The Lib Dems cave in to Osborne over £10bn welfare cuts

Chancellor secures agreement of Clegg's party for £10bn of further welfare cuts in 2015-16.

Ahead of George Osborne's speech to the Conservative conference, the big announcement is that the Chancellor has secured the agreement of Iain Duncan Smith and the Lib Dems to a further £10bn of welfare cuts in 2015-16 on top of the £18bn of cuts already announced. In a joint article for the Daily Mail, Osborne and Duncan Smith write:

[A]s the Treasury illustrated at the time of the last Budget, if the rate of reductions in departmental budgets in the next spending review period is to be kept the same as the current rate, then the welfare budget would have to be reduced by more than £10billion by 2016-17.

We are both satisfied that this is possible and we will work together to find savings of this scale. All of this will require some tough choices, but those choices will be guided by clear principles and a vision of what the welfare system should be.

The cuts are likely to include:

-The abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s.

-A two-year freeze in most benefits.

-A limit on benefits paid to families with more than two or three children.

Nick Clegg previously insisted that the Lib Dems would not sign up to further welfare cuts without the introduction of some form of wealth or property tax. But with the Chancellor having already ruled out a "mansion tax" or higher council tax bands, it remains unclear what Clegg's party will receive in return for consenting to another attack on the poorest. One possibility is that the coalition will again increase the top rate of capital gains tax and raise stamp duty on multi-million properties.

The move will also put further pressure on Labour to say whether, if elected, it would stick to Osborne's spending plans for 2015-16 or adopt its own alternative proposals.

Chancellor George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.