25 May 2015

The conservative victory and the welfare state: Here comes the pain

The Conservatives have won an unexpected majority. Now must come the cuts. Even Ian Duncan Smith is worried about the scale of the cuts promised. In this post I review the good, the bad, the ugly and unknown proposals that the conservatives have in stock for the welfare state. It’s an open question which ones they end up implementing and more crucially where they impose the pain of the non-specified cuts they promised in their manifesto.

The good

There may be some attempts to raise the purchasing power of low income workers. They want to raise the threshold beyond which workers start paying income tax to 12,500£. But whether this will on the net make low income workers better off depends crucially on where they cut welfare state spending further (see below). A downside is of course that this further erodes the government’s tax raising capacity. On minimum wages, they declared they would follow the recommendations from the Low Pay Commission to raise minimum wage to over $8 by the end of 2020. Again whether this will actually represent an improvement depends on the inflation rate over the next five years.

In addition to these uncertain improvements to the conditions of low income workers are two big spending promises. The first one concerns giving working parents 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 years old, which they estimate will cost about £350 million. The second one is to protect the NHS by keeping it free at the point of use and increasing the NHS funding by an additional £8 billion by 2020. For the latter increase in spending to make the NHS sustainable will require additional ‘efficiency savings’ of 2% to 3% a year which are likely to be very difficult to achieve. So in all likelihood, the Conservatives will have to choose between a deterioration of quality or allocating extra spending.

Finally, two ambiguously positive proposals. First, they have promised that they would introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses. This will not resolve much of the issues of university funding and access to undergraduate degrees, but fills a gap for postgraduate studies where access was hampered. Second, the benefit cap, which I discuss below in more detail, will not include the Disability Living Allowance.

The bad

In a context of austerity, the Conservatives are wasting tax revenues on the better off while cutting benefits on the worst off. This makes no economic sense and will likely depress the economy given the different marginal propensity to consume of different income groups: the poor will reduce their spending in response to lower benefits more than the rich will increase their spending in reactions to lower taxes. The net effect on aggregate demand, even in the absence of additional consolidation, will be negative.

Regarding benefits, they will freeze working age benefits for two years from April 2016 (except for maternity allowance, statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay, statutory adoption pay and statutory sick pay). Two groups are specifically targeted. First, EU immigrants: they plan to further restrict benefits (housing, JSA, etc) to EU jobseekers in the first four years. This may be consistent with EU law as long as the restriction applies to non-contributory benefits. However, studies have shown that immigrants bring more revenues than they cost so there seems to be little reasons to limit benefits on economic grounds. Second, 18-21 years old will be eligible to a less generous ‘Youth Allowance’ limited to six months and will also have less access to housing benefits.

The ugly

The three most problematicc proposals are the benefit cap, the undercutting of strikes and promotion of precarious contracts and sanctions for addicts. With respect to the first, they will lower the current benefit cap on the benefits that households can receive to £23,000 (from £26,000). In practice this will only hurt families that need it the most such as those with many children or those paying high rents.

Next, they want to rely on precarious contracts to break strikes by repealing the “nonsensical restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes”. This fundamentally undermines the right to strike as precarious contracts are likely less costly than the workers that are striking. Since those who strike are not being paid by their employers, strikes will no longer have any impact on employers.

Finally, those who refuse the “medical help they need” will see their benefits reduced. This concern both those addicted to drugs and the clinically obese. Assuming that at least some of these recipients would change their behaviour in response to the change, this still implies that some very vulnerable recipients that are not able to change their behaviour will lose benefits.

The known unknowns

Given that they have promised to protect Schools and international development, and that they will be spending more on the NHS and childcare, unspecified cuts are going to be large. In total the IFS estimates that they will have to cut £22.5 billion from departmental spending in ‘unprotected’ areas including defence, law and order, social care, and others. How much of this will be frontloaded in the first couple of years remains to be seen, but this will no doubt necessitate very drastic cuts.

In a post-crisis context where there is a heightened need for the welfare state there are very few policy domains that be cut without imposing significant hardships. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the many new challenges related to ageing and changing labour market structures would also require more rather than less welfare state spending.