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.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.