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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.