George Osborne’s 2013 spending review announced, among other things, a raft of measures branded as “supporting work”. These include more regular signing-on, mandatory language training and, most notoriously of all, a seven-day delay before signing-on. This package overall is claimed to save the exchequer £300m per year – £245m in 2015-16 coming from the seven-day delay in signing-on.
The detailed numbers are set out in the Treasury’s policy costings document, which can be found here. Labour has said it will not oppose the changes. Others, outside the Westminster bubble, have commented on the cruelty of the measures and the devastating effect of the signing delay in particular in a labour market increasingly defined by casualisation and low and falling real pay; and have pointed out that asking people to report to job centres more frequently will mean additional administrative costs, rather than savings. In the latter case, the justification appears to be in the form of undefined notional benefits from people being incentivised to stay in work; not exactly the basis of a business case, I’d have thought.
In other words, and writing as someone who in Whitehall worked on budget tax changes, the whole case looks, to use the technical term, as dodgy as hell. It looks like the sort of political measure dreamed up by Treasury special advisers the weekend before the announcement,leaving officials to run around madly in 48 hours before the announcement developing a post-hoc rationalisation. (I cannot emphasise too strongly that that is not a caricature of how politicised Budget decisions are taken – I’ve been there).
So I’ve decided to find out more and have submitted the following FOI request:
I’ll post what I receive on this blog, although I should say at the outset I am not remotely optimistic – not just about getting a meaningful answer, but even that the kind of work I have asked for – which ought to underpin all serious policy decicions – has been done. The benefits from signing more often and English tuition in particular look like pure finger-in-the-air stuff. But nevertheless these questions need to be asked. Until I see evidence to the contrary, I can only see these measures as a piece of political gaming, designed, with a nod to the Tories’ xenophobic wing and their worries about UKIP, to cash the blank cheque that Ed Balls gave the Coalition by committing Labour to stick to the Tories’ spending plans. And I see them as part of this Coalition’s basic approach to politics – that where prejudice conflicts with evidence, prejudice wins every time.