leaves you? There are few explanations aside from, "I guess he just doesn't like me, as a person." Talk about a blow to your heart.

In many ways we set ourselves up for this kind of pain and don't leave room to address our friendship break ups in any way that feels like the "closure" we seek at the end of a romantic relationship. As a society, we place far more value on intimate partnerships (particularly heterosexual ones) than we do on friendship. We do this despite our friends being more likely to be the ones that stick with us until the bitter end, less likely to hurt us as badly as our exes have, and more likely to actually be there through thick and thin, rather than abandoning us and trading us in for a newer, younger friend-model.

We don't tend to choose our friends for superficial reasons, because of hormones, or because of too much whiskey – we choose them because we enjoy their company, because we find them interesting or funny, or because we have shared interests and histories. Naturally, as we get older and our lives change, friends may grow apart as lovers do, but the concerted, sudden, one-sided ending of a friendship doesn't get the respect or attention it deserves. It's socially acceptable.

After Will had avoided making plans with me for months and failed to invite me to his birthday party, I realised this was not just in my head. I finally confronted him – resentful that I'd had to ask, and in effect point out the obvious. I learned little beyond that he had made a decision to no longer be my friend.

I sobbed to my boyfriend the way I would had someone died – but other than that, I was mostly alone in my grief. I felt like I had to simply push that particular heartache out of my mind and move forward as though nothing had happened. Yet I still miss my friend more than I do any ex-boyfriend.

Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.