Cameron considers a further £25bn in welfare cuts

Such a move would be unfair and unsustainable.

David Cameron barely makes a speech without referring to hardworking people who “do the right thing” and don’t claim benefits. This language implies that claimants are, by default, doing the wrong thing – a convenient position given unprecedented cuts to the welfare budget.

While the government has already indicated an £18bn reduction in welfare spending by 2014, it is being reported that the Prime Minister is looking at plans that would see a further £25bn in cuts.

The proposals have been drawn up in a policy paper for David Cameron and are understood to have come from Steve Hilton, No 10’s outgoing policy chief. Hilton, who has just departed Downing Street to take up an academic post at an American university, has suggested that a further £25bn can be cut. The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith – who told the Times last month that the government had a duty “to support people in difficulty” – reportedly thinks that this level of extra savings is unfeasible.

Where exactly would these extra savings come from? The suggestions on the table are even further cuts to housing benefit and a tougher system for the universal credit to push people into full-time rather than part-time work.

Let’s take these one by one. The housing benefit cap is already having a devastating effect, in what Boris Johnson termed “social cleansing”. The BBC reported last month that Newham council was trying to evict 500 families to Stoke – 135 miles north – as it could no longer afford to house them in private accommodation. As rents rise unfettered but wages are frozen across the board, 93 per cent of new housing benefit claimants are in employment - doing Cameron’s feted “right thing”. There is no denying that housing benefit has ballooned and rents are too high, and that this is in part due to successive governments choosing to subsidise private landlords rather than build more social housing. But slashing housing benefit without attempting to provide alternatives unfairly penalises tenants. The Chartered Institute of Housing has estimated that 800,000 homes will already be put out of the reach of poor families, and that many may be forced to move to areas where there is less employment (ie. out of big cities), thus compounding the problem. The housing issue is already one of the most radical and inhumane of the governments’ policies; it is difficult to see how further cuts could be sustained or justified.

Secondly, it is all very well to encourage people into full time work, but only if there are full time jobs for people to do. A system which helps people to end benefit dependency is a good thing – but it is disingenuous to pretend that unemployment is a choice. There are 5.7 people for every job vacancy in the UK. You do not need to be a mathematician to understand that you cannot squeeze five people into one job. Most people are unemployed or working part-time because that is their only option.

The fact remains that cuts to welfare are popular with the public. The British Social Attitudes survey in December showed that half of Britons believe that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage people from finding work. The benefit cap – for all its cruelty in practice – was broadly supported. With Liberal Democrats saying there is no way they would support these £25bn extra cuts, and Duncan Smith saying that this level of saving is “absolute nonsense”, let’s hope that Cameron “does the right thing” and throws these plans out.
 

Does David Cameron any idea of how many young people in the UK are looking for employment? Miss Dynamite (5th L) does. October 10, 2011

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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