Balls confirms that Labour will vote against Osborne's welfare bill

Shadow chancellor says his party will oppose any bill that unfairly hits working families.

Appearing at Treasury questions in the Commons, Ed Balls has just confirmed that Labour will vote against the government's Welfare Uprating Bill, which would cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years. "If he [George Osborne] intends to go ahead with such an unfair hit on mid-and lower-income working families, while he’s giving a £3bn top rate tax cut, we will oppose it, Mr Speaker," Balls said. In response, Osborne declared that Labour would have to explain "to the hard-working people of this country" why it planned to oppose "yet another measure to deal with the deficit".

It is Osborne who starts with the advantage. A YouGov poll at the weekend found that 33 per cent of voters think it was right to limit increases in benefits to 1 per cent, 19 per cent think the government should have gone further and frozen them completely, and 35 per cent think they should have been increased in line with inflation or more.

But Labour believes the Chancellor has miscalculated by announcing a measure that will largely fall on working households. Sixty per cent of those families affected are in work and, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average one earner couple will be £534 a year worse off by 2015. Expect Labour to also constantly remind the public that Osborne is simultaneously reducing the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p, a measure that will benefit the average income-millionaire by £107,000. One challenge for the party, however, will be explaining why it opposes a 1 per cent cap on benefit increases but supports a 1 per cent cap on public sector pay.

In an eventful session, Osborne also announced that the 2013 Budget will be held on 20 March.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.