Osborne: welfare cheats are "mugging" taxpayers

Measures to tackle benefit fraud are outlined ahead of spending review

David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg and Chancellor George Osborne are (according to Andrew Marr) holed up at the Prime Minister's residence Chequers "putting the final touches" to the spending review this weekend. The full review will be announced on Wednesday this week. Details are inevitably emerging into the press in advance, and today measures for tackling benefit fraud have been revealed.

In an interview with the News of the World (paywall) today, Chancellor George Osborne described benefit cheats as being like "muggers" who robbed taxpayers of billions pounds a year. He said:

"This is a fight. We are really going to go after the welfare cheats. Frankly, a welfare cheat is no different from someone who comes up and robs you in the street. It's your money. You're leaving the house at seven in the morning or whatever to go to work and paying your taxes - and then the person down the street is defrauding the welfare system. This money is paid through our taxes which is meant to be going to the most vulnerable in our society, not into the pockets of criminals."

Alongside his pugnacious accusations, the Department of Work and Pensions has said that hi-tech detection techniques and mobile "hit squads" will be introduced in order to seek out and punish offenders. Osborne's aggressive rhetoric (and his decision to place an interview with the NOTW) clearly indicates an appeal to certain constituencies (the Daily Mail and Daily Express have rewarded him with headlines such as: "Three strikes and you are off benefits"). The Chancellor will be keen to get people onside before the cuts are announced on Wednesday - cuts that will deeply affect many natural Tory voters' lives.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show this morning, Osborne talked about his "very tough" welfare proposals - including fines for one-off benefit errors, and the threat of losing benefits for three years for repeatedly false claims. He also defended the government's "sensible" economic plans, saying it was the only way to restore "economic credibility". But Osborne struggled to defend the fundamental inconsistency in his child benefit policy which would see double-income families still receiving the benefit, while single-income families (earning less) would not.

Osborne said: "What I've sought to do is provide a simple system that doesn't abolish child benefit... but does remove it from high-rate taxpayers." When challenged on the inherent unfairness, Osborne repeated the fact that he wanted the system to be simple, but offered no alternative to his proposals that will see single earners losing out. For the voters who support him on tackling benefit fraud, this major flaw in his policy will not be so easily dismissed. Osborne will be fighting to defend his child benefit plan for some time to come.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.