What’s wrong with local benefit rates?
According to the Guardian, the Conservative are considering handing over to local authorities the power to set the rates for working age benefits.
This isn’t just a silly season story – Lord Hanningfield, who proposed the notion isn’t just the leader of Essex County Council, he’s also the Conservative spokesperson on business in the House of Lords.
In fact, if you look at the proposal on the Essex County Council website, you’ll see that, although there isn’t much detail, the plans actually go further than the Guardian story suggests: the Conservatives on Essex also want the power to set the elgibility criteria for these benefits.
What’s wrong with this? Wouldn’t it put into practice the “localism” all the Parties support in theory? Wouldn’t it make it easier to tailor benefits to local conditions?
Well, the first difficulty is that the proposal says nothing about the funding for benefits. No Chancellor will agree to local authorities having the power to create a more generous benefit system and pass the bill on to central government. So the pressure will all be downwards, cutting benefits for unemployed people – that is the implication of Essex’s talk about stopping benefit rates from “adversely affecting the local labour market”.
The second problem is that the Essex proposals will lead to benefits eligibility and rates becoming a local political issue. We know that the general public tend to be unsympathetic to unemployed people, imagine that benefit rates are higher than they really are and assume that benefits for unemployed people are the largest element in the welfare bill (actually, they are one of the smallest). This will mean that proposing cuts will be an easy option and opposing them will tend to be unpopular.
Finally, the Essex proposals say nothing about local authorities in such a system having an obligation to provide an adequate sum to live on. Currently, Jobseeker’s Allowance for a single person aged over 25 is £64.30 a week. If you have extra outgoings – rent, children, disability-related costs – you may be entitled to more than this, but the basic level for a single adult to live on is just £9.19 a day. Benefits are only uprated in line with prices – and even that policy could be ended by a Conservative government.
A policy that would make it more likely that unemployed people’s benefits would be cut would be unfair and inhumane.