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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.