The onslaught against working families continues

The government's response to youth unemployment will squeeze the "squeezed middle" even further.

If today's report proves correct then tomorrow Nick Clegg will announce a further blow for low-to-middle income families in order to pay for a new programme for the young unemployed.

Let's start with the better, latter, half of that sentence. The new programme will, according to insiders, walk and talk like Labour's "Future Jobs Fund", which offered incentives to employers to take on 18-24 year olds who had been out of work for more than 6 months. In case it has passed you by, this is the very programme that David Cameron likes to mock as being profligate and ineffective. Hence the new coalition version of it will under no circumstances be called by the same name (no doubt some Whitehall wag would have proposed the moniker "the fund for future jobs" -- but I'm guessing coalition ministers will have screened that out).

We'll find out tomorrow what the scheme looks like but if, as seems likely, the coalition has decided to swallow its ideological opposition to wage subsidies going to firms in order to encourage them to take on the young unemployed, then that is to be welcomed -- though it is scandalous that it's taken youth unemployment to reach 1 million to bring this about.

Now let's turn to how the nastier element of tomorrow's promised announcement: how it is to be paid for. Assuming the FT hasn't got it wrong, then the money will be found by the decision not to uprate tax-credits in line with inflation. Which is odd, iniquitous, and revealing all at the same time.

 

It's a bit odd because the Treasury has already banked the savings from freezing the working tax credit for the next three years. Which leaves the other big area of spending: child tax-credit. But here the coalition has sought to burnish their progressive credentials by announcing that they will over index the child element for the next few years (in an attempt to demonstrate some commitment to the child poverty target). Doubtless HM Treasury will have some wheeze up its sleeve for changing the indexing system for this child tax-credits - perhaps by uprating in line with earnings for this year, not inflation. But if this is the case they will face the charge they have broken with the spirit of the key spending commitment they have made on helping families with low-income children.

It's iniquitous because this will hit precisely those families who have already been on the end of the most severe squeeze of their lives. This April they already saw a major hit to support for childcare paid out via the tax credit system. This, along with other changes to tax-credits, mean that a single parent on £28k with two kids is losing £1,300 this year; or a couple with two kids on a joint income in the high £30ks is losing £2800 this year. And these cuts are a mere warm up for more than £1bn of further reductions to tax-credits that have already been announced and will commence in April 2012 - all of them targeted at the same families.

And let's not forget yesterday's news that median wages have plummeted 3.5% in real terms this year, far more for the low paid. So families whose wages are falling at a rapid rate, who have already been severely hit by April's budget cuts, and will be made poorer still in April 2012, are about to be told that they are first in line to take a cut to pay for a new programme.

Which is why this decision is also revealing. It demonstrates very clearly the knee-jerk response of ministers when pressed to find resources for a new funding pressure: take it from families getting tax-credits.

To be clear, I'm all for more action to deal with youth unemployment -- indeed, I suspect that I'd want something more ambitious than what is likely to be announced tomorrow. And that, of course, has got to be paid for. But not by low-to-middle income families.

It's not as if there are no alternatives. Labour will pursue their line that this should be funded through a tax on bankers' bonuses - and for all its well rehearsed feel, this will still strike a chord with many. But if the coalition didn't want to turn to the City there are other principled alternatives. The £7bn-£8bn spent on higher rate pension tax relief? Or stopping affluent pensioners receiving winter fuel allowance?

If this goes ahead, then don't let anyone say there was no alternative. Youth unemployment could be tackled without a further unnecessary squeeze on low-to-middle income Britain.

 

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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