Relentless Osborne unleashes new attack on welfare

GEORGE Osborne placed a fresh attack on benefit claimants at the centre of his spending review as he attempted to keep Labour on the back foot over welfare cuts.

Chancellor George Osborne and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander leave the Treasury for the House of Commons
Chancellor George Osborne and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander leave the Treasury for the House of Commons

The Chancellor announced another clampdown on immigrants, single parents and unemployed people looking to claim benefits in a series of measures designed to be cost-neutral while driving people back into work.

From next April, the newly unemployed will be forced to wait a full week before they receive any jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) in a move saving nearly £250m, and must have a CV written up and be ready to work immediately in order to receive their first payment.

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Half will now have to attend job centres every week, rather than fortnightly, to keep their benefits.

Immigrants trying to claim JSA will be forced to learn English if their lack of language skills is deemed a barrier to their finding work, or face having their benefits cut. The Government will provide classes costing up to £100m to bring their English skills up to the level of the average nine-year-old.

Single parents will be forced to “prepare for work” once their child turns three, and all claimants will be required to re-verify their claim on an annual basis.

Unions and charities were outraged at the latest attack on welfare, with poverty groups warning of a “foodbanks first policy” that would leave those out of work high and dry for the first days of their unemployment.

But Labour, conscious of the highly politcial nature of Mr Osborne’s speech, immediately warned it could not promise to reverse anything the Chancellor had announced.

Mr Osborne insisted the new measures were “reasonable” and would help end the “something-for-nothing culture” which Labour had fostered while in Government.

“We’re going to make sure people turn up with a CV, register for online job search, and start looking for work – and only then will they get their benefits,” he said.

“Half of all jobseekers need more help looking for work, so we’ll require them to come to the job centre every week rather than once a fortnight.

“We’re going to give people more time with job centre advisers and proper progress reviews every three months, and we’re going to introduce a new seven-day wait before people can claim benefits.

“We’re doing these things because we know they help people stay off benefits and help those on benefits back into work faster.”

Treasury sources said the overall package would save £350m, but that the money would be reinvested to pay for the extra cost of longer and more frequent visits to job centres by claimants, and for the language classes for those with poor English.

“If you’re not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut,” the Chancellor said.

Potentially more financially significant was the Chancellor’s announcement of an overall cap on welfare spending for the first time.

A four-year welfare ‘budget’ will be set annually from next April, meaning that if the cost of claims spiral the Government of the day will either be forced to announce extra costed funding for welfare, or introduce in-year caps to bring it back under control.

Pensions and JSA will be excluded from the cap, but other benefits totalling more than £100bn-a-year, including disability living allowance and housing benefit, will be included.

Charities were last night lining up to warn of the impact the latest cuts could have.

Richard Kramer, deputy chief executive at deaf/blind charity Sense, said: “The new welfare cap risks unfairly penalising disabled people. The Government must realise these benefits often play a vital role in helping disabled people to support themselves in seeking and staying in work.

“We call on the Government to think again – exempting disabled people from the welfare cap would show the right values.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “The decision to delay eligibility for jobseekers’ allowance to seven days is a ‘food banks first’ policy that will hurt families stuck in the low pay – no pay cycle, moving in and out of insecure, low-paid jobs, and will lengthen food bank queues.”

Unicef warned the Government was “dangerously off course” to meet its own target to end child poverty by 2020, and said the issue “did not even warrant a mention in the Chancellor’s speech”.

But Keighley’s Tory MP Kris Hopkins said he “welcomed” the clampdown.

“The Chancellor had a number of very tough calls to make, but I believe he has made the right choices in what continues to be a incredibly challenging economic climate,” he said.