Iain Duncan Smith. Secretary of State for Welfare Pensions. Still. Photo: Getty Images
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What would real welfare reform look like?

Britain's welfare bill can be reduced without eliminating the safety net - but not with a series of crude caps or freezes, explains Spencer Thompson.

Today’s public finance statistics show progress towards reducing the deficit. Net borrowing has fallen by almost a quarter on a year ago, partly driven by better than expected income tax figures. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not be able to reach his fiscal targets with a few months of above-average receipts. Indeed, outside of its claim that £5bn can be raised from tax avoidance, the government’s so-called ‘tax lock’ will largely prevent him from using tax levers to close the deficit. Instead, he is going to have to cut deep into public services and the welfare bill in order to come up with the required savings. The upcoming budget and subsequent spending review, where we will get more detail on his plans, are where the real business of deficit reduction will happen.

The centre-piece of the Chancellor’s fiscal strategy is an aim to cut a sizable chunk (£12bn) off the welfare bill by 2017/18. The options floated so far, of a freeze in the value of working-age benefits, a reduction in the benefit cap and the withdrawal of housing benefit from 18-21 year-olds, are likely to save only a little over £1bn. That leaves more than £10bn of welfare reductions unaccounted for. Even if the chancellor were able to reduce this figure by arguing that low inflation has reduced the need for cuts, this may also impact on the OBR’s receipts forecasts, meaning they are still going to need huge savings.

The UK currently spends around £220bn on welfare. Just less than half goes towards pensioners and child benefit, both declared off-limits by the government. This means that the cuts will need to make significant in-roads into the remaining £113bn, of which the largest items by far are tax credits (£30bn), housing benefit (£26bn), disability benefits (£22bn) and incapacity benefits (£15bn). Some combination of cuts to these benefits will be required if the government are to achieve their £12bn target. Focusing exclusively on out of work benefits wont cut it – we currently spend just £5bn a year on jobseeker’s allowance and income support, the two key working-age benefits for those not in a job.

The IFS have taken a look at some of the specific choices the government could make to these benefits to generate savings; the government could require housing benefit claimants to contribute 10 per cent of private sector rents (a saving of £0.9bn), or they could abolish housing benefit for all 18-25 year-olds (saving £1.5bn). If they started to tax the key disability benefit (formerly Disability Living Allowance, now the Personal Independence Payment), they could raise £0.9bn. More sweeping changes could generate larger savings; if they reduced the basic amount of child tax credit families can claim to its 2003/04 levels (in real terms), they could save £5bn.

If these options sound harsh, that’s because they are. Every pound saved will be a pound in lost income for an eligible family, with predictable consequences for living standards and child poverty. While these options may be presented as generating incentives for families to move into work, remember that around 80 per cent of benefits outside pensions go to families in work, meaning that cuts are likely to hit the working poor. But it is changes of the kind listed above that the DWP and Treasury will currently be looking at in their search to identify savings. If, as has been rumoured this week, they are exploring a further £3bn of welfare cuts on top of the £12bn already mooted, the impact will be even more severe.

IPPR has argued consistently that the working-age welfare bill can be sensibly controlled, but not by a crude process of freezing or cutting entitlements. This does nothing to combat the economic and demographic forces acting to increase demands on the welfare system; rising rents increase the need for housing benefit to paper over the cracks in our broken housing market, endemic low pay inflates the tax credit bill, and the need for both parents to work in order to reach a decent standard of living puts upward pressure on the price of childcare to meet caring needs. There are more examples, but the overall picture is of a system that does little to tackle the underlying causes of welfare receipt.

Instead what are needed are very difficult choices about where public funds are best spent. Rather than lining the pockets of landlords through housing benefit, we should be unlocking those same funds to invest in social housing. Similarly, instead of topping up the pay of working parents so they can afford extortionate childcare fees, we should recognise the need for more hours of cheap or free childcare at all ages. Across a range of policy issues, we throw good money after bad instead of investing in more sustainable solutions for the long-term.

Realising these opportunities to switch money from cash welfare into services and investment requires some long-term leadership and vision from policymakers. The upcoming spending round represents a perfect opportunity to be thinking of creative solutions to reduce the welfare bill in a way that is both fair and sustainable. But the overwhelming focus on cutting to meet a self-imposed target of a balanced budget by 2017-18 is likely to take precedence over genuine reform.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue