Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Getty
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The government is tripping up on welfare – a blessing and a curse for Labour

A slew of welfare stories this morning suggests the coalition is stumbling over its biggest bugbear: the benefits bill. Labour should play this carefully – in economic, not social, terms.

First, to untangle the welfare spending stories this morning:

  • Some leaked government memos show that the Department for Work and Pensions may be in danger of spending beyond the government’s self-imposed welfare spending cap. This is mainly due, according to civil servants, to rising claims of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which was introduced in 2008 to replace the Incapacity Benefit.

    If the limit (£119.5bn) is breached, DWP ministers will have to answer to parliament and ask MPs to approve the additional cost, which the documents show it is “vulnerable” to having to spend.
     

  • Unfortunately for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, this leak comes on the day he’s announcing his new welfare scheme of Universal Credit will be rolled out to 90 jobcentres in northwest England. This process should get underway next week. Implementing this new system has been a notoriously haphazard and slow process, and the new plans for the northwest will do more for furthering the discussion about government incompetence than celebrating a supposedly more efficient state.
     
  • In another blow to the government’s welfare record, Westminster’s favourite inquisitor Margaret Hodge MP and her crack team on the Public Accounts Committee have reported that changes to disability benefits have caused a “fiasco” for sick and disabled people. The committee calls the reforms, in the form of the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – eligibility for which is assessed by the infamous Atos fit-to-work tests – a “rushed” change, which has had a “shocking” impact on claimants.
     

This is bad for the government. Its benefit reforms and spending cap are intended to toughen its stance on welfare, a path popular with voters, yet this clumsiness certainly doesn’t foster the tough, lean image it’s attempting to present.

However, it is up to the Labour Party to play this correctly so that the government doesn’t get away with smothering negative stories with fresh Universal Credit rollouts and condemnation of their "soft" opposition.

Having announced his own proposed changes to benefits yesterday, Ed Miliband is clearly trying to display a viable plan for the welfare state to complement our age of austerity. Essentially, he’s doing Labour’s version of being “tough on welfare”. So it can’t just be the same attacks on the government, as the PAC has voiced, using "shocking" personal stories of claimants, and accusing ministers of not caring for our most vulnerable. Instead, the message must be a condemnation of its vulnerability to over-spending taxpayers’ money. A purely economic, and arguably more rightwing, position than Miliband has yet been quite ready to adopt.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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