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Question Time versus Newsnight on Charlie Hebdo: how to get it right (and very, very wrong)

Panel flannel.

The perennial panel problems of the BBC's flagship political debate fixture, Question Time, were starkly revealed last night. 

In a week dominated by the terrifying news from France of a massacre at satirical mag Charlie Hebdo, it would have perhaps been wise of the programme to choose at least one Muslim or French commentator to give their views on the debates regarding free speech defining the aftermath of this terrorist attack.

Instead, the programme presented an entirely white panel, with no experts on France, or terrorism, or anything that could be useful in the week of a major terrorist incident:

(Left to right: Jimmy Wales, David Davis MP, Vince Cable MP, David Dimbleby, Liz Kendall MP, and Julia Hartley-Brewer).

Flick over to BBC Two's much-maligned Newsnight – which receives far fewer viewers – however, and you will have seen how it should be done:

A well-executed and urgent discussion about the limits of free speech, and the nature of offending Islam, with the Times writer David Aaronovitch, who has written extensively on this topic, Nesrine Malik, a Sudanese-born writer and commentator on such subjects as race, culture and extremism, and Myriam Francois-Cerrah, who writes for the New Statesman about France and Islam.

Yet another reason to question Question Time?

I'm a mole, innit.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.