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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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