Blog post by Dr Chris Grover, Lancaster University School of Law / Centre for Child and Family Justice Research
The snap general election called by the UK’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, has been overshadowed by issues related to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. However, as the media difficulties the Conservative Party have faced over their suggestions for social care, it is clear that there is an interest in, and concern with, issues beyond those merely related to Brexit. In this blog I examine what the manifestos of the Conservative, Green, Labour, Liberal Democrat and the Scottish Nationalist parties, and Plaid Cymru and UKIP say about social security policy for working age families.
The Conservative Party’s manifesto says the least about social security policy. It notes that it has ‘no plans for further radical welfare reform in this parliament’ (p. 54). This should be welcomed, because in its 2015 general election manifesto the Conservative Party argued that savings of £12 billion per annum were required from social security spending. These were primarily introduced in the Summer Budget of 2015. They came on top of £21 billion of annual social security savings delivered by the 2010-15 Coalition government. The 2015 Budget measures included a cash freeze of working age benefits for four years from 2016/17; a restriction in means-tested benefits for out of work and low paid families to two children; the removal of the Family Element (worth over £500 per annum) from Universal Credit; reducing the benefit cap that sets a central government restriction to the amount of benefit that families can receive even if their assessed financial needs are higher than the cap; the removal of an automatic entitlement to Housing Benefit for 18 to 21 year olds, and the removal of nearly a third of the entitlement of sick and disabled people by the abolition of the Work Related Activity Component of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
Unsurprisingly, the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto does not acknowledge the harm that such austerity has done to the poorest families and will continue to do so well into the future. The 2017 manifesto notes that the Conservative Party ‘will continue to run the welfare system in accordance with our belief that that work is the best route out of poverty’ (p. 54), which is consistent with its 2015 manifesto, but a claim that is problematised by the fact that a large proportion of families living in poverty have at least one adult in paid work.
As part of its aim to create a Confident and Caring Britain the Green Party manifesto notes a desire to: ‘Redress benefits injustices with a social security system that gives everyone confidence they will get support when they need it’ (p. 11). The Green Party pledges to scrap the bedroom tax (a measure introduced by the 2010-2015 Coalition government to reduce the Housing Benefit for families living in social housing deemed to have too many bedrooms for their size). Beyond this, however, the Green Party manifesto is thin on detailed proposals. It pledges to ‘take steps’ towards introducing a universal basic income, but there are not timelines or discussion of how this might interact with social security provision.
Labour accuses the Conservatives of ‘attempts to balance books on the backs of the poorest’ and pledges ‘dignity for those who cannot work’ (p. 56). This primarily involves reversing some of the changes introduced by the 2010-15 Coalition government and the Conservative government elected in 2015. It proposes scrapping the bedroom tax; reinstating Housing Benefit for people aged under 21 and scrapping the ‘punitive sanctions regime’ (p. 56). In addition, it makes several pledges that will affect families containing disabled people. It will increase Carer’s Allowance by £11 per week, equivalising it with the UK’s unemployment benefit, Jobseeker’s Allowance, and reverse cuts to the Work Related Activity Component of ESA. Despite being introduced by 1997-2010 Labour governments, Labour’s 2017 election manifesto pledges to scrap ESA’s Work Capability Assessment (WCA). It also pledges to abolish the assessment for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). It will replace them both with a vague ‘personalised holistic assessment process that provides each individual with a tailored plan’ (p. 57). It would also ensure parity of esteem between physical and mental health within the assessment of PIP. Its proposed changes to Universal Credit are unclear. It pledges to scrap the ‘rape clause’ that helps to govern the two child limit related to means-tested benefit, but does not pledge to abolish the two-child limit, although it highlights its potential in increasing child poverty.
Despite arguments to the contrary by the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, Labour’s Manifesto does not pledge to scrap the 4 year cash freeze in benefits that started in 2016. In addition, it does not mention equally problematic areas of social security policy, most notably the benefit cap. Labour, however, do cost their changes to social security benefits as increasing spending by £4 billion per annum and pledge to fund this through essentially redistributive tax policies from wealthier people and corporations, although the Institute for Fiscal Studiers doubts whether its plans will raise the taxation that Labour argues it will.
Liberal Democrat Party
The Liberal Democrat Party also argues that the UK’s metaphorical books are being balanced on ‘the backs of the poor and disabled’ and notes that such people are ‘demonised’ for their benefit receipt (p. 59). Hence, it also pledges measures that will go some way to reverse the announcements made in the 2015 Summer Budget, including abolishing the limiting of means-tested benefits to two children per family and its rape clause; reversing cuts to Housing Benefit for 18 to 21 year olds; increasing Local Housing Allowance (LHA) with increases in average localised rents (LHA was frozen in 2016 for four years); reversing cuts to ESA for people in its Work-Related Activity Group; and, albeit somewhat confusingly, also to scrapping the WCA and replacing it with a local authority administered ‘real world’ test based on local labour markets. The Liberal Democratic Party also pledges to make it easier to claim Carer’s Allowance by reducing the number of hours that people have to care for before it can be claimed and increasing the amount that can be earned before it is removed from claimants.
Along with the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), the Liberal Democrat Party is committed to increasing working-age benefits in line with inflation, although it does not notes which measure of inflation will be used to do this. For young people (aged 18-24) it pledges to increase unemployment-related benefits at the same rate as increases in the minimum wage. The Liberal Democrats also plan to scrap the bedroom tax. Once again, however, action on the benefits cap is missing and the Liberal Democrats do not cost their changes to social security benefits, nor outline how they will be paid for. Its headline increase of a penny rise in various rates of income tax is reserved for health and social care spending.
The aim of Plaid Cymru’s manifesto (or ‘Action Plan’ as it is described) is ‘to see a Wales where everyone is treated with dignity and respect and given the support they need to fully participate in society’ (p. 25). However, in social security terms it has little detail. It pledges to scrap the bedroom tax as a means of helping to tackle child poverty and, while it criticises assessments for disability benefits being done by the private sector, it does not pledge to abolishing or changing them. It hints at the removal of sanctions for disabled people, but gives no detail of this.
Scottish Nationalist Party
Of the manifestos studied, the SNP’s arguably provides the most comprehensive social security proposals. These aim to ‘protect… social protection and family incomes’ (p. 6) by placing ‘fairness, respect and dignity’ at the heat of social security policy (p. 31). In addition to calling for the ending of the cash freeze of benefits and increasing them in line with CPI inflation, the SNP supports the scrapping of the bedroom tax, the two child limit for means-tested benefits and its rape clause, and the scrapping of the removal of the Family Element from Universal Credit. It argues for a cessation in the roll-out of Universal Credit because of its possible role in increasing rent arrears, housing debt and increasing the use of foodbanks and for changes to Universal Credit that would increase work incentives. The SNP will offer a ‘Best Start Grant’ worth £1900 to a two child family.
For families with disabled members, the SNP’s manifesto calls for the reversal of the removal of Work Related Activity Component of ESA; the abolition of the WCA, replacing it with an unspecified system treating people with ‘fairness and respect’ (p. 32); an increase in Carer’s Allowance to the level of Jobseeker’s Allowance; the extension of the Winter Fuel Payment to families with disabled children; the assessment of disability benefits to be outside of the private sector and the stopping of the reassessment for disability benefits for people with long term conditions. In addition, the SNP supports a review of the PIP assessment. It continues to call for the scrapping of the ‘punitive benefit sanction regime’ (p.33); restoring Housing Benefit for young people and reversing cuts to bereavement benefits. It will also demand that the UK government stops proposals to close Jobcentre Plus offices in Scotland and to end premium rate telephone charges for calls to the Department for Work and Pensions.
Once again, there are important areas missing in the SNP’s manifesto (most notably action on the benefit cap) and some commitments are vague (such as what will replace the WCA). It is unclear how much the SNP’s proposals will cost each year, but they will be paid for through various forms of taxation on wealthier people and institutions and increased borrowing.
UKIP’s manifesto pledges to refuse Housing Benefits to landlords in breach of planning regulations. Given that Housing Benefit is paid to claimants, rather than landlords, it does not suggest how this might be done. However, somewhat consistently or inconsistently (depending upon you pint of view), UKIP also pledge to give people the right to choose to have their Housing Benefit paid to their landlord/ladies. There is some confusion in UKIP’s manifesto between the PIP assessment and the ESA’s WCA, although it pledges to reform the latter in consultation with disabled people and disability charities. Like Labour and the SNP, it, too, pledges to increase Carer’s Allowance to level of Jobseeker’s Allowance, and like all parties (with the exception of the Conservatives) it also pledges to abolish the bedroom tax. While the UKIP manifesto does not cost changes to the WCA, it nevertheless estimates increasing spending on social security benefits by £0.92 billion per annum by 2021/22, to be paid for by primarily slashing the overseas aid budget and a reduced net contribution to the EU following Britain’s withdrawal from it.
Women’s Equality Party
The Women’s Equality Party manifesto is described as a ‘blueprint for enabling women and girls to achieve their full potential’ (p. 2). Its manifesto does this by placing a gendered analysis at the heart of its priority of creating a ‘caring economy’. The manifesto highlights the shocking impact of austerity of women. By the end of decade more £66 billion will have taken from women in tax changes and social security cuts (86 percent of the total) (p. 29). In this context, the manifesto has the broad aim that social security policy ‘works towards creating gender equality rather than increasing inequality’ (p. 15). There is though, not a great deal of detail about how this might be achieved. The manifesto pledges to overturn what it describes as the ‘Family Cap’ (the two child limit on means-tested benefits) and its attendant rape clause. Other commitments are to reviews, for example, of the benefit system in relation to its potential role in limiting shared parenting and to the bedroom tax as part of a concern with the housing of women fleeing abusive partners. The manifesto proposes to ‘investigate’ the ‘most appropriate way’ of dividing Universal Credit payments to help ensure the financial independence of women.
In this blog I have separated social security policy from other areas of policy in 2017 general election manifestos. There are other areas of concern – such economic, health, housing and minimum wage policies (all the manifestos, for example, pledge to increase wages to various forms of a ‘living wage’) – that may impact upon the income of the poorest households. However, there is need to focus upon social security policy as changes, such as those to wages, will only benefit families that have an adult in paid work, and for many in-work poor families increases in wages are often balanced against losses in means-tested financial support.
There are some very clear choices in social security terms for the election on 8 June 2017. These range from the position of the Conservative manifesto that essentially argues for the status quo, despite the harms that seven years of austerity-driven policies are doing to the poorest families, to the position, particularly of the SNP that would see substantial changes to social security policy. The remaining political parties (the Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and the Women’s Equality Party) can be located at various points between the Conservatives and the SNP through the offer of less comprehensive and/or sometimes vague pledges. Whichever party is elected on 8 June income poor families will continue to face real hardships into the future, for even those parties pledging to make substantial changes are not arguing for the wholesale rejection of austerity-driven measures introduced since 2010.