The coalition shouldn't assume that there is no limit to public support for welfare cuts

With the government viewed as out of touch with families on low incomes, the mood could yet turn against austerity.

The government could be making a serious political blunder if it believes that talking tough on 'welfare' is enough for people to be persuaded that it’s "on the side of hardworking people". 

Hot on the heels of news from the latest British Social Attitudes survey that there has been a significant fall in the number of people who believe benefit payments are too high, the Child Poverty Action Group is today publishing YouGov polling showing that the vast majority of the public believe the government is out of touch with families on low incomes and middle incomes.

Despite some of the harshest political rhetoric for years, widely seen as aimed at pitting the hard-pressed ('strivers') against benefit claimants ('skivers'), nearly seven in ten (69%) people think the coalition government does not understand the concerns of people on low incomes. This view is strongly supported by voters of all the main parties in the 2010 election, raising important questions about the limits of public support for the coalition’s cuts to social security. 

Today, the Child Poverty Action Group is launching a campaign asking politicians – of all parties – to forget the stereotypes and remember that benefit claimants are 'People Like Us'.

As part of this, we’re inviting party leaders to watch a film we’re releasing of three ordinary people receiving benefits talking about their concerns. It cannot be right that debates on the reform of the social security system - a major public service after all - have become obse ssed with misleading stereotypes, which have crowded out the reality of who really claims benefits and why they need this support.

It’s only from listening to the experiences of ordinary people that we can have a sensible debate and policies that promote jobs, tackle low pay, promote affordable housing and childcare and help families with the added costs of children. Policies that people want and need.

One of the truths that is regularly obscured by the myths and stereotypes is that the vast majority of claimants have worked, and will work again. If politicians are genuine about getting on side with 'hardworking people' they should talk more about strengthening social security, or the security of family finances, and put a stop to beating up on social security claimants.

Demonstrators hold placards protest against the bedroom tax outside the High Court on 15 May 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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.