House of Commons Library

The welfare cap

Published Wednesday, January 22, 2020

This policy limits the total amount that Government can spend on certain benefits, including tax credits and housing benefit. Not to be confused with the household benefits cap which limits the amount individual households can receive.

Jump to full report >>

The welfare cap is a limit on the amount that government can spend on certain social security benefits and tax credits. The cap aims to better control spending in an area that can be difficult for government to control.

The cap included 54% of total welfare spending in 2017/18. It excludes pensions and Jobseekers’ Allowance, but includes tax credits, child benefit and disability benefit.

The cap was first introduced in Budget 2014 and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – the UK’s fiscal watchdog – first reported on whether the cap had been met or exceeded alongside Autumn Statement 2014. The operation of welfare cap is laid out in the Charter for Budget Responsibility – the document that sets out the Government’s policy and targets for the public finances.

The Government revised its approach to the welfare cap in Autumn Statement 2016. The new approach, agreed by a vote in the House of Commons, means that spending on welfare must be within the cap and a margin in a single year chosen by the Treasury. The cap will only be formally assessed at the first Budget or first fiscal update of each new Parliament. The previous approach saw the OBR make a formal assessment at each Autumn Statement, and the cap applied for each year of the OBR’s forecast.

Budget 2020, on 11 March, will be the first fiscal event of the current Parliament. The OBR will therefore make a formal assessment of the welfare cap. It remains to be seen whether the new Government will continue with the welfare cap after Budget 2020. The Chancellor has proposed new rules for managing the public finances, which don’t include a welfare cap. However, the Chancellor hasn’t specifically said that the cap will come to an end.

At Autumn Budget 2017 the OBR made a formal assessment of the welfare cap, which at the time applied in 2021/22. The OBR judged that the terms of the welfare cap were being met.

At Autumn Statement 2015 and Autumn Statement 2016 the OBR judged that the previous version of the welfare cap was being breached. A member of the Government had to come to the House of Commons on each occasion to explain why the breach of the cap was justified.

Welfare cap vs. the household benefit cap

The welfare cap on specified elements of social security spending is not to be confused with the household benefit cap – introduced in 2013 – which limits total household benefits at £500 per week for a family and £350 per week for a single person with no children (subject to certain exemptions). See our note on The Household Benefit Cap (SN06294) for more on this. 

Commons Briefing papers SN06852

Author: Matthew Keep

Topics: Benefits policy, Economic policy, Public expenditure

Share this page

Stay up to date

  • Subscribe to RSS feed Subscribe to Email alerts Commons Briefing papers

House of Commons Library

The House of Commons Library provides research, analysis and information services for MPs and their staff.