The 101st day

The Conservatives must be pinching themselves after 100 days in government. What can possibly go wrong?

For three months they’ve been able to do pretty much as they like. The Liberal Democrats are humiliated, Labour is demoralised and distracted and the opposition that has come from the SNP is a comforting reminder of the Scottish card that won the election. Thanks to all of that, plus expectations formed by inaccurate opinion polls, a government with a tiny majority elected with just over a third of the vote can behave as though it’s won a victory on a par with 1945, 1979 and 1997.

Yet the Tory luck cannot hold for ever. The obvious cloud on the horizon is Europe, with no sign that Brussels will hand David Cameron concessions meaningful enough to sell to his sceptical party ahead of the election. Economically, it’s far easier to start with a recession turn it into a recovery than it is to manage expectations in improving times.

But could the Conservatives turn out to be most immediately vulnerable where they seem strongest: on the ground they’ve staked out since the election to be ‘the real party of working people’? As Cameron put it in an article for the Telegraph on Saturday:

‘On the challenge of delivering an economy that supports working people, it is Conservatives who believe that a free enterprise economy is an ally not an enemy in generating wealth and extending opportunity. By cutting taxes, reforming welfare and increasing minimum wages we are showing we are the real party of working people.’

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Work hard, do the right thing – and get screwed

How has George Osborne got away with a Budget that will hurt the very people he claims it will help most: hardworking families?

The headlines are all about One Nation, National Living Wage and tax cuts but, as the dust settles, the calculations that have emerged so far make clear that the poorest households are going to suffer significant cuts in income. While a series of cuts such as the lower benefit cap will hit out-of-work households hard, people in work face a series of technical changes to tax credits and benefits that will make many of them substantially worse off.

To give some idea, here are the three main cuts:

  • A four-year freeze in working age benefits saving £4 billion by 2020/21. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that this alone means that 13 million families will lose an average of £260 a year. Of those, 7.4 million are in work and will lose £280 a year. The freeze will also hit child benefit, which David Cameron promised to protect.
  • £6 billion worth of cuts to tax credits (and subsequently universal credit) and associated housing allowances from April 2017. The IFS says new claimants will lose credit entitlement for more than two children, losing the average of £3,670 a year that currently goes to 872,000 families (548,000 in work). On top of that, the family element in credits for the first child will be cut for new claimants and housing allowances associated with both will be cut too. Kate Webb of Shelter calculates that just one change – the removal of the family premium, an allowance of earned income before housing benefit starts to be withdrawn for working families with children – could cost a single mother working 20 hours a week at the new national living wage £11 a week. That’s not much less than the bedroom tax.
  • Cuts to work allowances that mean working households will lose tax credits/universal credit much more quickly than now. At the moment, credits start to be withdrawn once family earnings rise above £6,420. That will fall to just £3,850. This will cost 3 million working families just over £1,000 a year each. Credits will also be withdrawn at a faster rate once they hit that threshold.

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Reconstructing Speenhamland

Where do the Conservatives really stand when it comes to supporting workers on low wages?

Are the Tories the One Nation ‘workers party’, cutting tax, increasing the minimum wage and reforming welfare to make sure that work always pays? Or are they the one that’s set to cut spending on tax credits by £5 billion and cost those same workers up to £1,690 per year?

Ahead of Wednesday’s Budget, the rhetoric and the reality simply do not match. In David Cameron’s ‘speech on opportunity’ in Runcorn last month, he contrasted the ‘right track’ of economic opportunity with the ‘wrong track’ of ‘people capable of work, written off to a lifetime on benefits’ and policies that ‘ignore the causes and simply treat the symptoms of the social and economic problems we face’. Rather than redistributing money through the benefits system we have to tackle the ‘real causes’ of child poverty. And our approach to low pay is complacent:

‘There is what I would call a merry-go-round. People working on the minimum wage having that money taxed by the government and then the government giving them that money back – and more – in welfare. Again, it’s dealing with the symptoms of the problem: topping up low pay rather than extending the drivers of opportunity – helping to create well paid jobs in the first place. So this is the change we need. We need to move from a low wage, high tax, high welfare society to a higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare society.’

Needless to say he did not explain how. The key Conservative policy of increasing the income tax threshold to the level of the minimum wage sounds like it benefits low-paid workers most. In fact, anyone paid below the current threshold of £10,600 a year will receive no benefit at all while most of the gains will go to people on higher earnings. It’s the same story with tax credits and housing benefit, both of which are essential to people who are in work but on low pay. All the tax cuts in the world do little to make up for the cuts in the last parliament and the cuts to come in this. As Gavin Kelly argues, the notion that higher wages will somehow fill the gap is fanciful.

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Mirror image

Nobody pretends that reform of housing benefit will be easy but a report out today underlines the scale of the task.

The report by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) does a great job of making the links between policies on housing, welfare and the labour market. The sobering conclusion for the government is that everything it has done so far has only succeeded in reducing the rate of growth of the housing benefit bill rather than reducing it.

So as fast as the government introduces cuts like the bedroom tax the bill keeps rising faster because of inflationary factors built into the system. Between 1997/98 and 2012/13 the total bill rose by 48 per cent in real terms.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


Beyond belief

So is it time to celebrate the rise in housing benefit claims by people in work as a reflection of the government’s success in getting people off benefits?

That was the claim made by Iain Duncan Smith at work and pensions questions yesterday as he answered Labour jibes about the soaring numbers of working households now dependent on state help with their rent.

The work and pensions secretary told Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck:

‘The figure the hon. Lady did not give is that out-of-work housing benefit claims are falling, and that is because people who were claiming it are now going into work. That means that they are earning more money, which means that the likelihood of their being in poverty is far less. I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to get up sometime and congratulate us on getting more people back to work and spending less on housing benefit as a result.’

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing

 


Feeling the pinch

Mark Simmonds is not getting much sympathy after claiming that MPs’ expenses make it ‘intolerable’ to live in London but has he also revealed a deeper truth about our housing system?

The MP for Boston and Skegness resigned as a minister on Monday and will leave parliament at the next election after claiming that he can’t find anywhere to rent in the capital on his £35,000 a year housing allowance.

Simmonds and his family do not exactly sound like they are among the ‘housing pinched’. These are the 1.6 million households identified in a report by the Resolution Foundation as spending more than 50 per cent of their net household income (after tax and benefits) on their rent or mortgage.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


Working it out

As Labour and the Conservatives renew hostilities about the housing benefit bill, which of them will do something about it?

In the latest round of Labour’s The Choice summer offensive, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves released figures from the House of Commons Library showing that the total bill is set to rise to £27 billion by 2018/19.

Within that, she highlighted the soaring number of claims by people in work from 617,000 at the last election to 962,000 now and 1.2 million by 2018/19. That doubling in working claims will cost a total of £12.9 billion or £488 for every household in Britain between 2010/11 and 2018/19.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


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