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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.