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16 April 2015

How did the Labour party manifesto deal with social security?

Social security is perhaps the least surprising part of Labour's manifesto. But it's also one of the most important. 

By James Bolton

In the weeks leading to an election, social security commitments can tick some of the most important boxes for voters. Four of the main boxes this election are: Fiscal responsibility; rewarding hardworking people; protecting vulnerable people; and immigration. 

The social security commitments, like the manifesto as a whole, are designed to be fiscally responsible. The commitment to “cap structural social security spending” as part of each spending review shows this. There’s not much to say here – Labour views controlling Social security spending as key to being fiscally responsible.

Labour also commits to “keep the household benefit cap and ask the Social Security Advisory Committee to examine if it should be lower in some areas”. They propose to cap the overall social security bill and ensure that individuals and families can’t claim more than they need. Fiscal responsibility box ticked. 

Labour’s theme of promoting and rewarding hard work flows through their social security commitments. Instead of leaving young people unemployed and on benefits for years, Labour’s jobs guarantee promises all young people a job after a year of unemployment to ensure that they become hardworking people, as long as they like carrots. The stick appears if they don’t and choose not to take the job. The manifesto states: “It will be a job that they have to take, or lose their benefits”. 

Some might argue that people shouldn’t be forced to take any job that comes along, even after being unemployed for a year. For context, current government policy forces young people to work for free if they can’t find a job.

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The manifesto also rewards hard work by stating that “Labour would introduce a higher rate of Job Seekers Allowance for those who have contributed over years”. As long as safeguards are in place for people who can’t work, perhaps because of a disability, that’s another tick.

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Protecting vulnerable people and not penalising others is key. That’s why Labour’s pledge to abolish the bedroom tax is crucial. It’s been a commitment since the bedroom tax was introduced, but seeing it in the manifesto is important. The commitment to “reform the Work Capability Assessment” will also be a welcome relief to people who have experienced it.  

Not to pre-empt Labour’s disability manifesto coming out next week, but comments made by Stephen Timms highlighting Labour’s commitment to fixing the disability benefit system at a panel discussion this week are important. Disabled people currently wait months, sometimes over a year, to hear whether they’re eligible for disability benefits. That’s an inexcusable amount of time, something even agreed by all parties. Definitely a double tick.

Labour’s controls on immigration are heavily rooted in welfare, centred on the commitment to not give Jobseeker’s Allowance to immigrants for the first two years that they’re in the UK. True or not, it’s a popular belief that people come to the UK to claim benefits. This commitment could be seen as a real disincentive for people to move to the UK if they don’t have a job lined up, alongside restrictions on child benefit being paid to families abroad.

Whether or not you agree with the ‘controls on immigration’ pledge, much of the country supports tighter immigration controls, including some of Labour’s traditional ‘core vote’. Many EU member states already have similar policies in place. Tick. 

In contrast, the Tories are approaching social security from a different angle. A recently leaked memo showed that the Tories have considered taxing disability benefits. It seems fair to few that a person’s disability should be taxed. Research shows that having a disability costs an extra £550 per month on average. That’s £550 whether you’re unemployed, earning minimum wage, or on £25,000 a year. 

£12bn of savings on welfare may also sound appealing in the context of reducing the deficit.  When realising that disabled people, their families and carers would likely bare much of this, people stop and think. The Tories seem to be offering a tax break with one hand, while taking from vulnerable people with the other. 

Three of the key issues that people seem to raise time after time are the economy, jobs and immigration. Labour has certainly ticked those boxes with their commitments on social security. 

James Bolton works for a national disability charity, leading on welfare and health policy. Views here are his own.