One source of confusion about public spending is that it’s counted differently for different purposes. A brief for Full Fact initially put the ‘welfare’ budget at £223bn for 2012-2013. That’s very much higher than the amount spent on benefits, which was £201.8bn, and the difference calls for some explanation. The Public Expenditure Survey Analyses refer to international standards to identify expenditure on ‘social protection’. The cost of social protection was £252bn. It includes £29bn for personal social services, and taking one from the other leaves £223bn. The figures for social protection are not, however, the same as the figures for benefits. They include, for example, local government services and public service pensions. Benefits are only part of the money spent. Spending on housing was £37bn, and spending on housing for social protection was £27bn, but spending specifically on Housing Benefit was £23.9bn. (Update, 9th January: Full Fact, who are very good at this, promptly amended the original after I pointed out the ambiguities.)
Which part of this does the Chancellor mean to refer to when he says that ‘welfare’ will have to be cut? The idea of ‘welfare’ used to refer generally to all kinds of social provision – as exemplified in the idea of the ‘welfare state’. In America, by contrast, ‘welfare’ has generally been taken to refer to means-tested subsistence benefits. When the Blair government started talking about ‘welfare reform’, they identified it with the benefits system more generally, but moved to focus on benefits for people of working age. Most people who use the term seem to think of tax credits, contributory social security benefits and non-contributory support for disabled people as ‘welfare’. The cuts that are being planned for ‘welfare’ are aimed at those kind of issues, rather than on social protection in general – but that will not stop them falling elsewhere, at the same time.