Welfare reforms are little more than a sticking plaster

 

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On the face of it, you can see why George Osborne is targeting the welfare budget as he scrapes the barrel for another round of spending cuts.

Public opinion has hardened against benefit claimants. The Government's most popular policy is the £26,000-a-year cap on welfare payments for a family, in line with average earnings, which left Labour floundering. "There's almost nothing you can say that is too hardline for most voters," quips one Downing Street insider.

So far, so good. Mr Osborne's problem is that he has already picked the low-hanging fruit. Benefits are already linked to the consumer prices index (CPI) rather than the retail prices index (RPI), which normally rises by almost 1 percentage point more. The freeze in most benefits the Chancellor is now floating is little more than a piece of sticking plaster.

Mr Osborne is finding it difficult to line up all his ducks. Last year, Iain Duncan Smith and Nick Clegg joined forces to block a benefits freeze or below-inflation increase from this April. Both men would support cuts in winter fuel payments, free bus passes and TV licences for better-off pensioners. But David Cameron is unwilling to break his pledge to preserve them, made in the run-up to the 2010 election, having seen how Mr Clegg's broken promise on tuition fees continues to haunt him.

Such cuts will probably happen – but not until after the 2015 election.

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