One of the challenges facing any political party when it is in opposition is how to resist the temptation to score easy political points by opposing everything the government of the day does only to find that they then have to eat their words the closer they get to an election. Last week these problems started to dawn on Ed Milliband as he started to outline his own plans to cut benefits and pensions.
2010 was not an easy time for David Cameron and the new coalition government to take the reins. The finances were in a mess with the country spending £150 billion per year more than it was receiving in tax revenue. The huge losses accumulated led to large debts. So much so that the country was spending more on interest charges alone than it was on schools.
The biggest area of government spending by a long way is welfare and benefits at around £200 billion per year. That equates to a cost of around £6000 for every household in Britain. It is impossible to tackle the losses the country is making without taking some tough decisions on benefits. Housing Benefit payments rocketed between 2005 and 2010 with some evidence that benefits were driving up rents beyond the reach of working people. There were over 1.5 million people effectively written off and left on various forms of incapacity benefit and even more sensitive areas such as disability allowances had seen an unexplained surge in cost.
When money is tight, you have to target it where need is greatest so last week the government did outline plans to ensure that those who have disabilities get the right level of support. There has been an intensive effort to help the long term unemployed get back to work through schemes like the Work Programme which are starting to get results. There is a new scheme to help improve disability access to the work place so that people with an impairment are not excluded. Housing benefits have also been cut and there is a new cap on the maximum amount of benefit any large family can claim. None of these decisions are easy but they have been necessary and, in the long run, if we can reduce dependency and encourage more people to take work then we will help them escape poverty.
I think the mistake Ed Milliband made was to oppose every one of these changes without thinking about how the country would make ends meet. Over the next couple of years, he is going to have to come clean with people and admit that he would not, as it turns out, reverse these decisions and even plans cuts of his own.
George Eustice can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.