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Osborne attacked over cuts as unions rally

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 September 2010

Chancellor George Osborne is called on for an emergency debate in the Commons questioning the government's programme of cuts, as the spectre of collective union strikes rises on the back of the TUC's meeting in Manchester.

Derek Simpson of Unite: TUC rallied the unions today calling for collective strikes as George Osborne was forced to defend government cuts (Image: Getty)

Mr Osborne was forced to deny allegations of a "turf war" between the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions today, after revealing a specific £4bn cut in the welfare budget last week before informing MPs.

The Speaker of the House of Commons granted an emergency debate after MPs complained. Mr Osborne has already made £11bn of welfare cuts in this year's budget.

However, in a short statement to MPs, Mr Osborne refused to be drawn on exact figures, pointing out only that the welfare bill had climbed by 45 per cent in the last 10 years.

"The current system is not protecting those who genuinely cannot work, nor is it helping those desperately looking for work to find a new job quickly," he said.

Liberal Democrat Bob Russell, who tabled the question, said: "While I have no time for the welfare cheats, to try and blame this country's financial ills on that small category of the population I think is unethical."

Lib Dem MP's Commons attack on George Osborne
Mr Russell ticked Mr Osborne off for his attacks on the workshy in what looked and sounded to me like the most frontal, direct Commons attack on a Tory cabinet minister by a Lib Dem backbencher since the coalition was formed - writes political editor Gary Gibbon – accusing him of being "unethical" attacking welfare cheats not tax cheats and of being "immature" in his dealings with the DWP.
Read Gary Gibbon's full blog and have your say here.

He added: "I find it somewhat immature, this turf war between your office and that of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Iain Duncan Smith)."

But Mr Osborne insisted the relationship between the two departments was "strong".

With the deadline for the government's comprehensive spending review a month away, tensions were strained further at the opening of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) annual conference in Manchester.

TUC leader Brendan Barber warned that Britain will be a "darker, brutish and more frightening place" as the government's sweeping cuts take effect.

With talk of concerted collective action between the unions in the air, Unite union members joined in a protest against public sector job cuts with the TUC.

Delegates supported a motion, backed by most of the country's biggest unions including Unite, calling for joint campaigning and industrial action against the cuts.

Strikes are already being threatened by a number of unions, including those representing British Airways cabin crew, Royal Mail staff, and a number of public sector employees, including the BBC.

Mr Barber said the coalition government is more like a "demolition government", whose current austerity drive will damage public services and cost huge numbers of jobs.

He accused ministers of breaking their promise to protect society's most vulnerable people and protect frontline services, listing a whole range of programmes destined to be slashed, from support for children with learning difficulties and free school meals, to social housing building programmes and domestic violence protection orders.

"Every public service in every community is under threat. Think about what's happening here in Manchester, projects to rebuild 10,000 homes in run-down areas axed, £560m of transport schemes scrapped, sweeping cuts at Bolton, Salford, Trafford and Rochdale councils, 150 firefighter jobs at risk in Greater Manchester Fire Service, £7m of cuts in the police force, up to 1,000 NHS admin jobs in danger and a local breast cancer helpline, that has taken 80,000 calls since it was set up, about to be closed, because health trusts will no longer foot the £63,000 annual running cost," he said.

However Channel 4 News economics editor Faisal Islam said unions were aware that they had still to win over public opinion.

"The mood is pretty annoyed, angry militant even. There's rhetoric about social unrest and all these sorts of things," he said. 

"But I think it's quite clear to recognise what this isn't. It isn't a general strike like we do expect across Europe on 29 September. This is co-ordinated action where it is possible.

"The union movement recognises it has yet to win the intellectual argument. The government seems to be winning the general public over to this notion that these cuts are a necessity rather than a choice.

"The unions think they can win back this argument, but they’re going to get a fairer wind when the cuts start to bite with the public."

Unions hold full fire on cuts agenda
There is only one aim for the Union movement here in Manchester, writes economics editor Faisal Islam. Can they turn the government's austerity drive from an issue of self interest into an issue of nationwide social justice?

Clearly it is undoubtedly the former, as it is directly affecting the job and pay prospects of a base of union members that is predominantly and increasingly concentrated in the public sector.

But it is far from clear that the general public are convinced so far that, as the unions believe, that George Osborne’s cuts are a choice rather than a necessity.

Read Faisal Islam's full blog and have your say here.

Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, told Channel 4 News that union hoped to persuade the public that big cuts would badly disrupt services.

"People didn't vote for the package of cuts that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government are about to bring in," he said. 

"In fact actually, the Liberal Democrats campaigned against the cuts, and sold off their interest for a few cabinet seats. I don't believe there is a popular mandate, but what I don’t believe either is that people fully understand what’s coming down the line.

"25 per cent cut in public services would be catastrophic; it would endanger the economy, plunge us into recession and leave us worse than we started."

As the spending review approaches, the government tried to appear conciliatory. Cabinet office minister Francis Maude called for a genuine partnership with unions and said he was not trying to provoke a "stand off".

He said: "I want there to be a genuine partnership with the trade unions. They have an absolutely legitimate stake in what the Government is going to do and we will listen very carefully to what they say and the arguments they make. There is no question about that.

"We are not going back to the days where there was a complete stand-off between the trade unions and the Government. Those days are gone."

Downing Street emphasised the desire of the coalition to work with the unions.

"We want there to be a genuine partnership with the trade unions," the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.

"We need to deal with the deficit, we want to work with everyone in tackling that."

But Mr Barber said where his members jobs, pay or pensions were at risk, the TUC would take action. "They will have the support of their unions", he said, "and the TUC stands ready to co-ordinate that".

All at sea on cuts?
I mentioned last week that the Treasury seems to be shying away from any "shock and awe" attack on universal benefits, but that doesn't rule out a different approach to cutting them, writes Gary Gibbon.

David Cameron's pledges in the election, No. 10 feels, rule out the full-scale assault on the principle of universality that the Lib Dems argued for, such as means testing benefits like child benefit to cut them back for better off families. But the Tories in the coalition feel that there is enough creative ambiguity in the coalition agreement to allow them to alter age thresholds.

So, Jill Sherman wrote in The Times on Saturday 11 September, you could cut billions off the child benefit budget by making it payable for children up to the age of 16 instead of the current limit of 19. You could raise the winter fuel payment qualifying age (currently 60) and free TV licences (currently 75).

Read Gary Gibbon's full blog and have your say here.

Caretaker Labour leader Harriet Harman also waded into the furore. She said: "Already Labour is responding to people's concerns about jobs and public services and mobilising against Tory/Lib Dem decisions which will harm this country.

"How does axing 700 school building projects help the construction industry get back on its feet? How does scrapping the future jobs fund help young people get into work? Yes the deficit must be reduced and we had a robust plan to do that, but their budget threatens the fragile economic recovery.

"Their plans are not driven by economics. They are driven by ideology. The Tory hostility to the role of government, but the reality is you do not get borrowing down by pulling the plug on government support for business. You do not get borrowing down by throwing people out of work. You do not get borrowing down by stifling economic growth and you should not get borrowing down by hitting the most vulnerable."

The attack on Mr Osborne came as the former head of the army, General Sir Mike Jackson told Channel 4 News the government needs to analyse Britain’s place in the world before making defence cuts – with the Ministry of Defence facing cuts of up to 20 per cent.

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