IDS is in trouble over his strivers’ tax – and he knows it

Unable to justify the government's decision to cut support for families, the Work and Pensions Secretary has resorted to myths.

You can tell ministers are in trouble when they start peddling distortions on the scale we've seen from Iain Duncan Smith this week. IDS is in trouble. And he knows it.

Next week, the beleaguered Work and Pensions Secretary comes to the Commons to defend the indefensible. The comprehensive failure of George Osborne's budgets has forced the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to revise up its forecasts for the claimant count by a third of a million. That's pushed up welfare spending by an eye-watering £13bn. To pay that bill, IDS has been asked to push through a strivers' tax - more than 60 per cent of which will come from working families -  on top of the £14bn already removed from tax credits, while Britain's richest citizens get a £3bn a year tax break.

It’s unjustifiable. And IDS knows it. So this week, we've had a very muddled attempt to make up some kind of case.

First, we had a made-up story that tax credit fraud had jumped by 58 per cent. This claim lasted about as long as it took Channel 4's FactCheck to gently point out, that IDS couldn't actually add up and the sums were wrong. Then we had a new line of attack. Benefits are rising faster than earnings. Except they're not. In the last ten years wages have risen faster than Jobseeker's Allowance, and the OBR tells us wages will power ahead of inflation in the next four years.

Then Nick Clegg tried to claim Labour was being inconsistent to low paid public service workers. We back a 1 per cent pay freeze, so why not a 1 per cent benefits cap? Because we've always said that 1 per cent should be an average with a tougher squeeze for the best paid public servants to fund higher pay rises for the lowest paid.

It's all fairly desperate stuff from a government that's trying at all costs to avoid admitting that the lion's share of the savings will come from working families' tax credits. So the real question in next week's debate is this: how can the government justify cutting working families' tax credits to pay for their failure to get Britain back to work - when millionaires are being given a tax cut? Right now working people are being hit with a double whammy. Wages are stagnant and tax credits are being slashed whilst at the same time the cost of living goes through the roof as anyone who boarded a train today will tell you.

The basic truth that IDS won't confront is simple. The best way to get welfare spending down is to get Britain back to work. But his much vaunted welfare revolution is in tatters. The Work Programme is literally worse than doing nothing. Universal Credit is beset with IT problems and has already been raided to pay for rising dole bills. Now the benefit cap is being pushed to the back end of the year because it’s a mess. Next week's Welfare Uprating Bill does nothing to address any of this. It does nothing to create a single new job.

More than half of the people currently out of work have been so for more than six months but the government isn’t lifting a finger to help. The Youth Contract is nowhere to be seen and the all too predictable result is youth unemployment still hovering around a million. That's why this government should be looking at far more concerted action to get Britain back to work with ideas like Labour's proposed tax on bankers' bonuses to create a fund big enough to get over 100,000 young people back into jobs.

There will plenty more smoke and mirrors from the government over the coming months but they can't disguise the reality of this Bill. It is a strivers’ tax which hammers hardworking families. The vast majority of the households hit are in work. Those are the people this government wants to cover the cost of their failure whilst 8,000 millionaires receive a tax cut worth an average of £107,500. If this government wants a battle over fairness whilst they are taking from hardworking families to fund a tax cut for the wealthiest, Labour is ready to take it on.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith outside Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.