London Letter: leaked Conservative plans for benefit cuts latest election tactic

Omens for Liberal Democrats not good even after leak of Conservative plans

Conservative MP Iain Duncan-Smith is greeted by Labour’s Diane Abbott on the election campaign trail. A document written in Duncan-Smith’s department said child benefit should be denied to 16- to 19-year-olds, a £1,000 loss for parents of a single child. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Conservative MP Iain Duncan-Smith is greeted by Labour’s Diane Abbott on the election campaign trail. A document written in Duncan-Smith’s department said child benefit should be denied to 16- to 19-year-olds, a £1,000 loss for parents of a single child. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

 

Elections often produce noise, rather than light, leaving behind controversies which are unintelligible to audiences looking back years later.

Even by this standard, Election 2015, while fascinating in terms of parliamentary arithmetic, will leave behind a confusing detritus.

The debate about welfare benefits offers an interesting guide. Significant cuts have been made since 2010, including the introduction of a benefits cap and reductions in housing benefit.

Occasionally, the cutbacks produced a slew of headlines, such as the one about the man with cancer who, just weeks before his death, was told his benefits had been cut because he was fit for work.

In the main, however, the policy has been popular, supported by a population that believes malingering is, if not rife, then far more common than it should be.

However, more cuts are to come. Two years ago, the Conservatives announced their plans to have cut £12 billion (€16.5 billion) from social security by 2017-18.

Up to the election campaign, the Conservatives had provided sight of just a tenth of the cutbacks. With less than a week to polling day, they have still, extraordinarily, revealed no more.

The reason for the silence is obvious: the cuts to come will affect middle-income earners, even if that fact makes the lack of pressure on them to explain even more baffling.

In all, the £12 billion would require a 10 per cent real cut to the UK’s welfare budget bar payments to the elderly, which the Conservatives have, like other parties, vowed to protect, or even increase.

“Cutting spending by this amount, especially while protecting pensioner benefits, would undeniably be painful,” notes the Institute of Fiscal Studies, adding that it is “hard to see” how it can be done “without sharp reductions in the generosity of, or eligibility to, one or more of child benefit, disability benefits, housing benefit and tax credits”.

Leaked document

Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat whose seat is under threat from the Scottish National Party, has now leaked a three-year-old Conservative document which advocated sharp cuts.

In it families would receive benefits and tax credits only for the first two children, a move that would cost families with three children £3,500 (€4,800) a year. The higher-rate benefit for the first child would also go, costing every family £360, while means-testing would cut £1,750 from a two-child middle-income family.

Finally, the paper, written inside the Department of Works and Pensions run by Ian Duncan-Smith, said child benefit should be denied to 16- to 19-year-olds – a £1,000 loss for parents of a single child.

Infuriated by Alexander’s conduct, the Conservatives, though they have done much the same themselves, claimed that Duncan-Smith’s people had indulged in “some freelancing”.

Indeed, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne claimed the paper had only been written because Alexander had asked for it: “We haven’t put into practice any of these options, we don’t support them. We didn’t support them then and we don’t support them.”

In time-honoured tradition, the Conservatives pointed to a two-year-old story in the Daily Mail in which Osborne had previously made his £12 billion plans clear; though, even by the most generous reading, he had not.

Benefits cap

Defending the £26,000 welfare benefits cap for families, which is to be cut to £23,000 if the Conservatives are re-elected, health secretary Jeremy Hunt five years ago “floated” his belief that having a large number of children is “a choice” for families.

“The number of children you have is a choice and what we’re saying is that if people are living on benefits then they make choices but they also have to have responsibility for those choices,” he said.

The message then was understood by all, but particularly by middle-class Britons, to be directed at welfare claimants, which is the reality if Osborne is to have hope of reaching his targets, even if he denies Alexander’s charge.

No issue has stayed for long on the agenda during Election 2015, or cut through to the public. Some were not sufficiently important, some were poorly handled. Some fell because voters did not pay enough attention.

The Liberal Democrats must now hope it can win a hearing on the doorsteps in the final week. However, the omens for Nick Clegg’s party do not look good, even if they will be able to say later, “We told you so.”

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