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.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide