George Osborne has refused to categorically rule out rolling child benefit into Universal Credit (UC) to help contribute towards Conservative plans to save £12 billion from the welfare budget.
The Chancellor was asked repeatedly to rule it out and did not, but said that if the Tories had wanted to include child benefit in the new welfare system, they would have done so when it was created.
The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that scrapping child benefit and increasing UC for eligible families could save £4.8 billion a year.
But such a measure would mean that 4.3 million families who receive child benefit at the moment but would not be entitled to UC in the future would lose more than £1,000 a year, the IFS said.
At a Westminster briefing, Mr Osborne was asked to rule out rolling child benefit into UC.
The Chancellor replied:
“If you judge us on our approach in this parliament and if we wanted to put child benefit into Universal Credit, we would have done it when we set up Universal Credit.
“We have got a track record, we have got a plan that’s based on clear principles about making work pay and sharpening work incentives…”
Asked again to rule it out, Mr Osborne replied:
“I’ve just given you an answer. If we wanted to do it we would have done it when we created Universal Credit.”
Asked again, Mr Osborne said:
“I’ve given a very clear answer and you have to be a contortionist to think I’m not giving a pretty clear answer to that.”
The Conservatives’ plans for the next parliament involve saving £30 billion to contribute to deficit reduction, with £12 billion set to be cut from the welfare budget.
But the party has faced criticism from the IFS and Labour for failing to set out how it would achieve the majority – around £10 billion – of those welfare cuts.
The Chancellor said:
“If you look at our track record, the £21 billion we’ve saved in this parliament, you can look at principles we will apply to future such savings.
“We want to go on creating a welfare system which rewards work and the aspirations of families and protect the most vulnerable.”
Universal Credit is the coalition Government’s flagship welfare reform and simplifies the system by rolling a string of benefits and tax credits into one payment.
It is being rolled out in stages after being hit by delays and IT problems but will eventually take in jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit and housing benefit.
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie said Mr Osborne had put middle income families in the firing line.
The Labour frontbencher said:
“The Tories won’t admit where their £12 billion of welfare cuts will come from, but after this press conference it’s now clear middle income families are in the firing line.
“George Osborne repeatedly refused to rule out rolling child benefit into universal credit. This would mean 4.3 million families losing over £1,000 a year, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies.”
Treasury Minister Priti Patel said rolling child benefit into UC was not Conservative policy.
She told BBC News:
“We’re very clear as well, we have made it clear and we’ve said that we need to find £12 billion of welfare savings but it’s not our policy, that suggestion, and that there are other ways in which we can find those savings.”
But Ms Patel would not be drawn on whether the Tories will pay child benefit only for the first two or three children.
Asked if it was a possibility, she said:
“I’m not going to come here and start talking the ins and outs of the spending review because that will all be for the next government.”
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he was not surprised by Mr Osborne’s failure to rule out the move as he insisted the change would not feature in his own party’s manifesto.
Speaking in Newtown, Mid Wales, he said:
“It’s no surprise to me that the Conservatives are considering pretty dramatic changes like taking child benefit away from lots of families because they have committed to taking £12 billion away from some of the most vulnerable families in this country.
> And we’ve been helping them for the last five years…
“They have committed to taking the equivalent of £1,500 away from eight million of the poorest families in this country to balance the books; they are not asking the very wealthy, those with the broadest shoulders, to make a single contribution through the tax system in balancing the books.
“Even if they did what is now being floated by George Osborne, they would still have £8 billion or £9 billion to fund. Who are they going to affect next, those with disabilities?
“Which other vulnerable groups will be affected by this unfair plan from the Conservatives?”
Asked whether the Lib Dems would rule out the move, Mr Clegg said:
“Child benefit rolled into the Universal Credit will not be in our manifesto because we are not planning the very, very extensive reductions in support given to the most vulnerable in our society that the Conservatives are.”
> But if anyone’s interested we’ll sell our souls again. Cheaply.
Pressed on whether it would be a measure he would block in coalition as a red line issue, Mr Clegg said:
“There’s no way the Liberal Democrats would ever endorse, of course not, in government or in opposition an approach which takes £1,500 away from eight million of the most vulnerable families in Britain.”
Source – Northern Echo, o7 Apr 2015