THE NATIONAL tabloids are often full of foaming at the mouth headlines about ‘scroungers’, stories about ‘dole fiddlers’, and tales expressing horror that some people pretend to be ill to get disability benefits.
That is nothing new and it is conspicuous that there is a spike in such stories (particularly involving those from outside the UK) when governments of whatever complexion have announced ‘welfare reform’ (cuts) ‘designed to deliver to those most in need’ (not those in most in need).
WHERE THE MONEY GOES: PENSIONS
Welfare spending makes up around 35% of the UK Government’s spending and totals over £260b per year. However, ‘welfare’ is a broad term and only a fraction of welfare benefits spending is on unemployment benefits.
The largest amount paid out in welfare benefits is for pensions and the Office for National Statistics’ last available figures show that £108b of the £258b welfare spend in 2014/15 went on pensions.
In fact, total pension spending has increased by 25% since the financial year 2010/11. This isn’t surprising as life expectancy has been steadily increasing, so state pensions are being claimed for longer. The remaining life expectancy for someone aged 65, in 2016, is 21 years for a man and 24 for a woman.
What that means is that the idea that people have ‘paid in what they get out’ is increasingly untrue. Some of those claiming pensions will have contributed comparatively little to their state pensions, whereas actuarial calculations on future pension need carried out when older pensioners were working would have been predicated on them dying within a few years of retirement. The fact that we are all living longer means that the proportion spent on pensions is likely to continue to rise just at the point when the working age population which funds the spending is in decline.
WHERE THE MONEY GOES: CARE AND DISABILITY
£29 b is spent on personal social services. About £41 b goes on benefits for people who are ill or disabled, while £10 b goes on elderly care payments. Disabled people are more likely to live in deprived areas and work in routine occupations. In the 2011 Census, 18% of people (10 million) reported some form of disability.
As for elderly care, there were 9.2 million people aged 65+ in 2011, making up 16% of our population. The care home population has actually stabilised over the last decade at around 300,000 people, but there has been an increase of 600,000 people (likely family members) providing unpaid care between 2001 and 2011. In total, 5.8 million (10%) provided unpaid care in England and Wales in 2011, and the majority were of working age.
W HERE THE MONEY GOES: POVERTY AND THE UNEMPLOYED
£44 b goes on family benefits, income support and tax credits. This includes benefits such as child benefit and support for people on low income. Around £3.5 b goes to the unemployed.
There were around 3 million people in in-work poverty in 2013. This meant their household income (adjusted for household size and composition) was below the poverty threshold and were in employment themselves. The 10% of households with the lowest disposable income spent an average of £196 a week in 2013. Of this, half (£98) was spent on food and non-alcoholic drinks, transport, housing (including net rent), and household fuel and power.
As for out of work people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit, there were 760,200 people claiming these benefits in January 2016. This number has decreased by 11.2% compared with a year earlier
WHAT ABOUT FRAUD?
The notion, often pushed by the tabloids, is that there is a massive amount of benefit fraud. A poll carried out by the TUC in 2012 revealed that British people believed that 27% of benefits were claimed fraudulently.
To describe that as a ‘wild overstatement’ does not do how wrong it is justice. It seems to be one of those figures arrived at on the basis that ‘everybody knows’, rather than being remotely founded in reality.
The actual level of all fraud in the UK’s welfare benefits system was 0.8% in 2014/15.
While that is the amount of detected fraud, to suggest that it is completely out of line with actuality is to ignore the fact that the UK government employs 12 times as many benefits fraud investigators than it has tax fraud investigators.
The UK loses six times more through tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance than the total value of fraudulent welfare benefit claims. Moreover, the UK fails to collect £34b in tax each year. And that is providing you accept the UK government’s figures, which are disputed by some economists as a wild underestimate.
While benefits fraud is an issue, there is an argument that the amount of time spent on it and the amount of publicity it receives is out of all proportion to the actual value of the fraud involved.
University of Warwick political scientist Adam Taylor said: “
This isn’t to say that benefit fraud is OK or that HMRC isn’t doing anything about tax evasion. But it is wrong that the government feels it can openly threaten the poor while merely cajoling the rich. And it is sad that the tax-burdened middle class reserve their outrage for the single mother working in the cafe while lionising the rich, famous and powerful who are getting away with it, tax free.”
Successive governments have been aware of the crisis facing benefit payments for over two decades and yet none of them has sought to do anything more than fiddle at the margins and target the most vulnerable and weakest members of society: the Cameron Government spent an enormous amount of political capital to no good end making an economically pointless adjustment to housing benefit with the hated bedroom tax. The projected savings from that policy were tiny.
In addition, the amount of direct tax paid by the working population is contracting along with the numbers of those in work and the changing profile of work economic activity.
In the past, when the welfare model was fixed, there was generally one full time bread winner per working class family in a job which lasted an entire working life. Stable incomes represented a stable and predictable tax yield. However, the change from a high labour manufacturing economy to a service-based one with lower labour requirements, altered the whole dynamic of working class life. Multiple part time jobs may reduce the number on the unemployed role, but lower income jobs pay less into the UK’s tax base.
So, the question that all governments face is how to provide people with the welfare benefits they need without upsetting voters who have to pay for them.
NO EASY ANSWER
The issue is particularly acute due to David Cameron’s 2015 promise not to raise National Insurance, Income Tax, or VAT. Where else, the question might fairly be asked, would the money come from? Especially as there is a guaranteed 2.5% increase per annum in the state pension.
Oh – and older voters and pensioners vote in far higher numbers than the young. On the basis that turkeys seldom vote for Christmas, you can guess why politicians are wary of doing anything to affect that demographic.
One thing is certain, fiddling at the margins is not enough. But whether politicians have the will to make the sort of changes needed to the UK’s tax and welfare system, is one of those questions to which there is no glib answer.
Which do you prefer, after all, higher taxes or cuts targeted at those least able to defend themselves?