The potential Conservative welfare cuts set out in the leaked Whitehall documents demonstrate the huge risks awaiting any administration that seeks, as the Tories have promised, to cut billions from the social security budget in the next parliament.
On the whole these cuts – insofar as they are adopted or achievable – will impact on the very groups the coalition has tried so far to protect from its five years of welfare reforms: “hard-working families”, disabled people who cannot work, and carers who spend their lives caring for chronically ill loved ones.
While some of the work was specifically commissioned by Tory advisers, other cuts were drawn up by Department for Work and Pensions mandarins as part of scoping exercises routinely carried out in advance of a general election. The work as a whole takes account of clear Conservative promises to cut a further £12bn from welfare spending if the party returns to power.
Cuts to child benefit, carers’ allowance, and employment support allowance, coupled with proposals to tax disability allowances will all affect claimants not easily dismissed as “undeserving” or “scroungers” in populist dogma, and will reinforce the notion of the Tories as the “nasty party”.
Robert Joyce, a senior economist with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), told the BBC the work reflected the fact that the easiest benefit cuts had already been made: the choices faced by a future Tory government would be the “less palatable options that would involve overnight takeaways from certain families”.
A spokeswoman for the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, called the leaked document “ill-informed and inaccurate speculation” that should not be seen as part of the Conservatives’ plans. But the Tories have refused so far to say how they will find the £12bn of cuts, and the suspicion remains that they do not want to enter an election campaign with detailed policies that are certain to hit middle-England voters.
The proposal to limits child benefit to the first two children, potentially saving £1bn in the long term, are an obvious political risk. Many larger middle-income families – 1.2 million of them – who were unaffected by the introduction of means-testing for the child benefit, would lose an average of £1,000 a year. If the policy was applied to new births, the savings would not be realised until the 2030s.
Cutting the contributory element of employment and support allowance would hit ill or disabled claimants who have paid into the system through national insurance contributions. In this group the biggest area of expenditure – and the source of any potential savings – is severely disabled people who can no longer work. The cuts would affect claimants popularly regarded as “deserving”, with 300,000 of them losing £80 a week.
The carers’ allowance of £61.35 a week is paid to adults who spend at least 35 hours a week caring for someone. Four out of 10 carers would lose out under the proposals, which would save an estimated £1bn, hitting a group that is routinely praised by politicians for its commitment and sacrifices.
The hefty cuts outlined by the leaked documents may not enable the Tories to meet their cuts promise. Including £2bn in savings from the already proposed freeze on benefit increases, the documents suggest only a total of £8bn would be marked up, leaving the Tories £4bn short.
The IFS said in a statement on Friday: “Even if all of the reforms discussed today were implemented, alongside confirmed Conservative party policies, the total saving would be likely to fall well short of the £12bn per year that the Conservatives intend.”
Despite disasters, such as the bedroom tax and the reforms to incapacity benefit, the principle of welfare reform has often proved popular for the government over the last five years. These leaks show just how fragile that popularity may be, and will pile pressure on the Tories to say where they will find the cuts.
This article was written by Patrick Butler Social policy editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 27th March 2015 20.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010