Vince Cable settles his scores

Business Secretary takes aim at Steve Hilton, the Murdoch empire and Gordon Brown in his conference

Vince Cable's speech at the Lib Dem conference (read it in full here) felt like a settling of scores. The Business Secretary took aim at the Murdoch empire, Gordon Brown and even David Cameron's policy adviser Steve Hilton. Of the latter, who once proposed abolishing maternity leave, he declared: "What I will not do though is provide cover for ideological descendents of those who sent children up chimneys. Panic in financial markets won't be stopped by scrapping maternity rights."

His attack on the economic right continued. He derided the Lafferites who believe that cutting taxes on the rich will "miraculously" generate new revenue, and asked what "solar system" those who depicted his mansion tax as an attack on "ordinary middle class owners" were living in. But the biggest applause came when, in reference to News International, Cable spoke of his pride that "we never compromised ourselves in that company."

Yet while Cable threw plenty of red meat to the Lib Dem faithful, he combined this with a robust but distinctive defence of George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. In pursuing fiscal contraction, the Lib Dems, he said, were "following in the footsteps of Stafford Cripps and Roy Jenkins in Britain and, abroad, the Canadian Liberals, Scandinavian Social Democrats and Clinton Democrats in the USA." In a swipe at messrs Balls and Miliband, he added: "They understood, unlike today's Labour Party - that the progressive agenda of centre left parties cannot be delivered by bankrupt Governments." The word that blows Cable's argument apart is "bankrupt". Britain was never on the "brink of bankruptcy" and debt as a percentage of GDP is still lower now than it was for most of the 20th century. Hardly ideal, but then as Cable himself argued: "[W]e now face a crisis that is the economic equivalent of war."

He was admirably frank about Britain's economic woes, insisting pace Cameron that there are no "sunny uplands", only "grey skies". Indeed, whether you favour Keynesian stimulus (as the NS does) or Hayekian austerity, the truth is that the UK faces a permanently reduced level of growth (the reason why the structural deficit is £12bn higher-than-expected).

In an attempt to distinguish himself from Osborne (who was not mentioned by name), Cable made repeated references to the government's "stimulus" programme and to the need for "fairness", what he called a "more responsible capitalism". And he put some red water between himself and Nick Clegg by vowing to reduce income inequality (a concept Clegg has suggested is outdated). But for all his undoubted sincerity, Cable is a member of a government that is presiding over anaemic growth and that is likely to leave office with poverty and inequality higher than when it entered. When the time comes to assess the coalition's record, Cable's progressive rheotric will offer scant comfort.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left