Osborne attacks people in tenuous employment

Life on a zero-hour contract looks set to get much harder.

As George writes, unemployed people were the biggest losers in the spending review. The overall welfare bill is to be capped (although pensions, inevitably, won't be included in that cap), and a new raft of punitive measures have been brought in to make unemployment as painful as possible. In full, they are:

  • introducing upfront work search, requiring all claimants to prepare for work and search for jobs right from the start of their claim;
  • introducing weekly rather than fortnightly visits to Jobcentres for half of all jobseekers;
  • requiring all unemployed claimants, and those earning less than the Government expects them to, to wait seven days before becoming eligible for financial support;
  • requiring all claimants who are subject to conditionality to verify their claim every year;
  • requiring all claimants whose poor spoken English is a barrier to work to improve their English language skills; and
  • requiring lone parents who are not working to prepare for work once the youngest child turns three.

All will make life significantly harder for the groups hit by them. But by far the worst are the first and third policies. All claimants will now need to jump a significant hurdle before they can register for benefits – being asked to write a CV, register with the Government’s new Universal Jobmatch service, and start looking for work on day one, as well as having longer [read: more probing] initial interviews with Jobcentre staff. Then, once the hurdle is jumped, there will be a seven-day wait before any funds are actually transferred, up from the three days required now.

A third of British households have no savings at all. Pushing the wait up to seven days will ruin them – or, more likely, drive them into the arms of payday lenders. Robert Peston called it the Wonga budget, and he's not far wrong.

But there's an even more long-reaching effect of the changes. It's counterintuitive, but they will act as a disincentive to work.

In effect, taking short-term work actively costs £71.70. That's how much JSA you lose in the week after you finish your job; and, of course, that's on top of the fact that you can't claim JSA and work more than 15 hours a week.

Here's how that works in practice: you are unemployed, and have the opportunity of temp work at a local event for a week. It will pay £247.60 at the minimum wage. That's an increase of £175.90 over what you would be getting otherwise. Except now you have to take into account that you'll be losing another £71.70 in the week after the posting is over. Suddenly a week's work provides an actual pay increase of barely £100, and even that's neglecting to cover the costs of actually getting to and from work.

Even worse, the news applies to people getting income support on low-or-zero-hour jobs, as well. So, it appears (and we'll have to wait for the details to come out in the wash to be sure) that if you work the sort of job where you work 20 hours one week and 10 hours the next, you will have the wait a further week to get a top-up. By which time you make have worked another 20 hour week and reset the clock again.

That's where this change will really hit home. We've covered the forward march of zero-hour contracts before, but now life is set to get a lot harder for people signed up to this precarious work.

A bartender pours drinks. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.