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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder