Friday, October 29, 2010

The significance of the benefits cuts controversy for the rest of the public sector

The kerfuffle over the changes to Child Benefit and Housing Benefit must raise doubts over how viable the path set out by the Spending Review will be. Both sets of “reforms” may not survive coming into contact with the real world. There are serious practical problems with their implementation. The numbers involved are significant – as always the losers from any change are very vocal but in this case there are no apparent winners; in the case of the Housing Benefit caps the media will be able to show emotionally charged footage of families and pensioners being evicted. (For a fascinating look at the numbers involved, the Data Blog of the Guardian has an interesting analysis.)

This is only the start. Hardly any media coverage has been devoted to the changes to Council Tax Benefit. From April 2013, CTB will be replaced with grants to councils who will be able to set their own local criteria for payments. The central government funding is being reduced by 10% - saving £0.5bn a year by 2014/15. Tom Clark on the Guardian has pointed to echoes of the Poll Tax.

In last week's Public Finance Ian Mulheirn of the Social Market Foundation set out how the difficulties of implementing reform will blunt the blade of George Osborne's axe.

In addition to the political challenges of cuts, there is the inevitable uncertainty surrounding the macro-economy.

So might the Spending Review be jettisoned? Probably not given the political priority given to deficit reduction. (Interestingly there is speculation about another Spending Review in 2012 and then a pre-election one in 2014. Nevertheless these are more likely to see only a tilt on the tiller.)

If deficit reduction is here to stay but some of the welfare savings are not tenable – what takes the strain? The Spending Review gave several spending departments more generous departmental expenditure limits than expected as a result of headroom created by “welfare reform”.

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