30 Sep 2013

George Osborne: ‘We are going to finish what we started’

George Osborne outlines the “help to work” programme and his hope to freeze fuel duty, but tells the Conservative party conference the battle to turn Britain around “is not even close to being over”.

Chancellor George Osborne took to the stage after an introduction by businesswoman and Apprentice star Karren Brady, who described him as “the only man I would happily be an apprentice for,” and set out what he called a “serious plan for a grown-up country”.

He said that Britain’s economy was turning a corner, but warned that cutting the deficit was a big concern and that the “battle to turn Britain around, it is not even close to being over. We are going to finish what we have started.”

He said his new aim was to achieve a financial surplus in the next parliament, and to grow capital spending at least in line with GDP.

As expected, the chancellor used his speech to introduce a new welfare scheme – called help to work – which will force the long-term unemployed to work before they receive their benefit. He said: “No one will be ignored or left without help. But no one will get something for nothing.

“Help to work – and in return work for the dole. Because a fair welfare system is fair to those who need it and fair to those who pay for it too.”

What matters most for living standards are jobs and low mortgage rates and lower taxes – George Osborne

Under the new £300m scheme, those who have been out of work for more two years on the existing Work Programme will be forced to do 30 hours of community work a week, report to a job centre every day, or take part in “intensive treatment” aimed at helping underlying problems that are seen as barriers to work, such as mental health or illiteracy. Community work tasks could involve tasks such as litter picking, cleaning graffiti or serving food to the elderly.

Claimants who fail to comply with these conditions could lose their benefits for four weeks, while a second offence would see them lose out for three months. The scheme will only apply for people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. It will not apply to ill and disabled people in the “work related activity group” claiming employment support allowance, who are considered by the government to be capable of taking steps into getting back to work.

Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said it was an expensive policy in an area which had, so far, proved difficult to solve.

“My overall summary is that there clearly is a case for providing intensive help and support – including mandatory activity – for the very long-term unemployed, but we haven’t yet found a programme which makes a significant different to job outcomes, let alone is good value for money – so the case for spending £300 million on it now is very weak indeed,” he told Channel 4 News.

Fuel duty freeze

Mr Osborne also confirmed a number of policies that were announced over the weekend, including tax breaks for married couples on a lower income threshold and bringing forward the help to buy scheme to start next week, rather than in three months’ time.

But apart from a plan to freeze fuel duty until 2015, “provided we can find the savings to pay for it”, there were no other big policy announcements.

There were a few swipes at both the Liberal Democrats and Labour, including a jibe at the Miliband brothers: he described Ed and David Miliband as “the greatest sibling rivalry since the Bible. Cain and not-very-able.”

Hitting back at Labour’s plan to tackle the “cost of living” crisis, as put forward during the Labour party conference the week before, he said: “What matters most for living standards are jobs and low mortgage rates and lower taxes.”

He added: “without a credible economic plan, you simply don’t have a living standards plan.”

And he said that the Conservatives had done more than any other party for small business owners (see video) and added: “We are nothing, if we are not the party for small business.”

Work for welfare

Help to work is aimed at those who have been unable to get a job after being on the government’s work programme for two years.

The latest work programme figures released last week showed it helped get some unemployed people off benefits, partly because it had deterred unemployed people from claiming benefits at all. But it had little impact on ill and disabled benefit claimants who make up much of the long-term unemployed group that Mr Osborne is now trying to tackle.

Read more on FactCheck: The Work Programme is improving – but it still fails the sick and disabled

The chancellor insisted that jobs did exist for those willing to do them. Earlier, he told Sky News: “Jobs are being created in our economy because we are fixing the economy and the economic plan is working. I just want to make sure we don’t leave behind a generation who are long-term unemployed. That’s what happened, I’m afraid, over the last couple of decades and I think that’s one of the big social problems we’ve now got an opportunity to tackle.”