How do the general election manifestos compare on social security pledges?

One of the five big asks that Citizens Advice has for the next government is to improve the benefits system so that it works for the people who need it. The main political parties have published their manifestos ahead of the general election on 8 June. Richard Machin looks at what they say about social security benefits

In previous elections the media and electorate have often bemoaned the lack of obvious choice between the main political parties. On review of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos, it is hard to make that accusation this time round. Under a Conservative government we will see a continuation of current policy for working age claimants (indeed their manifesto is incredibly light in this area to say the least). Labour and the Liberal Democrats plan a sweeping range of reforms to benefit policies that have been introduced since 2010. The ‘bedroom tax’, the two-child limit for means tested benefits, the work capability assessment, the freezing of annual uprating and sanctions are amongst the things that could be consigned to history if we see a change of government on the morning of 9 June. In the 2015 general election more over 65s voted than any other age group (78% in total). The Conservatives won 47% of votes from this age group compared with a 23% share for Labour. These committed voters will look at the proposals outlined with interest, and perhaps surprisingly, the Conservatives outline the greatest reductions in final support for this demographic.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey revealed support for higher spending on disability benefits and benefits for single parents, but a continuing unsympathetic view of unemployed claimants. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says government plans for future cuts to benefits would significantly reduce the incomes of low-income working-age households, particularly those with children.

With much to consider before election day, here is a summary of the main social security proposals in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos:

Disability and carers benefits
The Conservative manifesto pledges to legislate to give unemployed disabled claimants personalised and tailored employment support. Perhaps unsurprisingly both the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos commit to a significant overhaul of the assessment regime for disability benefits. Labour would scrap both the work capability assessment for employment support allowance (ESA) and the current PIP assessment regime and replace this with individual tailored plans that take account of the barriers faced by claimants. The Labour manifesto makes it clear that private companies would no longer be involved in the assessment process, and repeat assessments for claimants with long-term and severe conditions would be abolished. The Liberal Democrats propose the abolition of the work capability assessment for employment and support allowance, to be replaced with a new ‘real world test’ of incapacity, which would be administered by local authorities instead of the Department for Work and Pensions (The think-tank Demos has argued for this model for some time).

The level of disability benefits would be increased under Labour or the Liberal Democrats. For Employment and Support Allowance purposes, Labour would increase payments for those in the work-related activity group by £30 per week, a move that would essentially be mirrored by the Liberal Democrats. Labour would also bring the carer’s allowance payments in line with the job seeker’s allowance, while the Liberal Democrats would raise the carer’s allowance earnings threshold from £110 to £150 per week and reduce the number of hours of care required to be completed by the claimant.

Universal credit
Citizens Advice argue for the need to strengthen the advice given to universal credit claimants in terms of both budgeting and the application process. Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) urges the Department for Work and Pensions to listen and respond to evidence of problems with the roll-out of universal credit. Both Citizens Advice and CPAG argue for the need to reduce the six week wait for the first payment of universal credit.

The Conservative manifesto makes no specific pledges in relation to universal credit. Labour propose a redesign of the universal credit system and an end to the six week delay in payments. The Liberal Democrats propose to reverse cuts to work allowances and the family element and permit both parents to earn before benefit is stopped.

The new two-child limit for child tax credit and universal credit has been analysed in an earlier Adviser article. CPAG states that the scrapping of this policy would prevent child poverty rising by 200,000. The Labour manifesto describes the two-child policy as ‘an attack on low-income families’ and commits to abolishing the ‘rape clause’ (an exception that requires the claimant to declare that a child has been born as a result of non-consensual intercourse). The Liberal Democrats would scrap the two-child limit on means tested benefits (including the ‘rape clause’).

Other working-age benefits
The Conservative manifesto makes no specific reference to changing current policy in this area. Labour proposes a series of reversals to policies that have been pursued by the previous two administrations, including scrapping the ‘bedroom tax’, reinstating housing benefit for 18–21 year olds and extending maternity pay to 12 months. Adviser outlined the changes to Bereavement Benefits introduced in April 2017; Labour would scrap these changes. The Liberal Democrats would also abandon the ‘bedroom tax’ and housing benefit cuts for young people, and increase the job seeker’s allowance and universal credits for 18–24 year olds. The Liberal Democrats would link rates of Local Housing Allowance for tenants in the private rented sector with average rents in an area.

Modelling by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that freezing of annual increases in working-age benefits reduces living standards when prices are rising. The Liberal Democrats propose to uprate benefits for people of working age in line with inflation. Labour plans to overhaul the current sanctions regime, CPAG has argued that sanctions should only be used as a last resort and that there should be a greater investment in advice services to reduce benefit issues arising.

Much media attention has focused on the ‘triple lock’ on the state pension (an increase in the pension by the highest of earnings growth, prices growth or 2.5%). Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats would maintain the ‘triple lock’ in the next parliament. The Conservatives would pursue this policy until 2020 then introduce a ‘double lock’: a pension increase by either earnings or inflation. Three different policy positions are proposed on the winter fuel payment: the Conservatives would bring forward a means test, the Liberal Democrats would withdraw eligibility for those paying tax at the higher rate (40%), Labour would continue with the current universality of the scheme. The Conservatives state that they would maintain free bus passes (as would Labour and the Liberal Democrats), eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences for the duration of the next parliament. Both the Conservatives and Labour plan a review of pension age. The Conservatives state that this must ensure pension age is linked to changes in life expectancy. Labour propose a flexible policy that takes account of national insurance contributions and occupational conditions. Labour propose an increase in pension credit for some women adversely affected by changes to state retirement age.

The full manifestos are available at the following addresses:

A selection of content from Adviser magazine is available here on the Medium blog, as well as shorter, topical pieces, such as this election blog.

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