Time for Ed Miliband to speak up on child benefit

Labour's new leader needs to start as he means to go on and highlight the flaws in Osborne's rationa

As today's frontpages demonstrate, George Osborne's announcement yesterday that the coalition will be withdrawing universal child benefit has provoked concern and controversy across the political spectrum.

For a newly-elected leader of the opposition, this was surely a great opportunity to get stuck into the counter-arguments and start as strongly as you mean to go on. Add to this the fact that Ed Miliband has long been an advocate of maintaining universal benefits as far as possible. In September 2009, when interviewed by the BBC in his role as Labour's manifesto co-ordinator, he emphasised the importance of a mix of universal and targeted welfare, saying:

"Lots of families need the support that child benefit provides, not just the poorest."

A year on, on The Andrew Marr Show a few weeks ago, he said he didn't support reopening the issue of universal benefits, saying that means testing has "real problems", going on to say:

"I'm all for speaking hard truths. I don't personally think undermining the universal welfare state is the right thing to do."

Why, then, has Ed been so conspicuously absent from the debate since Osborne's speech yesterday?

Yvette Cooper is the only Labour figure who has made it into the coverage today in her capacity as shadow work and pensions secretary, which incidentally can't be doing her profile as a potential shadow chancellor any home. Most of the major papers feature a version of the following quote from her:

"The Government's unfair attack on child benefit is now unravelling. The Chancellor only announced means testing this morning, and already the Children's Minister has admitted that the thresholds need to be looked at again. They have clearly been taken aback by the reaction of parents across the country."

It could well be, as Iain Martin has suggested, that Labour are choosing to stand back and let the Tories face the not inconsiderable opposition from their own party, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and others, before weighing in with their own defence of universal benefits, and universal child benefit in particular.

But it is now over 24 hours since Osborne's announcement, and Ed's silence is starting to seem less strategic, and more hesitant. There are intelligent and substantive counter-arguments to be made to this cut, as Nicola Smith demonstrated yesterday on Left Foot Forward. This is a big opportunity for him to make a real statement about the kind of leader of the opposition he is going to be, and to set the tone for how Labour are going to respond to the spending review in a few weeks' time. During the summer's hustings, he spoke often about the hard work Labour need to do to get back in power -- now it's time to lead by example and start doing it.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.