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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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.