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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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