Archive | September, 2014

Hard choices for hardworking families

30 Sep

George Osborne has used his speech at the Conservative Party Conference to solidify the position he outlined in the Budget: a position which takes income from the poorest families and protects pensioners, who have generally fared better in the climate of austerity. I’ve blogged about the difference in the impact of his policies on old and young before (here and here), and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that part of the motivation for relative generosity towards older people is voting behaviour. The older generation votes in larger numbers than young adults, and is also more likely to vote Conservative. In the light of Lord Ashcroft’s gloomy polling, perhaps Mr Osborne needs all the votes he can get.

He is freezing benefits that seem crucial to keeping the least well-off families afloat, including jobseeker’s allowance, tax credits, child benefit, income support, and the local housing allowance rates in housing benefit. Many of these benefits are vital supplements for low waged workers. Pensions, meanwhile, are left to rise in line with inflation.

Last week Ed Balls announced that Labour would cut child benefit in real terms by only allowing it to rise by 1% in the first two years of government, so perhaps we should not be surprised that George Osborne is showing that his austerity measures are tougher than theirs. On both sides of the political divide, less well-off families seem to have become the battle ground for effective defeat of the deficit. And the Conservatives made sure to underline the importance of that battle, after Ed Miliband’s unfortunate silence on the matter.

George Osborne’s move to squeeze the income of poor adults cannot but have consequences for children. If you are a single parent on minimum wage struggling to cope with in-work benefits as they are, the new regime looks harsh. The inclusion of an element of housing benefit in the freeze is concerning, as the difference between benefit levels and rents may increase, and there is little affordable housing on offer in the current market. If the government thinks housing benefit is expensive to support, has there been reflection on the individual and social costs of homelessness, which may increase, as people struggle to manage to pay their way under the freezes outlined today? The cost of living has not been frozen.

As women are more likely to be lone parents and/or low-paid workers, they are losers under these proposals. And women work more in the public sector and so are affected by the continuing pay freeze there. In single-earner families with two children, around £500 a year in child benefit and tax credit payments will be lost according to figures quoted in the Guardian. At the other end of the scale, the abolition of tax on inherited pensions will benefit the families of relatively rich men the most. The Conservatives’ ‘women problem’ is not helped by such measures, and neither are the life chances of children in less well-off families.

The justification for these benefit freezes is to ensure that benefits rise no more in value over time than working wages. The problem with this argument is that the difference between the two is substantially explained by wage stagnation in a fragile recovery, rather than any great largesse towards benefit claimants. A stronger economic recovery would help everyone more. The Prime Minister said today that we shouldn’t ask pensioners to bear the burden of reducing the deficit – why is it ok for children to bear the burden instead?



Scotland: a story of engagement, not divorce

19 Sep

There aren’t many things that get me up at 4.30 in the morning, but the future of Scotland is certainly one of them. Turns out I timed it perfectly – results rolling in regularly from throughout Scotland, enabling the overall result to be forecast within an hour. Scotland has said a decisive ‘No’ and the UK remains intact – there is still blue in the Union Jack this morning.

No matter which side of this debate you were on, the level of civic engagement brought to this vote is a spectacular victory for Scottish people and the democratic process. People cared about the outcome of this referendum and they were proud to stand up – and to queue – to be counted. The last couple of weeks has seen us gripped in a political story of unusual passion and intensity, and rather than turning away towards apathy, the Scottish public – all of it – engaged. From the 16 and 17 year olds voting for the first time, through a surge in registration throughout deprived communities, to pensioners turning out in high numbers, all of Scotland wanted its say. And 85% turnout is unprecedented in the UK, where disillusionment has led to relatively low levels of participation in recent elections.

So what now? What’s really interesting in the fall-out from Scotland’s decision is that it cannot be isolated from the wider context of UK democracy. Over 1.5 million people voted ‘yes’ and they have to be heard and included in the decisions made from here. David Cameron acknowledged this in his response to the outcome of the referendum this morning. He outlined a programme not just to deliver further devolution of powers to Scotland, but the address democratic deficits throughout the UK. England must have its say, at the level of regions and cities. Devolution, one might say, is coming home. It is quite a feat for Scots to redefine English politics through a demonstration of the power of participation. But perhaps we should not be too surprised – after all, the Enlightenment that heralded modernity in culture, science and civic life did grow up in Scotland and show its ability to be an engine for innovation for the wider world.

In opening up the question of devolution for all, the Prime Minister has acknowledged the strength of politics when everyone takes part. The challenge now is to deliver this throughout the UK, so that unheard voices get their say in their affairs. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the patronising tone of parts of the Better Together campaign – if the unheard are really to be brought to closer the table this tone must stop, and moves be made towards genuine inclusion throughout the UK. The Scottish vote showed that people rejected the complexities of navigating EU membership and currency in an independent country locked in an uncertain relationship with the rest of the UK. Now the ‘no’ vote raises the complexities of representing the needs of local cultures, communities and markets whilst maintaining a meaningful UK–level government. Already the constitutional experts are pointing to the many complications of who represents whom in what way, whilst working to represent their constituencies on the one hand and make decisions for the whole of the UK on the other. Is the rest of the UK ready to participate with the passion and purpose of Scots? I hope so – engagement is a promise for the future.

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