The Queen’s Speech: our panel’s reaction
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC
Working people will be worried by a Queen’s Speech that declares open season on so many of their rights and protections.
A government that claimed to be on the side of working people now wants to tip the balance of power against them with draconian restrictions on the right to strike. The real agenda is stopping public sector workers from fighting back against the extreme cuts and pay freezes expected in George Osborne’s budget.
David Cameron has positioned himself as the Prime Minister for bad bosses, ready to chip away at paid holidays, rest breaks and maternity rights in EU negotiations. The TUC wants Britain to remain at the heart of a fair Europe for working people, but it won’t help people vote to stay if EU protections on decent pay and conditions are lost.
The Queen’s Speech signals a new assault on the safety net any one of us might need one day if we lose our job or become ill. We need a restoration of job guarantees for young people, not a second class system of social security protection.
Children account for three in every four people hit by the benefit cap, so lowering the cap will make child poverty worse. We should instead be dealing with root causes like the lack of affordable housing in London.
Don Flynn, Director of Migration Rights Network
For such a big headline issue where the government is known to be proposing so much, immigration got only a brief mention in the Queen’s Speech today.
But enough was trailed in the prime minister’s speech in Latvia last week to fill in the details on what is being planned.
Mr Cameron told us on that occasion that he was aiming to continue in the direction set by his last Immigration Act which came into force last year. This means that the social housing sector will join private landlords in meeting a new duty to check the immigration status of anyone they take on as tenants.
Banks will be expected not only to do the same to people opening new accounts, but also for existing customers. Driving licences will be taken away from anyone found not to have a proper residence status in the country and a draconian ‘deport first, appeal later’ rule currently in force for convicted criminals will extend to anyone who has been ordered to leave the country.
The headline-grabbing measure though is the one that will make working outside the provisions of the immigration rules an actual crime, opening the prospect of police seize of the wages of individuals as the ill-gotten proceeds of their wicked acts. It is a heartless measure, as will be seen when the first examples of migrant shake-downs are reported, and the police make off with the wretchedly small sums that make up the typical earnings of the majority of exploited workers.
Geraldine Blake, Chief Executive of Community Links
With £12 billion of welfare cuts apparently still ahead of us, the Queen’s Speech was strangely quiet about this government’s plans for welfare reform. Other than confirming a Youth Allowance and the reduction of the Benefit Cap from £26,000 to £23,000, no real indications were given of future change beyond a vague aspiration towards getting people into work (and as our research has shown, the assumed work incentives of previous welfare reforms have not always worked).
So, what else could we expect over the next five years? There are a range of possibilities, some of which are more likely than others, including freezing most working age benefits for two years, removing housing benefit entitlement from 18-21 year olds on Jobseekers Allowance, and taxation of disability benefits.
Many of these proposals would theoretically save money for DWP, at least in the short term. However, in the long term they are likely to cause massive social harm and lead to additional costs. The problem with the social security system is not the individuals and families that rely on benefits, but the fact that the system currently spends far too much time ameliorating immediate crisis, compensating for failures elsewhere, or is implemented badly and so causes knock-on-costs.
We desperately need a social security system that acts earlier; combining social insurance and social investment, for example in housing, health and childcare, to ensure that people can thrive. Few of the possible reforms outlined are likely to achieve this, and many will make it even harder for people to get by on a day to day basis, let alone seize opportunities. Until we address the root causes of poverty - and therefore also the main reason that people need to rely on benefits - we are unlikely to achieve social security for all.
Carolyn Jones, Director Institute of Employment Rights
As John Hendy QC has rightly noted, collective bargaining without the right to strike is collective begging. Not surprising then that the first target of the Tories is to further restrict our right to take strike action.
By demanding a 50% turnout threshold in a ballot and an additional 40% yes vote requirement in “core public services” (health, education, transport and fire services), the Tories hope to make it impossible for unions to organise lawful strikes. Add to that the new time limitations on ballot mandates and the Bill is an open invitation to employers and courts to interfere and delay legitimate industrial disputes.
To make it worse, even during official industrial action, new laws will allow bosses to bus in agency workers to cover the jobs of strikers, abandoning a law that’s been in place since 1973. Any attempt to picket the workplace to prevent the use of scab labour will be subject to new criminal sanctions, backed up by new and intrusive surveillance legislation.
Professor Prem Sikka, Professor of Accounting at University of Essex
No respite for the poor in the Queen’s Speech. The government has promised legislation so that people working 30 hours a week on the National Minimum Wage will not pay income tax. In addition, there will be no rises in Income Tax rates, Value Added Tax (VAT) or National Insurance for the next 5 years. A related government press release says that annual income tax personal allowance will increase from the current rate of £10,600 to £12,500 by 2020.
The above sounds populist and is not all that it seems. The minimum wage rate from October 2015 is £6.70 per hour for adults. Anyone working a 37 hours a week would earn about £13,000 a year and would still be liable to income tax.
The higher personal allowances may help the middle-classes, but will do nothing for 44% of adults, including pensioners, whose income is already too low to pay any income tax. The poor pay VAT at 20%, the same rate as the very rich. The most government statistics show that the poorest 10% of households now pay nearly 47% of their gross income in direct and indirect taxes, whilst the richest 10% pay 35% of their income in taxes. This imbalance is not addressed. At the same, the government is committed to reducing welfare expenditure, which will hit the poorest the hardest.
Ines Newman, Visiting Senior Research Associate at De Montfort University
Housing Association (registered housing landlord, RSL) tenants have had the Right to Acquire at a discount of between £9,000 and £16,000, however under the proposed Housing Bill they will all have the same right to buy as council tenants. Now an additional 800,000 RSL tenants will be eligible for a 35% discount if they’ve been a public sector tenant for between 3 and 5 years.
This discount rate was raised in 2012 and led to a surge in council house sales. In the four years 2008/9 - 2011/12 sales of council and ex council housing averaged around 3260 but after the discount rate was raised in 2012 this figure jumped to 15,682 in 2013/4. Replacement rates have risen slightly but in London are still running at less than 1 for every 10 homes sold. Boroughs like Camden are bracing for a further slump in socially rented stock as the second aspect of the Housing Bill will force councils to sell off their most expensive properties.
There is no doubt that the current package of housing measures, if fully implemented, will see over time the social cleansing of inner London with social housing tenants forced into the poorer quality housing.