Easter is by definition an optimistic festival, a hopeful season. But that's not quite the prevailing sentiment at the Department for Work and Pensions, where the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, has admitted defeat, of a kind. He says he is no longer trying to cut the benefits bill; he's simply "managing" the rate of growth in handouts. Yet, at the very same time, charities such as Crisis are, as we report today, pointing to the cumulative and painful effects of various caps and cuts to benefits to vulnerable groups. If this is what not-cutting feels like, heaven knows what real cuts would do.
Mr Duncan Smith has already had a run-in with the Archbishop of Canterbury on this subject. The Most Rev Justin Welby has condemned the cap on benefits to less than inflation for driving families into poverty. Mr Duncan Smith responded that it is neither moral nor fair to trap families in welfare dependency. Perhaps both are right. Yet the problem is that so many benefits changes are coming into effect simultaneously. The cap on housing benefit is coinciding with reductions in council tax benefits and the so-called bedroom tax to reduce income significantly for groups who are already hard-pressed. And this is before the central element of the welfare reforms, the universal credit, has been introduced.
The problem is that benefits are taking a disproportionately large share of government spending cuts because the NHS, overseas aid and schools are protected. The welfare bill is every other minister's favourite target for cuts and its largest component, pensions, is non-negotiable.
Some reforms take the form of localism: the allocation of council tax benefit, for instance, is going to be devolved to local authorities but the effect will be that many poor families will have to pay more. And the cap on benefits to 1 per cent, significantly less than inflation, is, as the Archbishop points out, bad for families on a fixed budget.
One effect of the Chancellor's monetary laxity, in generating so much money through quantitative easing, is that inflation targets have effectively been abandoned – this is falling hard on the poorest. John Major used to talk about the moral case for keeping inflation low; his successor appears to have other ideas.
The cap on housing benefit is in line with the Government's principle, that those out of work should not earn more in welfare than those on the average wage. There is sense in that, especially when rent subsidies so often go to private landlords who charge inflated rents. But the so-called bedroom tax is another matter. It will cost 660,000 households an average of £14 a week. Given that so many of these households, two-thirds by one estimate, have a disabled member, the measure seems particularly perverse. If the effect of removing the subsidy means that more families become homeless, and have to be dealt with as such by local authorities, the pain caused will not be justified by the real costs.
It is dispiriting to reflect on Easter Sunday that many families face the choice between food, rent and fuel. By all means make work pay more than benefits, but these changes affect the employed as well as the jobless. The Government's reforming zeal should be tempered with pragmatic compassion; Mr Duncan Smith, in admitting that he isn't cutting so much as curbing the pace of welfare increases, seems to be accepting reality.Reuse content