How the Lib Dems broke their promise to block new welfare cuts

The party vowed to block further welfare cuts but the seven-day wait for benefits amounts to a £245m cut.

Before the Spending Review, the Lib Dems repeatedly stated that they would accept no further cuts to welfare. Danny Alexander said in February 2013: 

We've got no plans at all to go back to the welfare budget as part of that process [the Spending Review]. What I'm focused on is finding that £10 billion or so from within the spending the government departments do.

I've got no plans to reopen the welfare issue. We agreed significant measures in the autumn and we're legislating for those at the moment. The balance has to be found from departmental budgets. Everyone's got to play their part.

More recently, Nick Clegg said that he was prepared to consider new cuts but only if George Osborne began by removing benefits, such as Winter Fuel Payments and free bus passes, from wealthy pensioners. "I believe that if you’re going to reopen welfare, it’s only fair to work at the top and work down, not start at the bottom and work up," he said

When Osborne and Cameron responded by reaffirming the Tories' 2010 pledge to protect all pensioner benefits, it appeared welfare spending was off the table. The Chancellor had already taken £21.6bn from the mostly poor and would take no more. 

But when he addressed the Commons yesterday, Osborne did announce further benefit cuts - and he started at the bottom. The new seven-day wait before the unemployed can claim benefits will reduce spending by £245m in 2015-16 (and £765m by 2018). Though some may seek to present it as a "reform", it is a cut. The money that claimants lose from having to wait a week for their benefits (which will force thousands more to turn to food banks) will not be backdated; it has gone for good. The introduction of tougher interview requirements is also expected to reduce spending (by £120m in 2015-16), presumably since those who fail to turn up (often with good reason) will be sanctioned.

It's true that Osborne also announced plans to remove Winter Fuel Payments from pensioners who live in hot countries (defined as those with "an average winter temperature higher than the warmest region of the UK") but this hardly qualifies as a significant reduction; it will save just £30m a year. 

Clegg insisted he would only accept new welfare cuts if the majority of savings came from the wealthy, but, once again, it's the poorest who've been hit. 

Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.