Osborne's intervention over the Philpott case is a new low

The Chancellor's decision to exploit the public grief over the deaths of the Philpott children in order to make the case for cutting welfare is political opportunism at its worst.

Where the Daily Mail leads, George Osborne follows. Speaking this afternoon, the Chancellor said of the case of Mick Philpott, who was jailed for life earlier today for killing six of his children: 

It's right we ask questions as a government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidising lifestyles like these. It does need to be handled.

Osborne was careful not to suggest that the welfare state was to blame for the death of Philpott's children (it was Philpott, he said, who "was responsible" for the "horrendous crimes") but he has chosen to exploit this tragedy in order to make the case for cutting benefits for large families. The specific measure under examination, as I reported earlier today, is limiting child benefit to two children for out-of-work families. But regardless of the merits or demerits of the policy, the Philpott case isn't an argument for it. Both his wife and girlfriend were in work throughout the period in question (and so would have been unaffected by the coalition's £26,000 benefit cap); the problem was that their benefits, like their salaries, were paid directly into Philpott's bank account. The guilty party wasn't the welfare state but a violent, misogynistic bully intent on controlling the lives of the two women and their children. There is no conceivable welfare measure which could have prevented this. 

But that hasn't stopped Tory MPs renewing calls for child benefit to be capped at two children. The policy was intended for inclusion in last year's Autumn Statement but, thankfully, was vetoed by the Liberal Democrats. Iain Duncan Smith, who first floated it back in October, said then:

My view is that if you did this you would start it for those who begin to have more than say two children. Essentially it's about the amount of money that you pay to support how many children, and what is clear to the general public, that they make decisions based on what they can afford for the number of children they have. That is the nature of what we all do.

But the scale of the problem has been much exaggerated. At present, just four per cent of families with a parent on Jobseeker's Allowance have more than two dependent children. And, of course, the identity of those families is in constant flux: only 1.5 per cent of those on benefits have never worked. Those who advocate the policy also need to explain why children should be punished simply for having been born into large families. Limiting child benefit to the first two offspring would inevitably lead to a surge in a child poverty, storing up far greater social problems for the future. 

Osborne's decision to disregard all of this was already alarming before today. But his willingness to now go further and exploit the public grief over the deaths of the Philpott children in order to harden support for benefit cuts represents a new low in the welfare debate. 

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on February 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.