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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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