What next in the phone-hacking battle?

Why Les Hinton's evidence is crucial and a possible replacement for Andy Coulson

The news that Les Hinton, the former News International executive chairman, will give evidence to the Commons media committee as part of its inquiry into the alleged phone hacking by the News of the World is more significant than it appears.

It was Hinton, now chief executive of Dow Jones, who appeared before the committee after the News of the World's former royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire were jailed in January 2007 for tapping the phones of royal staff.

The key exchange with the committee chairman, John Whittingdale, ran:

Whittingdale: You carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry and you are absolutely convinced that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on?

Hinton: Yes, we have and I believe he was the only person, but that investigation, under the new editor, continues.

It's worth noting Hinton's use of the caveat "I believe", which offers him some wriggle room.

Whittingdale has since said that evidence that other reporters were involved in the hacking operation "might contradict" Hinton's testimony.

Expect questions to focus on the emails uncovered by the Guardian suggesting that Neville Thurlbeck, the paper's chief reporter, was also involved.

Let's hope that the committee has more success in its face-off with Hinton than it did with Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor at the time, who still shamelessly maintains that he had no knowledge of the affair.

As I've continually argued, if Coulson did know about the phone hacking then he's too wicked to be the Tories' spin chief, and if he didn't know then he's too stupid to be the Tories' spin chief.

But in the unlikely event that Coulson is forced to step down there may be a replacement waiting in the wings. Conservative sources tell me that Team Cameron regards Matthew d'Ancona, who recently resigned as editor of the Spectator, as the ideal candidate for the job.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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