Child benefit u-turn ahoy!

Ed Balls is attacking the Chancellor on child benefit cuts partly because he knows it is a policy th

Ed Balls has written an article for the PoliticsHome website previewing Labour's lines of attack on the government ahead of the Budget. Alongside the usual complaints that not enough is being done to boost jobs and growth, there is a new specific emphasis on cuts that, according to the Shadow Chancellor, represent a "bombshell" for families.

On Monday Labour will use an Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons to repeat our demand a plan for jobs and growth in next month's Budget. And we will call on the Chancellor to think again on changes to tax credits and child benefit which will cost families with children up to £4,000 per year.

Labour knows this is a weak spot for the government. The cuts Balls identifies are particularly ill thought through and he knows it. Tax credits were raided in a panic late last year to find extra money to pay for a back-to-work scheme for young people that was hastily cobbled together when it became clear that youth unemployment was becoming a political problem. Child benefit cuts for higher rate tax payers were announced ahead of the 2010 Conservative party conference partly as a tactical gambit by the Chancellor to demonstrate that he had the courage to raid his own party's supporters' pockets for the deficit reduction programme - thereby proving to everyone else that "we're all in it together."

The problem, as more and more people are noticing, is that the cuts are unworkable. James Forsyth reports in today's Mail on Sunday how anxious George Osborne and David Cameron are about child benefit in particular. The chief problem is that two-income households in which each earner is just below the higher rate threshold keep their benefit, while a single-income household just above the line gets hit. Yet the former family is much better off. Desperate compromises are being debated in Downing Street.

A shadow cabinet minister recently complained to me that Labour have not pressed the government enough on this issue, leaving it to Tory backbenchers to demand changes. "There's clearly going to be a u-turn on child benefit cuts," I was told. "Why aren't we lining up to get the credit for it?" Well now they are.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.