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The Tower of Babel - A pair of blueboxing gloves, one with the EU flag and the other with the UK Union flag
Last updated March 2016

The Tower of Babel

Turmoil in the government leads to uncertainty over benefits for the disabled and uncertainty over Brexit for referendum voters

It is the sure sign of a one-party state when the government provide effective opposition as well as attempting to run the country. You will be well acquainted by now with the turmoil in the Conservative party following Iain Duncan Smith’s dramatic resignation. A poisonous atmosphere pervades Westminster and Whitehall as an increasingly uncivil war breaks out about our membership of the EU in the run up to the June referendum.

The lack of any coherent voice by Her Majesty’s official opposition is excruciatingly painful for Labour supporters and suggests a similar split is imminent within its ranks, possibly after the good ship has gone down with all hands at the next election. You really would not guess that the Government hangs on with a working parliamentary majority of 17.

This grandstanding does not come cheap. Boris Johnson’s announcement that he is to campaign for Brexit caused an immediate reaction with the pound suffering its biggest one-day fall since David Cameron became PM, and Downing Street sources reportedly uttering the first of a series of uncomplimentary expletives about political colleagues. What these colleagues have in common of course is a keen interest in the long-trailed contest to lead the party unwisely signalled by Dave in one of his least successful policy announcements.

Back in November, the autumn statement from Chancellor George Osborne surprised critics by doing a U-turn on tax credit cuts. Millions of low-paid families will now not see their benefits cut in April, although the effect is blunted because for many recipients relief will be temporary before it is phased out by 2018. The political impact of this reversal did not result in any perceptible shift in policy but it should have done.

The bill ratcheted up sharply as IDS stuck the boot in to George Osborne for rewarding Tory-voting pensioners whilst hitting the pockets of the poor and disabled. Critics of IDS cannot help but mention the toxic history of employability tests that have been blighting the lives of many vulnerable people. Supporters point to the jump in employment among these groups.

To get to the heart of the matter is difficult when so many agendas are involved. Never have so many hacks pored over Institute of Fiscal Studies spreadsheets in search of enlightenment. The scruffy academics crowding into Resolution Foundation briefings on distributional analysis are suddenly on every journalist’s speed dial.

George Osborne is failing to meet one of his self-imposed fiscal targets to keep welfare spending within strict limits. The latest budget U-turn on disability payments has not helped in this regard, saving the typical disability benefits claimant £3,500 a year and costing the exchequer billions in lost savings in the course of this Parliament.

New Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb got off to a flying start by announcing there will be no more cuts to welfare. Attempting to address the philosophical conundrums contained in compassionate and one nation conservatisms, he said: “Behind every statistic is a human being and perhaps sometimes in government we forget that.” Is that the sound of a rusty drawbridge being lowered at the DWP citadel?

It all suggests an uncertainty in the public mood. Usually accomplished political operators seem to have underestimated the dangers in cutting welfare to the Deserving Poor. Conservative disability activist Graeme Ellis was so incensed by the budget that he immediately sabotaged the Conservative Disability Group website he ran, and resigned from the party according to the Guardian. He came to the sudden realisation that it was simply no longer possible to be disabled and a Conservative supporter when he heard that disability benefits were to be cut just as tax breaks were being given to high earners – the same issue that Iain Duncan Smith said motivated his resignation as work and pensions secretary.

In an unexpected turn the Queen has, according to the Sun, taken on the idea of Her Majesty’s opposition a little too literally and come out in favour of Brexit. Despite Buckingham Palace referring the paper to the Independent Press Standards Organisation claiming the story breached rules on accuracy, the paper defiantly tells anyone prepared to listen that it got it right.

Attempting to keep a lid on things, the Charity Commission had issued guidance on the EU referendum. Charity lawyers Bates Wells Braithwaite wasted no time in rubbishing it, saying it misrepresents the law in a number of areas, contradicts both itself and other guidance, and must be urgently amended or clarified. The original guidance warned that involvement in the debate “will amount to political activity”. But a rapidly updated version says it will be considered political activity only “if the engagement can reasonably be seen as influencing the outcome”.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said he was pleased the commission had responded to concerns and issued revised guidance, but that: “The change in tone is helpful, but a number of inconsistencies remain.

“On the one hand, it is helpful that the commission recognises there are often factors beyond a charities’ control. However, the new guidance continues to state that charities ‘must not allow’ their positions to be misconstrued.”

OSCR, the Scottish charity regulator has produced guidance of its own which is significantly different in its interpretation of the law.

This leaves me in the position of assuming that I am taking an unnecessary risk in telling those of you in England and Wales what I think about how to vote.

So for our Scottish readers only: On 14th May you can vote for whichever ridiculous bunch of has-beens you like. Oh sorry that’s the Eurovision Song Contest.

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