George Osborne delivers his speech at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The OBR shows why welfare cuts won't control spending

Inadequate wages and extortionate rents are pushing up the housing benefit bill. 

George Osborne prides himself on his commitment to bear down on welfare spending, but today's report from the OBR (handily commissioned by the Chancellor) shows how he's struggling. It warns that the new cap imposed on expenditure is in danger of being breached due to the botched implementation of disability benefit reforms and the surging housing benefit bill. 

Between March 2011 and March 2014, forecast spending on incapacity benefits for 2015–16 has been revised up by £3.5bn (34 per cent) due to a higher than expected caseload, slower than expected transfer from incapacity benefit to the new employment and support allowance, and a lower than expected number being found "fit for work" (and therefore ineligible for full support). 

In addition, forecast spending on housing benefit (or, as you might call it, landlord subsidy) has been revised up by £2.5bn (11 per cent) since the expected number of renters and the level of rents relative to earnings have increased at a faster rate than predicted. As wages have continued to lag behind inflation, the number forced to rely on welfare to remain in their homes has surged. The government is now forecast to spend more than £27bn on housing benefit by 2018-19, accounting for more than 11 per cent of welfare expenditure. 

As the OBR notes, one of the main causes of higher spending has been the shift from public to private rented housing. In 2012-13, the number of private renters exceeded the nunber of social renters for the first time in nearly 50 years. Since private rents are usually higher than social rents, the housing benefit bill has risen accordingly. The OBR also notes that "rents have risen faster than earnings and inflation over the past decade." 

What all of this shows is the limits of an approach that focuses on salami slicing the welfare budget (through measures such as the benefit cap and the "bedroom tax"), rather than addressing the structural drivers of higher spending. Unless problems such as inadequate wages and extortionate rents are tackled (through a significantly higher minimum wage, greater use of the living wage, more affordable housing and limits on rent increases, as proposed by Labour) then it will become ever harder to control expenditure. 

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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