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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Donald Tusk is merely calling out Tory hypocrisy on Brexit

And the President of the European Council has the upper hand. 

The pair of numbers that have driven the discussion about our future relationship with the EU since the referendum have been 48 to 52. 

"The majority have spoken", cry the Leavers. "It’s time to tell the EU what we want and get out." However, even as they push for triggering the process early next year, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s reply to a letter from Tory MPs, where he blamed British voters for the uncertain futures of expats, is a long overdue reminder that another pair of numbers will, from now on, dominate proceedings.

27 to 1.

For all the media speculation around Brexit in the past few months, over what kind of deal the government will decide to be seek from any future relationship, it is incredible just how little time and thought has been given to the fact that once Article 50 is triggered, we will effectively be negotiating with 27 other partners, not just one.

Of course some countries hold more sway than others, due to their relative economic strength and population, but one of the great equalising achievements of the EU is that all of its member states have a voice. We need look no further than the last minute objections from just one federal entity within Belgium last month over CETA, the huge EU-Canada trade deal, to be reminded how difficult and important it is to build consensus.

Yet the Tories are failing spectacularly to understand this.

During his short trip to Strasbourg last week, David Davis at best ignored, and at worse angered, many of the people he will have to get on-side to secure a deal. Although he did meet Michel Barnier, the senior negotiator for the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative at the future talks, he did not meet any representatives from the key Socialist Group in the European Parliament, nor the Parliament’s President, nor the Chair of its Constitutional Committee which will advise the Parliament on whether to ratify any future Brexit deal.

In parallel, Boris Johnson, to nobody’s surprise any more, continues to blunder from one debacle to the next, the most recent of which was to insult the Italians with glib remarks about prosecco sales.

On his side, Liam Fox caused astonishment by claiming that the EU would have to pay compensation to third countries across the world with which it has trade deals, to compensate them for Britain no longer being part of the EU with which they had signed their agreements!

And now, Theresa May has been embarrassingly rebuffed in her clumsy attempt to strike an early deal directly with Angela Merkel over the future residential status of EU citizens living and working in Britain and UK citizens in Europe. 

When May was campaigning to be Conservative party leader and thus PM, to appeal to the anti-european Tories, she argued that the future status of EU citizens would have to be part of the ongoing negotiations with the EU. Why then, four months later, are Tory MPs so quick to complain and call foul when Merkel and Tusk take the same position as May held in July? 

Because Theresa May has reversed her position. Our EU partners’ position remains the same - no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered and Britain sets out its stall. Merkel has said she can’t and won’t strike a pre-emptive deal.  In any case, she cannot make agreements on behalf of France,Netherlands and Austria, all of who have their own imminent elections to consider, let alone any other EU member. 

The hypocrisy of Tory MPs calling on the European Commission and national governments to end "the anxiety and uncertainty for UK and EU citizens living in one another's territories", while at the same time having caused and fuelled that same anxiety and uncertainty, has been called out by Tusk. 

With such an astounding level of Tory hypocrisy, incompetence and inconsistency, is it any wonder that our future negotiating partners are rapidly losing any residual goodwill towards the UK?

It is beholden on Theresa May’s government to start showing some awareness of the scale of the enormous task ahead, if the UK is to have any hope of striking a Brexit deal that is anything less than disastrous for Britain. The way they are handling this relatively simple issue does not augur well for the far more complex issues, involving difficult choices for Britain, that are looming on the horizon.

Richard Corbett is the Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber.