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Tuesday, May 25, 2010 

Freedom, fairness and responsibility: all tested on the first two days.

When one of the first acts of a new government is to, in a second, throw 44,000 more young people into unemployment, there is every reason to be worried about just what the next five years will bring. As so well described by donpaskini, the ending of the Future Jobs Fund, about as close to a "Big Society" measure as Labour ever devised, will mean instead of as many as 110,000 young people working with charities on at least the minimum wage, apprenticeships will instead pick up the slack, with those lucky enough paid £55 a week, or the equivalent of jobseeker's allowance. It will however provide cheap labour for companies and businesses, the same ones presumably who protested so vigorously about the "jobs tax", even as the Con-Dems decide that making tens of thousands more individuals economically inactive is a good idea.

The cuts announced yesterday, before today's equally dispiriting Queen's speech, simply did not have to be made this year. Not just because cutting now would put the recovery at risk as argued by the likes of David Blancheflower, when it is by no means clear that the private sector can pick up the slack from the public sector, but because the borrowing figures announced last week were better than expected. The deficit, rather than reaching the £167bn height predicted by Alistair Darling, instead came in at £156.1bn, £5.5bn less than was expected after previous revisions, and only slightly less than the £5.7bn in cuts Osborne and Laws detailed on Monday. Here was an opportunity to put them off at least until the autumn, after the general spending review, yet both parties in the coalition decided that the pain should begin immediately. The Liberal Democrats explanation as to their conversion to cuts this year was deeply disingenuous, claiming the current market instability surrounding the deficits in the Eurozone was the key factor, despite there being no apparent concern whatsoever about our own problems. Make no mistake, these cuts were and are ideological, and on the child trust fund, another of Labour's few excellent policies, the Lib Dems actively pushed the Tories to the right, abolishing them altogether by next year while the Conservatives promised to keep them for less well-off families. This was also partially because, as anyone could see, there simply wasn't enough "waste" to cut.

Not that it's just the "neets" and the very young who are going to be adversely affected by the £5.7bn of immediate cuts, but also some of those applying to go to university, of whom 10,000 will probably find themselves without a place. Also gone is the one to one tuition for those who fall behind early on in school, the exact kind of help which makes up for the disparity between the rich and poor that leaves the latter playing catch up from the very beginning.

For those of us who hoped that the morphing of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats into a greenish mush would result in the best of both parties coming together, the bills announced in the Queen's speech instead suggest the opposite, with the worst of all worlds becoming a distinct possibility. Away from the easy stuff, which was always going to be the swift abolition of ID cards, one thing that does stand out on the civil liberties front is that after all the recriminations during the election over the DNA database, the apparent proposal for how many years the profiles of the innocent should be kept on it is now five years, or just a single solitary year less than Labour's admittedly bargained down six. The Lib Dems quite rightly didn't want the innocent kept on it at all, yet it seems that was one of the first principles they felt was expendable.

While the legislation this time round is in many cases far from immediately ready, and so there are almost certainly more compromises and amendments to come, that which is close to complete is remarkably Blairite. The Conservatives were always more enthusiastic about academies than Labour, seeing it clearly as the first great opportunity to inject private and "third" sector involvement into the education system regardless of the results which have been far from across the board improvement, and the inappropriately named "free" schools only further extend the possibilities, as Peter Wilby notes. This bill has never been about parents themselves setting up and running schools, something very few if any will do entirely on their own, but rather privatising education by stealth, only under the justification of parental consensus and approval. Michael Gove and David Cameron have long made clear how they intended to take on "vested interests", and in education that means teachers themselves, even as they supposedly want to give schools more say in what they teach through slimming down the national curriculum.

Much the same thinking is behind the welfare reform bill, of which they are even fewer certain details, but when it's Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and David Freud, the former investment banker who in a review he spent all of three weeks on discovered almost immediately a good proportion of those on incapacity benefit clearly shouldn't be on it going to be the ones implementing it, there's plenty to be concerned about. Again the third and private sectors will be even further brought in, although it's never been clear just where the savings are going to come from if they succeed in getting people into work where Jobcentre Plus failed, as they will paid a percentage of the benefits "saved". The buzzword is "incentivise", making clear the benefits of work, although yet again the uncertainty remains: how do you incentivise work when there simply aren't enough jobs to go round to begin with, and also when it is so dogmatically assumed that work is an end in itself when it many cases, and especially for those who have been on incapacity benefit or now employment and support allowance, it's incredibly difficult to hold down a job in the long term? Coupled with this is the further dogma of imposing yet another review of everyone on either IB or ESA, currently resulting in the mass overturning of decisions made by Atos Healthcare by independent tribunals, where seriously or even terminally ill people were declared to be fit to work.

There are good things in the speech: Equitable Life savers should have been compensated years ago for one, the energy bill looks to be a step forward, and much of the parliamentary reform agenda, with the exception of the 55% vote margin, deserves unqualified support. This is however fundamentally undermined by the above, not to mention the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, which Labour rightly abandoned, and the potential politicisation of the local police through elected commissioners, or "directly elected individuals", as they are now being euphemistically called. If the arrest of Brian Haw outside parliament set the tone there, then the shrillness of David Cameron's response to Harriet Harman, almost demanding an apology for the state of the country's finances was the churlish note that did the same inside. Everything from now on will be blamed on Labour, deservedly or not, and regardless of the Con-Dem's ultimate responsibility. Freedom, fairness and responsibility is meant to be this government's mantra, and all three of those things have been sorely tested on the first real day of something approaching parliamentary business.

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