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How George Osborne learned to relax and start loving Universal Credit

The Chancellor is using the reform as a trojan horse for benefit cuts, says Emily Thornberry. 

Remember Universal Credit? You know, “the most radical overhaul of our welfare system since its inception”? The “once in a generation reform” that was going to “improve the lives of millions”?

Yes, some truly ridiculous things have been said about Universal Credit over the years, mostly by Tory ministers. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, my predecessor Stephen Timms once pointed out, with admirable restraint, that the government was “in danger of overselling the benefits of Universal Credit.

I cannot think of a more egregious example in recent years of a policy which promised so much and delivered so little. 

It isn’t just the endless delays, computer crashes, “resets” and inter-departmental squabbling that have conspired to bring about the failure of this flagship Tory welfare reform.

Far more important is the fact that, almost without being noticed, the Tories have been hacking away at Universal Credit to the point where become almost unrecognisable.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. The comprehensive mauling the programme received following the general election had the Chancellor’s grubby fingerprints all over it.

For all the flaws in its implementation, Universal Credit was actually a perfectly good idea, at least in theory. By bringing a number of benefits and tax credits together into a single monthly payment, which was available to those in work as well as out and would be gradually withdrawn as earnings increased, the government was working to the fundamental principle that work should always pay – and be seen to pay.

This principle, which used to be shared by all parties, was even built into the design of Universal Credit. This worked by setting a minimum amount that each household could earn – a “work allowance” – before their benefits would start to be taken away.

That sounded perfectly sensible, and it was.

But last summer Universal Credit ran into serious trouble, as George Osborne was flailing around in search of a spare £12 billion. That, of course, was the amount that the Tories had promised to save from the welfare budget before the election, despite the fact that none of them seemed ever to have got as far as thinking about where they might actually find it.

The truth is that benefits system has never been as generous as the deplorable stereotypes of right wing tabloids and shows like Benefits Street tend to suggest. So in terms of the sheer scale of the cuts the Government was proposing, there just weren’t that many places within the welfare budget to look. Tax credits was one – and we all know how that turned out – and Universal Credit was the other.

But while tax credits threatened to ignite a political row approaching the scale of Thatcher’s infamous poll tax, Osborne himself has pointed out that he managed to make equivalent cuts to Universal Credit, saving around £3 billion, just a few weeks later.

He did this by exploiting an obscure loophole in parliamentary procedure, which Governments sometimes use to pass controversial legislation without the need for a vote, almost no-one outside Westminster batted an eyelid.  

Shortly after that, Iain Duncan Smith announced that the government is now tripping over itself to see that Universal Credit is rolled out nationally from April next year That’s just around the time, remember, that those now-abandoned cuts to tax credits had been due to kick in.

This is of course no coincidence. It is becoming increasingly clear that cutting tax credits and cutting Universal Credit is effectively the same thing. They hit the same families in the same way – the only difference is in the timing.

Following the government’s Spending Review in November, a leading think tank pointed out that for the first time, “Universal Credit is now squarely a welfare reform which saves money”. And that money has to come from somewhere.

According to the IFS, that somewhere is the pockets of 2.6 million low-income working households, who stand to lose an average of £1,600 a year with the transition to Universal Credit.

The government insists that most of this process will be complete by the time of the next election. And while there may yet be further delays, that seems far less likely now that the Chancellor is a convert to the cause.

Whenever Universal Credit does arrive, one thing’s for certain – it won’t be the same Universal Credit we were promised back when it was introduced with all that high-falutin rhetoric.  

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs.

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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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