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.

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.