13 Sep 2010

All at sea on cuts?

George Osborne has been summoned to the Commons to explain his £4b cuts chat on Thursday after a demand from a dissident Lib Dem MP and the permission of the Speaker.

It’ll give him an opportunity to try out some tough workshy rhetoric which seems to be what was being road-tested last Thursday as well. It will also give MPs the chance to ask (they won’t necessarily get much of an answer) what is going on in the testy debates between Treasury and DWP.

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.

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).

Elsewhere in the cuts jungle there’s much interest in a crunch Whitehall meeting due very soon on Trident. The prime minister’s official spokesman was reluctant to commit for or against the policy of “continuous at sea defence” for Britain’s nuclear deterrent when he was asked about the issue this morning, following on the FT story (p2).

So is the government actually ready to dump the principle of “continuous at sea defence”?

Well some in the government might be, but what we are talking about here, I am told, is not a full-blown blasting through the principle but more of an accidental relaxation of it. The government wants to shunt some of the Trident replacement costs a year or two further off to make the MoD budget add up.

Delaying the replacement subs means running the risk that the current subs, through wear and tear, end up in dock for maintenance more often and that gaps in “continuous at sea defence” could crop up.

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