How MPs are trying to protect the poor from Osborne's welfare cuts

Lib Dem rebels table amendment to Welfare Uprating Bill calling for benefits to increase in line with average earnings, rather than Osborne's 1 per cent.

The coalition's Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, which will enshrine in law George Osborne's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years (a real-terms cut), returns to the Commons today for its report stage and third reading.

Earlier this month, when MPs voted on the bill for the first time, I gave four reasons why it deserved to be defeated: it will force even more of the poorest families to choose between heating and eating; it will damage the economy by reducing real incomes; low wages aren't a reason to cut benefits (contrary to the government's claims) and there are fairer ways to reduce the deficit.

In view of such objections, opposition MPs have tabled a large number of amendments to the bill to protect the poorest. Here's a summary of the key proposals.

Labour: cancel 1% rise and offer a jobs guarantee to the long-term unemployed

Labour has called for the reference to a "1% rise" to be removed from the bill, suggesting that it believes benefits should continue to be increased in line with the Consumer Price Index.

In addition, reflecting its argument that the best way to reduce the benefits bill is to increase employment, it has called for the government to introduce a jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed. The amendment reads:

This Act will not come into force until a guarantee has been introduced that anyone who has been in receipt of jobseeker's allowance for two years will be offered a job suitable to their circumstances paying at least the rate of national minimum wage for 25 hours per week together with job-search support.

Highlighting the coalition's decision to cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p this April, a move worth an average of £107,500 a year to the UK's 8,000 income-millionaires, Labour has also tabled an amendment stating that "This Act will not come into force if, on or before 6 April 2013, the highest rate of income tax is reduced from 50%."

Lib Dem rebels: increase benefits in line with earnings

Six Lib Dem MPs, including Charles Kennedy and Andrew George (both of whom abstained at second reading) have tabled an amendment calling for benefits to increase in line with earnings, rather than 1 per cent. Since average earnings are forecast by the Office for Budget Responsiblity to rise by 2.2 per cent this year, 2.8 per cent in 2014 and 3.7 per cent in 2015 this would shield the incomes of the poorest from inflation, which is expected to increase at a slower rate than earnings from 2014.

It's also a neat way of skewering the government's complaint that benefits will increase by more than wages this year.

Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru: increase benefits in line with RPI inflation

Caroline Lucas, Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru) and Dr Eilidh Whiteford (SNP) have signed an amendment calling for benefits to rise in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI), rather than 1 per cent. After Margaret Thatcher's government broke the link between benefits and earnings in 1980, welfare payments were calculated using this measure. But in his "emergency Budget" in June 2010, Osborne announced that benefits would instead be increased in line with the Consumer Price Index, rather than the (generally higher) RPI (see James Plunkett's Staggers blog on the coalition's "£11bn stealth cut"), a move that will cost the poor hundreds of pounds by the end of the spending period.

Based on the OBR's forecasts for RPI, benefits would rise by around 3 per cent this year, 2.6 per cent next year and 3.1 per cent in 2015 under this proposal. But since earnings are expected to outstrip inflation from 2014, a more progressive option would be to stipulate that, depending on which is highest, benefits will either increase in line with RPI or average earnings.

Update: Caroline Lucas has been in touch to say that she agrees that benefits should either rise in line with earnings or inflation, depending on which is higher. She added: "Essentially was trying to table amdt which Lab might have supported (ie RPI) - but ideally earnings shd be there too".

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on January 7, 2013 in London, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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