Esther McVey poses for pictures outside 10 Downing Street during the 2013 ministerial reshuffle. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Esther McVey flounders as bedroom tax failure becomes clear

Conservative minister says policy was "never all about saving money" but just six per cent of tenants have downsized.

After the publication of today's BBC study showing that the bedroom tax has resulted in just 6 per cent of affected tenants moving house, while pushing 28 per cent into rent arrears, it was left to Esther McVey to defend the government this morning. While failing to achieve the behavioural change they wanted (owing to the lack of smaller properties for tenants to move to), ministers boast that the measure is saving £1m a day (housing benefit is reduced by 14 per cent for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25 per cent for those with two or more). 

But when McVey, the Conservative employment minister, was asked on Radio 5 Live how much money the government had saved, she replied: "But it was never all about saving money...", a line of argument entirely at odds with that deployed by her department. 

McVey went on to explain that the policy was "about using the stock, the housing much better". But the problem is that the lack of one bedroom properties means there isn't enough housing to use "better". In England, for instance, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties available.

It's for this reason that the DWP now prefers to emphasise the money it expects the policy to save (while challenging Labour to say how it would pay for its reversal and also remain within the new welfare spending cap). Iain Duncan Smith said today: "It was absolutely necessary that we fixed the broken system which just a year ago allowed the taxpayer to cover the £1m daily cost of spare rooms in social housing."

While the policy is also costing money, by increasing homelessness and pushing some tenants into the private sector, where rents are higher (inflating the housing benefit bill), it seems likely that there is a net saving. But if, as McVey suggests, the policy isn't really about saving money, it's not clear what the point of it is at all. As long as the government fails to build the houses required, most tenants will simply be left to endure yet another welfare cut

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Prince Charles and Princess Anne are both wrong on GM foods

The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.

I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.

You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.

According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.

“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.

Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.

In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned -  leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.

Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.

In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.

Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.

In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.