Friendly fire

6 05 2015

The Guardian led this morning with an explosive list of benefit cuts proposed by civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions last year.

The list of proposals is eye-watering. Abolishing statutory maternity pay, freezing benefits and limiting them by family size, yet more restrictions on which disabled people are considered “disabled”, ending major benefits for under-25s, even increasing the hated bedroom tax. They all feature on the leaked list.

The reaction from Labour supporters – actually, anyone who hates the Tories – has been outrage, but also a kind of “gotcha” glee in regard to the unspecified £10bn of welfare cuts the Conservatives plan to make in the next parliament (a further £2bn cuts have been specified, giving a £12bn total).

These people claim that this is how the Tories will achieve their £10bn unspecified cuts. Cat’s out of the bag. Tories caught red handed. So now we know. Etc.

They have clearly not read the article.

The Guardian reporters state it in the first line – the list was drawn up “in response to warnings that the next government would struggle to keep welfare spending below a legal cap of about £120bn a year.”

The report continues: “The documents make clear that some of the welfare money-saving options will be necessary because demand for benefits over the next five years is highly likely to exceed the cap limit by billions of pounds.”

In other words – the list was not in response to the Tory manifesto. The manifesto hadn’t even been written when the proposals were drawn up last spring.

So does that mean the Conservatives aren’t planning this? No – they almost certainly are. It’s what they do. The  questions instead revolve around Labour.

The welfare spending cap was voted into law in March 2014 as a Tory stunt to look tough on benefits. The law places a limit on how much the government can spend annually on benefits (except pensions and Jobseekers’ Allowance). The limit is set at around £120bn, as the Guardian reports.

The trouble is, the Tories’ savage welfare cuts have barely saved any actual money – our low-wage economy drives up tax credit claims, and dovetails with our housing crisis to drive up the Housing Benefit bill. So the DWP officials expect the welfare cap to be breached in the next few years.

But that’s ok – after all, Labour will get rid of the cap, right?

Wrong.

As the Guardian reports, Labour actually supported the cap. Only 13 Labour backbenchers voted against it, alongside the SNP, SDLP, Respect and Plaid (Caroline Lucas appears not to have turned up). And there is no commitment to repeal the cap in the Labour manifesto.

These proposals will be on the table no matter which party gets in.

Little wonder then, that Labour’s shadow DWP minister Rachel Reeves tied the plans directly to the Tory manifesto in her comments to the Guardian. If people think these proposals are part of the Tories’ £10bn benefit cuts, they will conclude that voting Labour will stop them from happening.

As we can see, nothing could be further from the truth.

One Labour MP who voted in favour of the cap, Sheila Gilmore, explained how it’d all be fine under a Labour government. Under the welfare cap, the government must either propose further benefit cuts, raise the cap or justify breaching the cap.

Gilmore wrote that: “Now of course what is proposed depends on which party is in government and whether they can command a majority for their preferred course of action … A Labour government could make different decisions, including explaining to the public at the time of the vote why spending more than the forecast is necessary.”

Oh really?

The Labour manifesto’s proposals on welfare are pitiful. With the exception of the bedroom tax, Labour is proposing to keep every single benefit cut implemented over the last five years – council tax benefit cuts, disability benefit cuts, tax credit restrictions. Only the bedroom tax and the tax credit freeze would be unwound. The individual benefit cap will be regionalised, so the whole country can share in the misery inflicted on single mothers in London.

In fact, in her comments to the Guardian Reeves boasts that Labour will “save £1bn by cutting housing benefit fraud and overpayments” – so expect more of the administrative bungling that usually accompanies such initiatives, with a few dodgy lie detectors thrown in.

After the election, the anti-welfare hysteria and propaganda among the media and the public that has marked the last six years will not subside. There is no evidence from Labour’s manifesto or its endless rhetoric about “working people” that a Labour government would “explain to the public” why raising the welfare cap was necessary.

Gilmore also claimed that Labour would bring the welfare bill down by reducing demand for benefits – increasing people’s wages, lowering their housing costs and living costs.

Is there any evidence they would achieve this? Again, no. They would cap rents and energy bills at current levels – but current levels are already too high. Their house-building programme is vague. They are proposing a minimal increase in the minimum wage and a bit of tweaking on casualised jobs and the Living Wage.

There is no commitment to bringing housing costs down, energy costs down, increasing council housing supply, or evening out the skewed bargaining relationship between employers and workers. In short, there is little that would actually bring the welfare bill down.

So, faced with a breached welfare spending cap, Labour can be expected to simply push through more welfare cuts. And that means the DWP list – which is far more brutal than even the savagery we have seen in the last five years – applies just as much to Labour as it does to the Tories.

Friendly fire – the same bullets, but shot with a smile.

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