Osborne's anti-green crusade is self-defeating

The Chancellor appears intent on strangling one sector of the economy that is growing.

On the very same day it emerged that our economy has worsened and shrunk in the worst double-dip recession for fifty years, one sector of the British economy that is bucking the trend, providing new growth and jobs, is now under siege from the Chancellor.

According to the CBI this month, green business accounted for more than a third of all UK growth last year. In a keynote speech a couple of weeks ago CBI chief John Cridland said:

The choice between going green and going for growth is a false choice. Green and growth do go together...  The UK’s low-carbon and environmental goods and services market is worth more than £120bn a year. That’s equivalent to more than eight per cent of GDP… It’s made up of some 50,000 firms, between them employing 940,000 people - two-thirds outside London and the South East – across many different sectors.

You would think the Treasury would be delighted by this story of green jobs and British business success. Certainly William Hague recognised the political and economic attractiveness of this sector. A few months ago he wrote privately to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, “The low carbon economy is at the leading edge of a structural shift now taking place globally … we need to stay abreast of this, given our need for an export-led recovery and for inward investment in modern infrastructure and advanced manufacturing.” Hague continued, “I believe we should reframe our response to climate change as an imperative for growth.”

But instead of heeding this advice and welcoming new clean tech investment in the UK, the FT’s Jim Pickard revealed on Monday how George Osborne has been secretly demanding Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey ditch renewable energy programmes as well as essential 2030 goals aimed at driving investment into advanced energy technologies and reducing carbon emissions from electricity generation. The leaked letter exposed how in an attempt to woo a narrow minority of frustrated Tea Party Tory backbenchers, the Chancellor has been seeking to pull the rug from under Britain’s clean energy industries for petty party politicking.  

The chairman of the energy and climate change select committee, Conservative Tim Yeo told the BBC: “The Treasury has clearly intervened in the draft (energy) bill in a way that will put up bills to consumers and put off investors by increasing their risks.” He added, “Under the guise of reducing bills for consumers, the chancellor will actually be increasing consumers' bills…I don't know if the back-benchers realise this but surely the Treasury does - yet it keeps pressing on with an action that's clearly political to assuage MPs who don't like turbines in the countryside.” It may also have a lot to do with his cosy relationship with the gas lobby.

The same Osborne who in opposition pledged, “I see in this green recovery not just the fight against climate change, but the fight for jobs, the fight for new industry,” has instead been fighting to abandon the framework his own advisers says is required to make carbon emission reductions set out in the Climate Change Act, and axe the schemes designed to boost the wind industry.

He’s turned the green economy and almost a million jobs into a political football, but the Chancellor’s anti-green crusade extends beyond interfering with just the energy brief. His efforts to appease his more swivel-eyed backbenchers means Osborne has even had his people briefing against the Transport Secretary Justine Greening for her principled refusal to U-turn on the expansion of Heathrow airport.

After the failed woodland sell off, the furore over planning reforms that looked like a developers’ charter, the plans to shoot badgers and capture buzzards, the Green Bank that isn’t actually a Bank at all, the taxpayer hand-outs to the oil and gas industry – and now most important of all, the Chancellor’s attacks on our national climate change commitments, David Cameron’s huskies are long slayed. But when will Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats stand up and say enough?

George Osborne has a "cosy relationship with the gas lobby". Photograph: Getty Images.

Joss Garman is associate fellow on climate change and energy at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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