Peter Hoskin

Five more things you need to know about the IDS reforms

Five more things you need to know about the IDS reforms
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Last November, I put together a ten-point summary of IDS's benefit reforms – so why add five more points now? Two reasons. First, it's worth dwelling on what, I believe, will be one of this government's defining achievements. Second – and far more prosaic – the Insistute for Fiscal Studies released a report on the matter yesterday. The following points have all been harvested from that document, and represent the IFS's judgement, so to speak. Only one judgement among many, but one that warrants some attention. Here goes:

1. Who gains and who loses (in financial terms)? This question courses through most of the IFS report, and stands out in most of the news coverage this morning. But before we get into all that, it's worth pointing out that no-one will suffer from the immediate transfer to IDS's universal credit. The wonks at the DWP have wired things so that people's benefit levels don't shoot downwards when these reforms are introduced. What will happen, though, is described by the IFS thus: "Over time, as [some claimants'] benefit payments are frozen while other people’s are uprated in line with inflation, the real value of their disposable income will inevitably be lower than under the existing system." Hence the idea that some people will "lose out" from these reforms.

What we get then are separate analyses for different types of benefit claimant. Here, for instance, is the IFS graph for a generic "lone parent with two children":

What this shows is that a lone parent would be better off working for less than 16 hours a week under universal credit. Between 16 and 30 hours a week, they oscillate between being better off on universal credit and better off under the existing system. After 30 hours a week, they would be marginally better off under the existing system.

Obviously, these analyses are different for different types of people, working different hours a week – an almost impossible range to model. But the IFS has stacked up enough of them to draw two separate conclusions:

i) In the long run, 2.5 million working-age families will gain from the introduction of Universal Credit. 1.4 million working-age families will lose out. An extra 2.5. million working-age families will effectively see no change in their income levels.

ii) In the IFS's words: "On average, couples with children will gain more (in cash and as a percentage of income) than couples without children, who will gain more than single adults without children. Lone parents will, on average, lose in the long run. But there will be winners and, in the long run, losers amongst all family types."

2. How much do they stand to gain and lose? By the IFS's calculations:

"On average, families that stand to gain will see a 7.8% increase in their disposable income, which amounts to £27.82 per week in 2014–15 for each family. In the absence of transitional protection, the average family that loses will be worse off by 6.7% (or £26.09 per week). Overall, and ignoring transitional protection, Universal Credit will lead to a 0.3% average increase (i.e. £1.64 per week) in income across all working-age families. With transitional protection, the average increase in income in 2014–15 will be 0.6% or £3.48 per week."

3. What about those pesky decline charts?

4. Does universal credit get people back into work?
Really, though, all of the above misses the point. The driving purpose of the universal credit is not to raise or lower benefit levels for some claimants. Rather, it is to help claimants back into work, where further profit – both financial and otherwise – awaits. What this means, as I explained in my ten-point summary, is smoothing out the rate at which benefits are withdrawn from, and taxes imposed upon, claimants finding employment. As it stands, some claimants can lose 96 pence of every extra pound earned, which is, of course, a massive disincentive to finding work in the first place. IDS's aim is to shatter, or at least lower, these barriers.

Let's return to that lone parent with two children. The IFS has also drawn up a graph which shows the effect on what they call the "participation tax rate": the percentage of a person's income lost through withdrawn benefits and higher taxes for each extra hour worked. Here it is:

That spike under the current system is the really nasty bit: 80 percent of extra income lost through withdrawn benefits and higher taxes. The universal credit erases it completely. Then, after that, the PTR oscillates between being lower under universal credit and lower under the current system – but the difference is generally marginal. On the whole, we can count universal credit a success for this claimant.

Once again, this lone parent is just one part of a patchwork of different claimants. And, once again, the IFS analyses some of the other squares to reach two general conclusions:

i) On the whole, universal credit will improve incentives to work right across the spectrum – but particularly at low incomes (as we saw with the lone parent above). The highest marginal effective tax rate faced by anyone will be 76.2 percent, but most will face much lower rates than that. It does, of course, depend on the type of claimant and, crucially, the amount of hours they are working.

ii) At current distributions, 1.7 million workers will see a fall in their marginal effective tax rate, and 1.8 million will see an increase. Don't read too much into this, though. As in point i), no-one will face the highest rates that exist in the current system. And the lower rates are concentrated among those on the lowest incomes - that is, those who most need to be helped back into work. As the IFS says, "On average, Universal Credit will lower METRs for those on low earnings and raise them very slightly for those on middle earnings."

5. How much will universal credit cost? Again, I defer to the words of the IFS:

"Under our assumptions, the new system of Universal Credit will be more expensive than the existing regime by £1.7 billion per year in the long run (i.e. ignoring transitional protection). Note that this assumes full take-up in both the existing and Universal Credit systems, and therefore does not include the cost of any increase in take-up arising from Universal Credit. If no family lost out from the move to Universal Credit, then the cost would be £3.6 billion. But this is not a sensible estimate of the short-run cost of Universal Credit with transitional protection, for several reasons."

Centre for Social Justice report