Yesterday morning the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, told the BBC's Andrew Marr that while the Conservative Party hoped to make £12 billion worth of cuts to the welfare budget by 2017 should they form the next government, he remained uncertain of precisely where those cuts would come from. He was happy to discuss the scale the misery, but wasn't going to let on how it was going to be meted out. I'm going to go out on a limb and make a prediction that among the hardest hit will be young people.
When it first came to office five years ago, the coalition government promised to eradicate the budget deficit – the government spending more than it earns – by 2015. It has dramatically failed. The deficit for this year is more or less the same as the year before, standing at some £90 billion.
Some people argue that deficits aren't as bad as all that anyway. After all, the UK has run budget deficits in all but five years since 1980. But the fact that the parties most likely to form the next government think they do matter, and insist that the deficit be eliminated as soon as possible, means that cuts will remain the defining feature of not only this election, but the one after that and the one after that and so on. If you voted for the first time in 2010, budgetary austerity will likely be the overarching frame for party politics for much of your adult life.
During yesterday's interview, Duncan Smith was keen to impress that further cuts to the welfare budget (of which only 3 percent is spent on "scroungers" on Jobseeker's Allowance), were not only useful in reducing the deficit but also in improving the lives of those who depend on them to get by. Those on the receiving end of his kindness might be inclined to disagree however. Take, for instance, the man on disability benefit who suffered a heart attack while he was undertaking an assessment to see if he was fit to work. Several weeks later he saw his benefits axed – sanctioned because he had failed to complete the assessment.
That case was far from an isolated one. Five years into the coalition, a long list of those who have committed suicide as a direct result of welfare reform – particularly in relation to disability benefit – has been compiled by the Black Triangle Campaign. While the government refuses to accept this is happening, it is as much a real part of 21st Century Britain as the 900,000 people using food banks and spiralling number of people who find themselves homeless.
While those numbers are astonishing, it's clear that should the Conservative Party form the next government, it would do so in a climate which would necessitate deeper cuts than anything seen so far. While a Labour administration of some kind seems more likely for now, a Conservative-led government after May is far from impossible and it is the young who should be most concerned. That's because the Tories will hammer the young with austerity as easily as they might knock back a single malt. From taking away EMA and increasing tuition fees several months after coming to power to freezing the minimum wage for under-21s two years later, it is the young who've faced the full force of the coalition's efforts to balance the budget.
Continuing on that theme, it's almost certain that Ian Duncan Smith's party and department will be looking to either freeze or abolish housing benefit and unemployment insurance for under-25s if they win the election. That should come as little surprise, given the noises his party has already made in regard to similar reforms in 2012. It fits with the line that the Prime Minister first deployed at the Conservative Party conference last year – of young people either "earning or learning" – and which was repeated during his (non) debate with Ed Miliband last week.
To a large extent this is a result of voter preference – Tory activists I've spoken to openly admit their party has little incentive to look after the young given that they rarely vote Conservative if at all. That means leaving the benefits of older voters alone, while hammering the young – from higher education to the minimum wage and unemployment benefits.
Nevertheless, these probable reforms should be put within the broader context of what is a total disregard of the young, shared by all of the major parties. While household wages have seen their biggest ever fall under this government – to an extent unknown since records began – it is those in their twenties whose wages have fallen the most, a staggering 12 percent when measured on an hourly basis. Furthermore the option to other "earn or learn" – something now seemingly central to Conservative Party policy – is in fact a choice between poverty and debt. It means young people have the "choice" of either undertaking an apprenticeship for £2.73 per hour – around a third of what is accepted as the bare minimum to survive – accumulate a pile of student debt by going to university or start working straight after school and earn as little as £3.79. That's not much of a choice.
Ian Duncan Smith didn't explicitly say it, but looking at past form it's not that hard to work it out. It doesn't seem to rash to predict that another five years of Tory government will effectively mean, with the exception of the use of the NHS, the end of welfare provision for anyone under 25.
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