A benefits poster in Lewisham high street. As new changes come in, it's essential the vulnerable are protected. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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As the Emergency Budget comes closer, the government must remember that benefits are a public service

The Government has consistently maintained its intention to protect vulnerable people - but will it deliver?

With less than a week to go until the Emergency Budget, there is growing speculation about how the further £12bn savings from the welfare budget will be made. In the last few days alone there have been more rumours, including of cuts to Employment and Support Allowance and Housing Benefit.

Throughout, the Government has consistently maintained its intention to protect vulnerable people while at the same reducing spending on benefits and tax credits.  While this intention to protect is welcome, it is still unclear exactly where the cuts will fall - so it is difficult to establish whether Government will be able to deliver on this promise.  That’s why it is vital that the Government understands the full impact further cuts will have on people’s lives and has the right support in place.

New analysis from Citizens Advice, published today, adds front line perspective to three potential reforms that have been mooted in the Conservative manifesto or already outlined by Ministers: lowering the benefit cap, freezing working-age benefits and removing housing benefit for young people who are unemployed.

Plans have been set out to reduce the benefit cap to £23,000 and reports today suggest that outside of London and the South East it could be brought down to £20,000.

A reduction to £23,000 would mean an additional 70,000 adults and 200,000 more children having their benefits capped.  Those subject to the benefit cap include people who are temporarily out of work and looking for a job as well as those with full-time caring responsibilities for elderly relatives.

It’s clear from those already turning to Citizens Advice for help around the cap that the measure has a disproportionate impact on women, ethnic minorities and households in high rent areas.  Lowering the cap could exacerbate adverse effects on these groups and could mean rent in London is completely unaffordable to families where no one is currently in work.

Rent is also the big issue that should be causing concerns around the proposal to freeze most working age benefits for two years - affecting an estimated eleven million families. While inflation has been low over recent years, rents have been steadily rising, and are forecast to keep doing so. Increases in rates of private rent are expected to be twice those of CPI inflation over the next four years, so there would be a significant risk of more people falling into debt.

The Government intends for young people to be ‘earning or learning’ and to avoid benefit dependency.  Plans to restrict access to Housing Benefit for unemployed young people, which would save just £0.1bn, need to be considered carefully as they could hit vulnerable groups including care leavers, orphans or people who have parents in prison.

Young families could also fall foul of the changes: one in ten young JSA claimants receiving Housing Benefit have children of their own. Preventing unemployed people aged 18-21 from claiming Housing Benefit could have a negative impact on many young people’s long term prospects, including greater risks of homelessness and unemployment. This goes against the grain of government intentions.

It is clear from our analysis and experience that any reforms which do go ahead must be implemented at a safe and steady pace. Benefit queries have rapidly overtaken debt to be the biggest issue people turn to Citizens Advice for help with - standing at almost two million queries in the last 12 months. That’s why support must be available to help people affected adapt to the changes and move forward.  

A government serious about making sustainable savings from the welfare bill will need to get to the heart of the issues that lead to people claiming benefits to top up their income. Low paid, insecure work; childcare issues where costs and flexibility inhibit parents from getting a job or increasing their hours; and sky high private rents are all driving higher welfare expenditure. The benefit system also needs to function as a modern, responsive public service.   

It is these problems which need addressing at source if welfare spending is going to be reduced in a way that genuinely protects vulnerable people. This is what Citizens Advice and our clients will be looking for the Chancellor to address in his Budget on Wednesday.

Rachael Badger is Head of Policy research for Families, Welfare and Work at Citizen's Advice.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.