How Osborne could squeeze benefits again

No. 10 suggests benefits and pensions might not be uprated in line with latest inflation figures.

The higher-than-expected inflation numbers were bad news for George Osborne, not least because the September figures are traditionally used to determine how benefits and pensions are uprated the following April. At the Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that CPI inflation would be 4.3 per cent but it turned out to be a whopping 5.2 per cent. As a result, as the ippr's Tony Dolphin notes, government spending on welfare will be £1.2 billion higher next year than previously thought. With government borrowing already set to be £44.4bn higher-than-expected across the parliament (thanks to lower growth and higher unemployment), this is money that Osborne can ill afford to spend.

But there's every sign that the he is prepared to change the rules. At this morning's lobby briefing (see Paul Waugh's blog for a full account), the Prime Minister's official spokesman told reporters:

The process on this is that the September figures are usually used for uprating benefits, but the final decision on that is something that happens in the autumn statement ... It is standard procedure [to use the September figure] but it is also standard procedure that the decision is taken at the pre-budget report, under the previous government, or in the autumn statement under this government.

In other words, Osborne could simply choose to use a lower set of inflation figures in order to avoid spending more. It offers him a way out but at the cost of further antagonising pensioners and others reliant on state benefits. Osborne's decision to uprate benefits in line with the Consumer Price Index rather than the (generally higher) Retail Price Index has already cost some families hundreds of pounds a year (see James Plunkett's Staggers blog on the coalition's "£11bn stealth cut").

But the Chancellor is likely to come under significant pressure from the Tory right to act. As the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan notes, economists wonder what "those whose private sector wages are not keeping up with inflation will make of seeing benefits increased by September's whacking CPI figure." But at a time when pensioners are seeing the value of their savings eroded every day by inflation, it would be a brave Chancellor who picked this moment to tighten the squeeze.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.