A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Tory cheats won't fight fair

The searchlight shines at last on the character of Cameron Conservatism. Until now a cloud of unknowing has shrouded his party's nature. Tough or tender? Awash with "broken Britain" social angst, detoxified and rebranded – what kind of push-me-pull-you beast is this? But the day had to come when real policies replaced airy aspirations, when words and good intentions solidified into hard actions. No surprise that when the choice is made, tough beats tender – these are, after all, Conservatives. It was to be expected that new policies would be headline pleasers. But what is genuinely unexpected is that the policies emerge so undercooked and unconvincing. The sums don't add up, the figures are fantastical and will fail the pressure-cooker test of election warfare. This is puzzling. Here is a party swimming in money, with an army of spiffingly well-educated researchers who look as if they eat numbers for breakfast. But their first two policies up at the end of last year would never have passed muster in Labour's run-up to 1997, when everything was crash-tested, fireproofed and kite-marked. Labour, now desperately depleted in staff and funds, feared Cameron's army of aides-de-camp would pump out shedloads of platinum policies. Not so on the evidence of the first two.

They were natural eye-catchers for friendly newspapers. First, the old would no longer have to sell their homes to pay for residential care – a middle-England winner. Second, the 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit would face tough medical tests and benefit cuts of £25 a week. The Sun loved this "shirk attack" on "loafers". Leave aside the callousness of cutting off sick and depressed people's weekly benefits by £25 to make savings. To make the sums work, at least 500,000 registered sick would need to fail tougher medical tests for benefit cuts to pay for the £600m cost of getting them back to work. Let's stick with the numbers: there aren't 500,000 on the top sickness benefit to take £25 from, even if you cut them all. Then ask how you can find all these jobs, with unemployment at 3 million next year? The unlikelihood is mind-boggling. Airily, they would sweep away Labour's Future Jobs Fund that gives 150,000 young people real minimum wage jobs for six months: the first started work in Barnsley in October. It's pricey but it's real work, whereas the Tory Youth Action for Work includes a scheme that's far cheaper: young people will be offered as free labour to employers and sole traders (chimney sweeps?), paid benefits plus £1. That is a juicy incentive for employers to drop other workers and take them on free.

It sounds efficient to shift job-finding to private and voluntary groups. Labour contracts outside organisations to take over after a year, whereas the Tories will hand the unemployed over at six months; but unfortunately that's far more expensive, so unrealistic. Even in this recession 70% of the young find jobs within six months at their job centre, another 20% within a year. So the state would pay private contractors for 65,000 people who would have found jobs anyway, a huge, dead-weight waste. Now consider the 2.6 million "loafers" on incapacity who will be miraculously spirited into this dire jobs market, 3,000 a day pushed through medicals. Who are they? 800,000 have been on the sick for over a decade, many since Tory times. Some 42% suffer mental or behavioural disorders, 45% are over 50, many over 60. Of course, many need encouragement to work, but competing with fitter people fresh from recent work will be a tall order.

Another example of unreality: the Tories say "the greater share of the risk" will fall on the private contractors not on the taxpayer. Contractors will only be paid 20% of the cost of getting someone into a job upfront, the rest not until someone has been at work a full year. This is pure fantasy. Labour tried it but had to relent and pay 40% upfront and the rest after 26 weeks work. Voluntary organisations (like one I've been involved with) legally can't borrow money gambling on future success, while commercial companies won't take the risk on such hard cases. Nothing difficult is cheap, whoever pays – the state, private companies or individuals. Take their policy on paying for residential care. They claim that people over 65 could volunteer to pay £8,000 upfront to protect themselves from the risk of losing their homes if they ever need a nursing home. That sounds like a bargain for any homeowner wanting to leave property for children. But too-good-to-be-true bargains are always just that. The perverse effect would be to give local authorities every incentive to put people covered by that insurance into nursing homes sooner than necessary, instead of the council bearing the cost of caring for them at home.

What's more, it can't be done for so little. They suggest anyone can join, even 85-year-olds. Labour's recent green paper on care did the sums – and they depend on a pooled risk of people joining at 65, many of whom will never need care so their fees pay for those who do. Under Labour's plan, which covers residential and at-home care, people would need to pay £20,000 upfront at 65 – or have it attached to the value of their home to be paid after their death. By charging just £8,000, the Conservative plans will cost an extra £1bn for every 40,000 people who go into nursing homes. If those most likely to need care are the only ones to take up the voluntary scheme, costs soar uncontrollably. Even with most of the press unwilling to scrutinise them, phoney policies will be exposed in the election campaign by experts, academics and the relevant welfare industries themselves. The shrink-the-state party of cuts can only please everyone by bogus accounting.

As more policies cascade out of this party, we begin to glimpse an unexpected incompetence. That may be the consequence of a still unresolved identity: they want to be nice, but they want to make deep cuts too, so they cheat. They want to be socially concerned, but deficit reduction demands severity: the upshot is fiddling the figures. The Europe debacle springs from this inability to square a circle: Cameron wants to keep his party's fevered referendum hopes alive, yet he knows reopening a signed Lisbon treaty is impossible. To be prime ministerial, he should face his party down and tell them the facts on Europe. If he wants fiscal austerity he should stop wanting to be loved. He needs to square up to the hard business of being a Tory.

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