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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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