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Wednesday, July 01, 2015 

Oh for an incompetent government.

Government, we tend to think, is at its worst when it's either incompetent, or obtuse.  Well, excepting those who really do believe, as the Gipper put it, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help"Philip Hammond wringing his hands about how the Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui was likely trained in the "ungoverned spaces" of Libya and then in his next breath defending the intervention that led to that very space being ungoverned is pretty much par for the course.  We expect government to defend itself despite knowing full well it had more than a hand in how the current situation came about.  It's just how it works.

The same goes for the foisting of the legal requirement on schools, hospitals and prisons to prevent extremism, and the ridiculous official definition of what constitutes "extremism" ("the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs").  The path to radicalisation is different in almost every case, and the idea that a teacher reporting up the chain that one child has an exceptionally negative view of homosexuality could ever prevent something further down the line is completely absurd; the government knows this.  Nonetheless, Nicky Morgan, forever looking as though she's just put a hot chip in her mouth seconds before being dazzled by studio lights, must go on television to insist that black is in fact white, as government has to be seen to be doing something.  It isn't simple coincidence this has the effect of putting more responsibility on the shoulders of teachers, transforming them yet further into social workers, as it couldn't be clearer the Tories hate the entire profession with a passion, but it's a happy side effect.  The government approach to radicalisation seems to be that so much as discussing what might lead to it in schools is tantamount to a betrayal of British values, and if you don't talk about it, clearly it doesn't exist.  Job sorted, now we can get back to putting the blame wholly on Muslims as though they're a homogeneous entity?

No, government is most definitely at its worst when completely and utterly open about what it's doing, and yet still lies about it.  George Osborne's second budget of the year, now only a week away, should finally start to set out precisely where the £12bn in welfare cuts are going to be found.  As has been apparent for quite some time, if you're going to protect pensioners, the disabled and not cut child benefit, the only possible way to get close to that figure is to do something very drastic indeed to both tax credits and housing benefit, both of which are mainly claimed by those in-work.  David Cameron started the softening up process last week with his deeply disingenuous speech about putting an end to the "merry-go-round" of those on low incomes being taxed only to then be handed the money straight back.  It didn't seem to matter that's how the tax system in general works: you are taxed, and services are there as and when you need them.

The obvious problem with cutting child tax credits back to the level they were introduced at back in 2003, one of the most efficient ways of clawing back £5bn, as identified by the IFS, is that you're not hitting the nasty undeserving poor, the scummy mummies and the perpetually drunk, but the strivers at the heart of the "one nation" the Tories have suddenly discovered they stand for.  Even worse, there is or rather was the small problem of the 2020 child poverty target that Gordon Brown managed to get enshrined in law in the dying days of the last Labour government.  One of the targets, long criticised by Iain Duncan Smith, was the aim to reduce relative child poverty, defined as family income 60% below the median, to less than 10%.

What to do?  Even at this point rethink the cuts?  Perhaps not sell off RBS until the share price means the taxpayer won't lose the equivalent of £13bn, as Osborne wants to?  Don't be silly.  No, you just scrap the target entirely, as IDS has today done.  You see, the aim of reducing relative child poverty has led to "unintended consequences for good reasons", namely the increase in tax credits.  And this hasn't really had the effect of dealing with poverty; after all, if you're only £1 better off than the 60% below benchmark, you're still damn poor, aren't you?  Besides, there are the perverse side effects of the target, such as how when everyone is worse off, such as after a recession, it means there are supposedly fewer paupers than there were before.  Or if the government puts pensions up, the opposite becomes true.

Instead the government will focus entirely on getting social mobility going.  Measured will be worklessness and family breakdown, as well as debt and drug dependency.  IDS has long been obsessed with worklessness, and for good reason: as Rick pointed out, and recent studies by the Resolution Foundation have found, worklessness, let alone the long-term worklessness the Tories have so often identified as being the root of all evil in the benefits system, barely exists any more.  There are more people in work in poverty than not, for the reason that work has become that much more insecure and low paid.  Tax credits have duly gone up to compensate.  As commentators pointed out after David Cameron's speech last week, it was Ed Miliband who tried to flesh out an alternative with his clumsy predistribution.  Now the Tories have their majority they don't need to bother to find that alternative: they can just cut tax credits as a whole, say you voted for this, and argue their great economic plan will see everyone's wages go up.  Eventually.  IDS getting rid of the child poverty target was simply the final hurdle.  He's been completely open about why he's done it, while still putting in place a diversion.

Next week the government will announce that the poorest are about to get poorer.  It won't of course be presented like that, and no doubt another rise in the income tax threshold will come alongside it, which will mainly benefit those on middle incomes but will look as though it's helping those on low wages.  The blame will be put not on those who caused the crash, who might in fact be rewarded with another cut in the top rate of income tax, but the Labour party.  Labour in turn might find the remaining fire in its belly, but the leadership contest so far has revolved around accepting the narrative set by the Tories and the right-wing press, so it's unlikely to last long.  Besides, summer's here, parliament's about to go into recess, and by the time it returns it's practically time for the conferences.  Osborne and Cameron some say aren't ideological, that the cock-up version of history is always more convincing the conspiratorial one.  Even if true, it doesn't alter the fact the Tories are doing this because they want to, not because it's the best, let alone fairest way to reduce the deficit.  Give me incompetent government over this any day.

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