There is precious little information about how the main political parties plan to meet their deficit reduction targets after the election. While we're debating what a photo of a white van means, somewhere in the backroom of Tory HQ they are formulating plans to fundamentally reshape the state. Quite possibly, they are doing the same thing at Labour HQ. Everything is in darkness, except for the traumatic scale of the cuts.
A report today by the Resolution Foundation outlines the scale of what is coming and the democratic failure of refusing to share these plans with the electorate. As the group's chief economist, Matthew Whitaker, said:
"Meeting the fiscal targets set out by the main political parties could mean a redrawing of the boundaries of the state due to swingeing cuts, significant new taxes, or a slower path of deficit reduction and more debt – or a mix of all three. Yet no party has really made clear which it's going to be.
"The gap between the scale of consolidation implicit in their plans and what the electorate has been told to date is just too large. The electorate shouldn't be subjected to another largely empty fiscal debate like it was at the last election. Currently we are facing a candour deficit as well as a fiscal one."
Chancelor George Osborne has outlined £12 billion in welfare cuts
Of the three main parties, the Tories have the most terrifying proposal, but also provide the most clarity. Not that it's much, but in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
They'll follow the existing £85 billion cuts earmarked for 2015-16 with a further £37 billion in the following three years.
Some £12 billion of that will come from welfare cuts, the chancellor has announced, although there's precious little there to cut. It's really the end of the welfare system as we know it. Some people will celebrate that, but the poorest people will suffer extraordinary hardship.
The rest of the £25 billion would need to come from public spending cuts, because Osborne has ruled out any new tax rises.
The Tories will then impose an additional straightjacket on themselves by swapping an aim of current budget surplus, which excludes investment spending, to an overall budget balance. That makes it all-but impossible to ease off on deficit reduction to fund capital spending. It's like putting a brick on the accelerator pedal.
On top of that, they've pledged to raise the tax-free personal allowance to £12,500, the top rate of income tax to £50,000 and sell 100,000 new homes at 20% below asking price for first-time buyers under 40. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that adds up to £7 billion. So that has to be added to the bill. It is like Robin Hood in reverse. They are taking from the poor and giving it to the modestly well-off.
Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has kept the door open to tax rises alongside spending cuts
The Liberal Democrats have slightly more wriggle room. They'll maintain the current plans until 2017-18 but will retain the ability to borrow to pay for capital investment. They say this only applies to "productive investment", although exactly what that means is open to interpretation. They're also aiming for an 80:20 ratio of cuts to tax rises.
Depending on the definition of productive investment, the Resolution Foundation estimates that would mean £15-£20 billion in spending cuts, alongside £4-£6 billion.
Labour retains the maximum amount of flexibility. They're committed to a current account surplus rather than an overall budget surplus, thereby allowing them to borrow against the £25-30 billion annual capital budget and invest, if they choose. They wish to achieve this "as soon as possible", which is obviously a rather more flexible timetable than that envisioned by the Tories or Lib Dems.
The scary thing about all these plans is that all the easy cuts have already been made. Any fat has already been removed. All these plans cut against bone. Given education, health and development are protected, the remaining departments will be pummelled.
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have allowed themselves maximum flexibility - but offered the least information
As the Resolution Foundation points out, even quite modest changes in economic growth projections make very significant differences to these figures. The gap between revenue growth one per cent above Office of Budget Responsibility projections and one per cent below is £55 billion. The signs on this front aren't good. Recent official data showed income tax receipts are weak, despite employment growth, probably due to the flexible, badly-paid nature of much of the work. Here are also concerns about weak North Sea oil revenues and stamp duties on property.
Either way, the gap between the information given to us by the main parties and scale of the cuts to come constitutes an act of disrespect to the British public. It is inane and dispiriting to consider that we have spent days debating a photo of a white van on Twitter when changes are coming which would fundamentally change the face of British society.
Ironically, we have the most details about the Tory plans, even though the party has put itself in a position where the only way it can satisfy its commitments is to nearly eradicate the welfare state and slash public services to the point of uselessness. Labour has rightly given itself more flexibility, but evidently does not consider it important to inform the public of what it actually intends to do after the election. To give some impression of the gap between the reality and the announcements, Labour yesterday announced plans to save money in the police force by clamping down on overpayment for high-visibility jackets.
Either way, it won't be pretty. The parties owe the public considerably more information than they have been prepared to reveal thus far.
Increasingly, working for the NHS is an invitation to poverty. Over a third of NHS staff are paid less than £21,000 a year. Sixty-per-cent will not get a pay rise at all this year. In real terms, they've suffered pay cuts for five years.
In that time, the UK's 1,000 richest people doubled their wealth. They're now worth £519 billion, equivalent to a third of the nation's annual gross domestic product.
NHS workers are on strike for four hours today, as the start of an industrial action which will last into January. It's worth looking closely at what that long-term industrial action involves. It is not really industrial action at all. It is workers only doing the amount of work they are paid to do – no unpaid overtime.
The NHS survives on goodwill. Staff give up their lunch breaks. They go over and above their contracted hours to care for patients. This is what keeps the health service ticking over. What we will experience over the next few weeks is an NHS without that staff goodwill.
They have been forced to restrict their goodwill because management has refused to show any to them. This year, the Department of Health (DoH) ignored the independent pay review board's recommendations for the first time. They had called for a one per cent pay rise across the board. The DoH said it would only give that out to people already at the top of their pay grade. Everyone else would be getting nothing.
It constructed this argument by pretending that those staff on the NHS' 'Agenda for Change' pay scale were already receiving a pay rise by their journey up the 12 incremental pay bands. This is nonsense. The bands are a chart of career progression, not a pay rise. Pretending that a salary control measure is an act of generosity is grossly misleading.
The department insists there is no money for staff, but when Andrew Lansley's disastrous free market reorganisation of the NHS took place, magic money appeared from nowhere.
The bill is currently at just over a billion pounds. It costs money to close primary care trusts and replace them with clinical commissioning groups, which can then act as a vehicle through which health services are farmed out to private firms. Even skewering the bidding process in favour of corporations rather than public providers is complex and expensive.
The money is there to privatise health services, but not to pay staff properly. And once private firms take over, salaries are of course one of the first things they squeeze.
NHS staff deserve better than to be lied to, split down the middle and forced to live on low wages, with no-one acknowledging the extra work they put in. As salaries for the already rich soar into orbit, the government twists and turns to deny the best of us even the tiniest pay increase. Small wonder there's such overwhelming public support for NHS workers.
Coalition policy on the NHS has been simple: lie, privatise, lie again. They are in no position to make any argument about how it should be run.
Regardless of which side of the immigration debate you sit on, no-one has much faith in the quality of decision-making in the system. New data from a Freedom of Information requests suggests that is a sound judgement to have come to.
Entry clearances are the stamp given out by British missions overseas before a person arrives in the UK saying that they qualify for entry into the country. Since July, appeal rights have been heavily restricted and are generally only open to those claiming Article 8 (the right to family life) and asylum seekers. For the rest, the only recourse is an administrative review undertaken by a peer of the entry clearance officer, who will be either another officer or a manager, or in more extreme cases a judicial review.
The freedom of information request was made by dogged campaigner Sonel Mehta, founding trustee of the group BritCits, which fights for British families torn apart by the government's income benchmark on spousal visas.
The information she received showed there were 5,462,780 applications between July 2012 and June 2014.
Of these, 607,880 were refused. There was obviously a demand for a review in just over half the cases, because 368,000 were then checked again.
Of those, 292,445 applications were issued following the review and 75,560 refusals were maintained. That comes in at just under an 80% success rate.
Anyone with experience of how applications are treated overseas will know the unique combination of incompetence, stony-faced indifference and Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare which accompanies the process. Most of the mistakes I've seen have been baffling and rudimentary, such as a rejection for providing a bank form without the stamp of the bank on the front page, when it is there for all to see.
That sounds minor, but each of these rejections means families kept apart for further months, jobs lost, building legal fees and the oppressive weight of an ongoing immigration problem shadowing your day-to-day life.
Even for those aware of the scale of the issue though, naked figures like these are startling. An 80% appeal success rate should be enough to make any department head think again, but the Home Office has grown indifferent to its own failings. For years now, the immigration system has ceased being a functional arm of government and become a stumbling conveyer-belt of inadequacies. As everyone recognises, including successive home secretaries, it's just not up to the job.
My hunch is this type of failure is allowed – or even encouraged. Remember only half of those refusals were appealed at all. Allowing the wrongful rejection of entry clearances is just another way to hammer down those numbers. There's a strong possibility that a reject-first attitude has taken over the processing of entry clearance applications, in the knowledge most of these will be overturned on appeal.