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27 April 2015Welfare, benefits and social security

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Even trying to determine what to call this policy area can lead to controversy, is it welfare and benefits or social security? The way that we describe it can give meaning to the exchange of funds the department looks after, so we have opted to merge the two most common labels in a bid to avoid favouritism.

This covers the entirety of payments from government to individuals, some of these are universal -for example child benefit which goes to the parents of all children -and others are means tested so go to only some dependent on meeting certain criteria usually based on personal circumstances and level of income. Some are targeted at certain stages of life, such as having children or later years, whereas others, such as jobseekers allowance or working tax credits, are given dependent on your employment status and/or income.

The coalition government has made significant changes to welfare and benefit policy in the past five years, this has occurred with two purported aims: first to incentivise work and second to reduce the level of public spending. Even within these aims the total expenditure on social protection has increased in cash terms and only seen small decreases in overall proportion of GDP.

The Department of Work and Pensions is forecast to distribute over £170billion in the 2015-16 financial year, and this will rise to £185billion by 2018-19. The includes almost all social protection, but not working tax credits (dealt with by the Treasury) and war pensions. Well over half of this spending, £90billion in the current year, goes on the state pension while less than £4billion is spent on jobseeker's allowance.

Welfare budget diagram

Christian perspective

One of the most frequently cited pieces of scripture when political engagement is discussed is the parable of the Good Samaritan, also frequently mentioned is Matthew 25 when Jesus said: "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me". The commands to care for the poor were rooted in the instructions given to Moses when Israel was in the desert, they were inconsistently practiced throughout the scriptures but never far from view.

The practices of the early church prioritised holding goods and property in common and available to each as they had need and the first leadership expansion of the church was to ensure orderly distribution of food. When Paul was sent as a missionary to the Gentiles the one thing that was asked of him was that he remember the poor. It's clear that caring for the poor is integral to living a life imitating Christ, the question for Christians when contemplating how to vote is what that should look like when reflected as government activity.

Alongside the imperative to care for the poor many Christians also emphasise the dignity of work and the importance of reflecting the creator aspect of God's character that is placed in us as his likeness. There is also a crucial strand of Christian thought which focuses on personal responsibility. This means that Christians have frequently disagreed as to what their faith means for policy around welfare and social security, some consider it first and foremost a means to encourage people into work and provide an emergency resource for those in greatest need, while at the other end of the spectrum some see it primarily as a mechanism for economic redistribution. There are countless positions, and nuances within positions, in between.

Party positions

The Conservative Party have pledged to freeze working age benefits for two years from April 2016, with exemptions for disability and pensioner benefits. They have also announced they will reduce the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. These are part of plans to reduce the welfare budget by £12billion per year by the end of the next parliament, however, more details have not been announced about where most of these savings will come from.

The Labour Party has announced they will reverse changes to housing benefits which mean people receiving housing benefit but have spare rooms have to pay a subsidy (also known as the bedroom tax). They have also said they will end exploitative zero-hours contracts and increase the minimum wage to £8 by 2019.

The Liberal Democrats have pledged to invest in back-to-work healthcare and support for those who need it, and work with local businesses to help people back into work. They also want to provide increased parental leave and allow fathers a month's paternity leave.

The Green Party want to increase the minimum wage to £10 and reduce national insurance contributions. They have also set out plans to introduce a 60 per cent rate of tax for incomes over £150,000 and an annual wealth tax on people worth more than £3million.

UKIP's manifesto sets out plans to increase the threshold for the 40 per cent rate of income tax and introduce an intermediary rate of 30 per cent. They also pledge to increase the Married Couple Tax Allowance and end entitlement to benefits for migrants until they have paid tax and national insurance contributions for five years.

The Scottish National Party plan to reintroduce the 50 per cent tax bracket for higher earners and introduce a mansion tax and banker's bonus tax. The party's spending plans include a small increase each year, 0.5 per cent, which would enable them to reduce the deficit albeit at a slower rate. The partywould oppose cuts to disability support and increase employment allowance.