Tory welfare reforms are misguided

The Universal Credit will make work cost, not pay.

There is much to praise in Iain Duncan Smith's aspirations for welfare reform, outlined in the bill his department has published today. He wants to make it certain that work pays more than benefits and ensure there are clear obligations to work in the welfare system. The theories behind his big ideas – the Universal Credit and the Work Programme – have the potential to make a real difference to people's lives.

However, the problem for the Work and Pensions Secretary is that he gives the impression of thinking that amending taper rates in the benefits system and devising a smart contracting structure for employment support will be a silver bullet for problems as varied and complex as everything from worklessness to poverty to family breakdown. And he tries to pretend his reforms are taking place in isolation from the rest of government policy and the state of the economy. This is why his good intentions could, sadly, run aground.

The first point is the obvious one. It is much harder for people to find jobs when unemployment is rising. To be fair, this point is sometimes overstated. There is vastly greater movement of people in and out of work than the static monthly employment figures suggest (a point all too rarely reflected in public and media debate). For instance, in January, 325,000 people made a new claim for Jobseeker's Allowance and 344,000 left benefit.

Much more worrying is the staggering 93,000 rise in inactivity during the last quarter – these are people who have basically given up looking for work, many choosing to retire early. These people are the equivalent of the "lost generation" that was left on the scrapheap by the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. And these are the people who need the government to focus its economic policy on job creation (to increase the overall supply of work) and to entrench a job guarantee as a backstop in the welfare state (to ensure no one drifts into long-term unemployment).

The second problem for Duncan Smith is the cuts to support for low- and middle-income families that he was forced to swallow by the Chancellor as the price for winning Treasury support for his reform plans. An £18bn squeeze on the benefits bill would cause any welfare minister a political headache, but the biggest difficulty is that the impact of these reductions directly contradicts his own policy goals. For a start, over £5bn of the cuts hit working families, reducing their living standards and their incentive to continue working.

And it's not just the measures announced in the Budget and on the Spending Review scorecard that are poised to bite. First, the IFS has confirmed that the Universal Credit will weaken the incentive for potential second earners to work, relative to the current system of tax credits. And now it is reported that the "capital limits" (the level of savings you can hold while still receiving state support) that currently apply to out-of-work benefits will be extended to working families in the Universal Credit.

This means that 400,000 families on a low wage will be stripped of the help they get to top up their wages (and make work pay), simply because they have done the right thing and put some money aside. A further 200,000 will be newly subject to a means test on in-work support for the crime of having savings. This measure will save the government shedloads of cash, but it is disastrous for incentives to work and save. In fact it will make work cost, not pay.

A technical change with a palpable impact on low earners. A measure that is slipped in by stealth and not declared openly by the government. A reform whose impact is directly contrary to the stated goals of ministers. Does that remind you of anything?

If the Social Market Foundation analysis is right – that working families with two children, an annual income of £25,000 and savings of over £16,000 could be £2,600 worse off a year – we could be looking at a Tory 10p tax debacle in the run-up to this year's Budget and local elections.

Graeme Cooke is a senior researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?