One of the biggest announcements from the Budget was one that may not happen, and if it does, is unlikely to be implemented for several years. George Osborne told parliament:
If in the next spending review we maintain the same rate of reductions in departmental spending as we have done in this review, we would need to make savings in welfare of £10bn by 2016.
Ken Clarke may be in the dog house for telling the Daily Telegraph the brutal truth – that the worst of the cuts have yet to be felt, that the government is going to find that difficult and that middle England still hasn’t properly grasped the scale of what is to come.
But that assessment pales into insignificance compared to a chilling warning that Chris Grayling, the work minister, has allowed his department to issue.
Chris Grayling on Wednesday launched a full-frontal assault on Labour’s flagship welfare-to-work programme. Whether you agree with him or not, his chutzpah has to be admired.
Remember these Flexible New Deal contracts — that he condemned as “costing massive amounts of money and delivering very little” — are based on the very same principles as the coalition’s replacement “Work Programme”. And those Labour “payment by results” contracts were also designed with the help of one Lord Freud, who now serves as a welfare minister.
Grayling’s case against them is worth looking at in detail, at least to examine whether the coalition’s break with the past is as clean as he claims.
But, before doing that, it is important to give some background and highlight a potentially worrying trend.
Although it is too early to make a final judgement, at this point the welfare-to-work providers are falling well short of expectations. On average, they’re missing the government’s target by around 50 per cent.
The big concern for the coalition should be that Grayling’s critique doesn’t really relate to these potential problems. If he’s right about providers seriously underperforming, the Work Programme — the great hope for moving people off unemployment benefits — is likely to fare just as badly.
So what can be concluded from the opening skirmishes? Three messages stood out. Nick Clegg is new; Gordon Brown doesn’t want you to ruin the recovery and David Cameron is fighting this election “for the great ignored”. The BBC’s Nick Robinson has an interesting post on his blog about the images which stand out from the first morning.
One striking facet of the morning was the extent to which the leaders were protecting themselves from the public. It can’t stay that way of course, but the first hours were spent entirely among the faithful. Well, to be fair Gordon Brown was with the cabinet – so perhaps that’s not entirely true.