Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Seconds out as Tories' plan for welfare divides parties

Skivers and strivers have been the choice terms this week at Westminster, as battle rages over increases to welfare payments. It's a subject guaranteed to spark a furious debate - and one that the parties know resonates with voters. So whose side are they all on?

George Osborne tried to lay a cunning trap for Labour in his Autumn statement, proposing a Bill on his plans to increase benefits by one per cent below inflation.

In doing this, he put the Opposition on the spot. Would they back his measure, or take a high-risk approach and oppose it, opening themselves up to 'soft on spongers' charges from the Right?

After some deliberating, it seems Labour will, indeed, vote against the below-inflation rise, on the grounds that many of those affected will actually be in work, rather than jobless.

This is because the cut applies to working tax credits, as well as things like Jobseekers' allowance.

Labour is attempting to paint this as an attack on 'strivers' hoping it will win public support.

So when Mr Osborne spoke of resentment felt by workers seeing their jobless neighbour's curtains closed each morning, Ed Miliband claimed the real losers would be factory workers on night shifts - and Mr Osborne's cleaner.

In Northern Ireland, we are told, there will be just over 130,000 people in this category - in work, but on benefits. Like most things, it's not that simple, however. At the same time as the real-terms benefit cut, the income tax threshold is being raised, meaning these people also pay less tax. Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, reckons this will benefit 600,000 people in the province.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are not happy. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has criticised the "curtains drawn" rhetoric, as did Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

But while some backbenchers may rebel, the party's leadership is going along with the measure, with Nick Clegg yesterday saying the measures were necessary.

The SDLP will be sure to oppose the cut, while it will be interesting to see how the DUP, chooses to vote.

With a higher-than-average proportion of residents on benefits, it is a measure that will be keenly felt across Northern Ireland.

Traditional wisdom has it that the public are in favour of tough cuts to benefits, although a poll published last week suggested 69% were against the 1% rise.

We haven't heard the last of the skivers versus strivers debate.

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