Big or small, the Chancellor’s spending review announcements on social security were anything but fair.
Take the his most significant plan, to impose a ‘super-cap’ on the majority of working-age benefits. While Osborne has confirmed that out-of-work benefits will not be included in the cap, other key sources of support such as housing benefit, disability benefits and in-work support for those on low-incomes will all be subject to a nominal limit regardless of the actual levels of need.
So what does this mean in real-terms? If demand exceeds the (artificially capped) supply, benefits will have to be spread more thinly or eligibility restricted in other ways. Low-income families and individuals, then, will have to bear the cost of rising rents, ill-health, low pay and cuts to hours, all of which, of course, are factors beyond their control. It’s hard to see the fairness in that.
On a smaller scale, the announcement that those who lose their jobs will not be eligible for support until seven days have elapsed is mean-spirited in the extreme. While the sums may not seem huge (a couple would lose £64 a week as a result), this move can only cause more hardship in already hard times. How the new rule will work once Universal Credit (UC) is introduced is unclear: will claimants be able to access any of their UC award for the first seven days once all their benefits are rolled up into one? Denying claimants all sources of support in such a situation hardly seems fair either.
Look to the Treasury’s distributional analysis and the real story of the spending review is exposed. While the Chancellor made much of the fact that “those with the broadest shoulders are bearing the greatest burden”, the government’s charts (2.D and 2.E) show that those with the slimmest are being made to carry an almost equal amount of the pain. Fairness, then, is clearly very much in the eye of the beholder…