George Osborne during a visit to the Royal Mint earlier today in Llantrisant, Wales. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Will George Osborne's welfare cap stand the test of time?

Self-conscious attempts by one government to constrain the hands of their successors rarely work.

George Osborne's welfare cap will be voted on tomorrow. It's viewed by many as a moment of reckoning for Labour in which it will be caught in a deadly trap: support eye-wateringly tight and binding proposals that threaten the future of the welfare state or oppose them and stand exposed as the believers in big welfare spending that their critics allege.

It’s not only supposed to be a tricky tactical test but it’s also billed as a strategically important piece of policy that will make it more likely that any future government will have to back the choices being made by the current one. Which, depending on your political point of view, is why it’s lauded as a "potentially momentous punctuation mark" in Britain’s attachment to overblown welfare spending or a grave threat to what remains of social security. Both friend and foe of the proposal concur that it will cast a long shadow.

Or perhaps not. Leaving the parliamentary theatre to one side, self-conscious attempts by one government to constrain the hands of their successors rarely work. They tend to generate much media and parliamentary excitement at the time but leave relatively little historical mark.

The last Labour government also attempted this via legislation in 2009 that was supposed to enshrine a legal duty on the Secretary of State for Welfare to abolish child poverty by 2020. There were no caveats or get-outs and it paved the way, or so it was thought, for judicial reviews to be mounted against a non-compliant government. There were a panoply of reporting requirements, legal duties and new bodies like the Child Poverty Commission to give life to the ambition.    

Yet the world didn’t really change. Even the tactical challenge didn’t work: the parliamentary vote turned out to be quite useful for the then Conservative opposition (the Labour leadership may end up feeling the same about this week’s vote).  Five years on and it’s safe to say that Ian Duncan Smith doesn't wake up in the morning worrying about the provisions of Labour's law. The 2020 child poverty objectives are going to be missed by a country mile. The legislation didn't lock in anything.

In some respects, this week’s vote is less meaningful. For a start, the coalition’s fiscal mandate, of which the new welfare cap is part, automatically dissolves at the end of this Parliament. It will be replaced by whatever new fiscal arrangements that the government of the day selects.  The opportunities for adjusting the cap are many – this could be done in a low-key way by simply changing the very tight forecast margin that is built into the numbers or more overtly by shifting which benefits fall inside it, or the time period over which it applies.

More fundamentally, any government that wanted to undertake policy changes to cut spending on social security is likely to do so with or without the cap. And if they wanted to let spending rise by more than the cap would permit, they would also be able to do so (and if they can’t win a Commons vote on a budget related issue like this they won’t be in power for long). Nothing about its introduction alters the real choices on the underlying deficit: raise taxes, cut social security or public services by more than is already planned or have a larger deficit for longer.

Which isn’t to say that it is irrelevant. Like many of these devices, the welfare cap is effectively a self-embarrassment tool.  Its real effect is to make it more likely than would have otherwise been the case that higher than expected social security spending will get noticed and be debated. In a climate of widespread welfare-scepticism that could matter.

It’s also the case that if the government of the day wishes to use adherence to the cap as a public justification for making controversial policy measures then the design of it matters. And here it is noteworthy that the proposed cap sits uneasily with Universal Credit, the coalition’s flagship welfare reform that aims to seamlessely integrate a wide range of benefits. Most of these will fall inside the cap (mainly for the in-work) and some outside (mainly for the out of work such as Jobseeker's Allowance and housing benefit for the unemployed).  A rushed effort to bear down on covered areas of welfare spending – if the OBR reports at an Autumn Statement that there is likely to be an overshoot in spending it is supposed to result in policy changes in the following Budget – could change the shape of Universal Credit and very easily undermine work incentives.

There is another sense in which all this should, or at least could, in theory matter. For all the heat in the current welfare debate, there is relatively little light about the underlying causes of the trends in social security expenditure, and far less still on whether alternative policy choices would, or wouldn’t, affect them (a point Graeme Cook also makes). How much difference would a major boost to housing supply, or a steadily rising minimum wage over a Parliament, make to spending on tax credits and benefits? We don’t really know. Because it’s not anyone’s job in government to think hard about the interactions of policy choices and welfare spending, we have only a limited sense of what the real choices and trade-offs are. An improved process of thinking about social security (and other) spending including on costly tax-reliefs could help remedy this.

Amidst the Parliamentary antics this week, we should keep all this in proportion. When the next chapter of the history of the welfare state gets written, this week’s vote is unlikely to have a leading part.

This post originally appeared on the Resolution Foundation website

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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