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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle