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November 23, 2023
Pod Save the UK
The Tories’ back-handed budgeting

In This Episode

This week the attention of British political journalists was firmly fixed on Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who unveiled big tax cuts in his much-anticipated Autumn Statement on Wednesday. The Conservative government’s cuts to National Insurance will put a few more pounds into UK payslips starting January– but at what cost? The Guardian’s Kiran Stacey joins Nish and Coco to explain what these cuts mean for public services (spoiler alert: it’s not good), and to explain why these proposals look like the work of a Chancellor who doesn’t plan to be in office much longer. 


While the Tories plot out a strategy for the next election– and its aftermath– the millions of people using food banks have other concerns. Helen Barnard, Director of Policy, Research & Impact at the Trussell Trust explains what the Autumn Statement means for people struggling with food insecurity and homelessness, and why tax cuts typically benefit the wealthiest members of society, not the poorest. She also lays out what kinds of structural changes could help end poverty.


Planned changes to the disability benefits program give Nish a villain for the week, while Coco celebrates the heroic campaigners of Stop MSG Sphere whose activism successfully halted plans to build a bulbous, pulsating light-polluting orb-shaped music venue in Stratford, East London.


Pod Save the UK is a Reduced Listening production for Crooked Media.


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Helen Barnard, Director of Policy, Research & Impact at the Trussell Trust

Kiran Stacey, Political Correspondent, The Guardian


Audio credits:

UK Covid-19 Inquiry

Sky News

ITV News London


Useful links:

Helen Barnard’s book:

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Nish Kumar Hi, this is Pod Save the UK.


Coco Khan I’m Coco Khan.


Nish Kumar And I’m Nish Kumar.


Coco Khan And this week we’re taking a closer look at the Autumn Statement.


Nish Kumar Less money, mo problems. We’ll examine what the Chancellor’s Want?


Coco Khan It’s not what I was expecting. I wasn’t ready for a Biggie Smalls reference.


Nish Kumar We’ll be examining what the Chancellor’s new plans tell us about the Tories election strategy.


Coco Khan We’re here to dig into exactly what this is going to mean for your day to day life when the dust settles.


Nish Kumar Hi, Coco. How’s your week been?


Coco Khan It’s been retro.


Nish Kumar What do you mean?


Coco Khan Well, as you know, we live in very retro times. David Cameron’s back. Big brother is on the telly. People are wearing those absolutely horrible belts that are made out of discs that make you look like a gladiator. They’re selling them on Urban Outfitters for 35 pounds. When I was wearing them from Dorothy Perkins for 3 pounds in 2004. But anyway, so it’s very retro time. And to top it all off, last week I went to a gig.


Nish Kumar Yeah. You went to a gig?


Coco Khan Yeah, I went to a live music concert.


Nish Kumar You went to see a band that I would say cleaves potentially more towards my taste in music than yours.


Coco Khan I do listen to music of the guitar variety.


Nish Kumar Yeah sure.


Coco Khan But I haven’t actually been to a gig with the guitars for a really long time. So it was Queens of the Stone Age and they are very much a guitar band.


Nish Kumar Very much a guitar band.


Coco Khan Lot of circle pits going on.


Nish Kumar Well, I was on the periphery of a circle pick at Kendrick Lamar, and I thought, this is not appropriate, lads. This is not circle pick music.


Coco Khan Is it just like a standard thing that happens at a stadium? Like if it’s Tom Jones, circle pit.


Nish Kumar Listeners. write in, what’s the least appropriate gig you’ve seen a circle form in.


Coco Khan How was your week?


Nish Kumar Long term listeners of the podcast will know that I injured myself earlier in the year playing five a side football when I sat on my hand and my ass broke my little finger.


Coco Khan Oh was this because you’re a strong sitter?


Nish Kumar Yes. Yeah, we are, actually. That is true. We’ve subsequently discussed that I sit down very aggressively. I like to sit quickly and hard. And unfortunately, earlier in the year during a football match, I saw it quickly and hard on my finger and broke it. So.


Coco Khan That’s quite hard mate.


Nish Kumar Yeah, too hard. Arguably, that was like I have I have been told that people are using the very full-Nish to describe sitting aggressively. And let me tell you, I full Nish-ed my own finger in to being broken, but I returned to the football pitch yesterday for the first time in three months.


Coco Khan How was it?


Nish Kumar I feel like my body is on fire. My whole body aches and I feel every single one of my 38 years.


Coco Khan So you wouldn’t say that it felt like, you know, when you see a duck take to water, you wouldn’t say it was like that.


Nish Kumar It felt like a Peking duck taken to water a fully dead, uncooked duck being chucked in a lake.


Coco Khan Well, you know, I’m sorry I just can’t think of this crispy wet duck.


Nish Kumar Yeah. Crispy wet duck is a perfect description for me doing sports.


Coco Khan Okay, so what do we have coming up next?


Nish Kumar We’ve got two absolutely brilliant guests to talk us through the Autumn Statement. We’ve got Helen Barnard from the Trussell Trust to talk us through the implications to people’s day to day lives. And Kiran Stacey  from The Guardian is going to be joining us to talk about the political ramifications for Rishi Sunak of what gets announced by Jeremy Hunt today. Okay. So as we’re recording this, there’s been a big update on the Israel-Gaza crisis. So we’re reporting on Wednesday morning and early this morning, UK time, the Israeli government and Hamas agreed to a cease fire. Now, we should make clear what the terms of this are, as it stands is being referred to as a humanitarian truce. And the deal was brokered by the Qatari government. And by the time you’re listening to this, it should already be underway. And we’re hearing that it’s set to last for at least four days. In that time, Hamas will release at least 12 hostages a day while Israel will release at least 150 Palestinian prisoners who are women and children currently being held in its jails.


Coco Khan The break in fighting will also allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. It’s desperately, desperately needed humanitarian aid. But after that four day period, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the war will resume and I quote, Until we achieve all our goals.


Nish Kumar Given the current situation, any pause in fighting is obviously to be welcomed. That has to be, you know, the releasing hostages and releasing women and children from jails. That is a very welcome step.


Coco Khan You know, I want a ceasefire. I want to see a peace process begin, not just a pause in the fighting, but I like to think that the international work that has gone in, in telling our political leaders that this is what we want has inched this forward, has created a situation where there are enough international voices pushing towards this. Maybe there are some some silver lining and of course, a reminder that we mustn’t stop. So this is a story that is obviously moving all the time. Our friends at Pod Save the World are watching it closely, too. I mean, we always recommend them.


Nish Kumar New episodes of that every Wednesday.


Coco Khan Meanwhile, here in the U.K., the Covid inquiry continues to rumble along.


Nish Kumar And this week, we’ve been hearing new, horrifying, if not altogether surprising, revelations about what the government was up to at the peak of the pandemic.


Coco Khan For all of Boris Johnson’s talk of being and I quote, led by the science, he appeared to have a hard time actually understanding the science. His chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, revealed what many of us were thinking, recording in his diary that the Prime Minister was clearly bamboozled. Here he is explaining his view of the PM.


Sir Patrick Vallance Well, I think I’m right in saying that the Prime Minister at the time gave up science when he was 15 and I think he’d be the first to admit it wasn’t his forte and that he did struggle with some of the concepts and we did need to repeat them often.


Nish Kumar Apparently Johnson found it, and I quote, a real struggle. As Vallance put it, though, he did say that the UK prime minister wasn’t necessarily alone in this.


Sir Patrick Vallance A meeting that sticks in my mind was with fellow science advisers from across Europe when one of them and I went to each country and declared that the leader of that country had enormous problems with exponential curves. And the entire phone call burst into laughter because it was true in every country.


Coco Khan Laughter. It’s not that that’s that feels like the wrong expression.


Nish Kumar I guess what it reveals is that the people who were in charge of making the decisions that was supposed to protect us were as confused and as in the dark as the rest of us. It’s kind of a terrifying insight into how our leaders were operating at the time.


Coco Khan I mean, you know, if you were being generous, you’d say, okay, they’re human beings. This was it was a completely new virus. I mean, obviously, we know from the preparedness section of the Covid inquiry that, you know, they could have been more up to date and there were many opportunities to be more informed. But nonetheless, you know, if you would be inclined, you would say, okay, it was a confusing time, but to laugh. I think that reveals something. I feel like that is there’s an honesty there about how casually they took it all.


Nish Kumar Yeah, I do understand that everybody involved as a human being, but at the same time don’t apply for the job of prime minister if you don’t want to govern a country through a crisis, because that is part of the job description. We’ve been warned for a huge amount of time that we were sort of essentially due a pandemic like the one that we lived through.


Coco Khan So according to Sir Patrick Vallance, he recorded in his diary that Johnson would sometimes pretend to misunderstand something he was told in order to see if an alternative might be true instead.


Nish Kumar I say this is somebody who at this will shock. Absolutely no one was a school and university debater. This is debating society. Shit. Oh, right. You know, it’s adopting a position that opposes your own view to try and prove the kind of flexibility of your intellectual capabilities. But that’s all well and good when what you’re doing is debating hypothetical issues that might arise, but it’s not a way to run a country. Another revelation had to do with the current Prime minister, Rishi Sunak. Vallance wrote. DC says Rishi thinks just let people die. That’s okay. DC They, of course, referring to Boris Johnson’s. Chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Cummings was talking about what he understood to be Sunak’s views on Covid 19. Just let people die. That’s okay.


Coco Khan And I think this revelation will be a reminder to everyone that he was not a bit player in the pandemic. He was front and center. He had the ear of everyone who was important, and he made some key decisions himself.


Nish Kumar And as with everything that Dominic Cummings said, it needs to be taken with not just a pinch of salt, but a metric ton of salt. So we at the very least, we should engage with it with some skepticism because Cummings was trying to rewrite history as it was happening, essentially. But yeah, it doesn’t it really does not look great for Sunak’s. And again, Sunak’s desperately trying to distance himself from an administration that he was arguably the second most powerful person and possibly the third most powerful person after Johnson and Cummings, but certainly a central figure as the chancellor. And I think part of his reelection campaign is going to somehow hinge on him not having anything to do with Johnson and Truss. I think it’s easier for him to distance himself from Liz Truss, but I think it’s very difficult for him to distance himself from Boris Johnson.


Coco Khan So let me ask you a question, because we’ve spoken about inquiries before and as you know, I am quite cynical about them. I think we go through this circus and nothing really happens, but perhaps some sort of electoral consequence might be something that comes out of this. I guess I want to ask you, how are you feeling about this inquiry? Do you feel there’s accountability occurring?


Nish Kumar I mean, I think that there are things happening that are instructive for how the state and the government should operate in a crisis. And I think that there are specific technical things that we’re learning that will help us hopefully reshape the way our systems operate. That would be for the benefit of the British people. The main thing that I hope this does in the short term is absolutely 100% and Boris Johnson’s political career. I just have this fear with Johnson that he’s never going to go away.


Coco Khan Actually, I read a piece in the Telegraph. It was like a kind of comment piece where they were saying that essentially this whole inquiry is just to throw Boris Johnson under the bus and that all the bad decisions were made by these unelected scientists and that Boris Johnson was right to question everything and was intuitive to ask those questions because he’s human. And I did think that actually is a salient point to say that the scientists or the chief medical officers, whoever it might be, are not elected officials. So it does need to come down to politicians. But that balance, that delicate balance is hard to achieve. And you just feel that someone like Johnson, he was just covering his own back rather than trying to achieve walk this tightrope, this difficult situation.


Nish Kumar Yeah. I mean, listen, there were going to be more revelations like this. I appreciate that. For some people, it is very difficult to engage with because it’s, you know, a collective trauma that we all very recently went through. But I do still believe in the value of these kind of public inquiries. And and I’m especially appreciative of all the work that’s going into it by all of the people involved in the inquiry right now. And I think it’s especially important because it’s so fresh in everyone’s collective memory that there is some record and some attempt to understand what we all lived through and why we all lived through it. And for that, I think there is huge value in this inquiry. I don’t know if it’s going to lead to anything concrete, but I think just as a living record of the failures that happened in the period between sort of 2020 and 2021, I think it still is serving an essential purpose.


Coco Khan Well, look, there’s certainly going to be more revelations this week. Sir Patrick Vallance, Sir Chris Whitty, Jonathan Van-tam them all these names ring a bell. Throwback time.


Nish Kumar I could smell banana bread coming from my kitchen and feel the panic that we’re we’re all going to die of plague as you remind me of those names.


Coco Khan Although I don’t want to hear from Tiger King. The one name, my one throwback name I don’t need.


Nish Kumar The inquiry will also cover whether Tiger kick was actually good and was normal. People actually that hot?




Nish Kumar We’re recording this just moments after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a series of pre-election giveaways in his Autumn Statement. With inflation slowing down, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s been signaling that he’s ready to, quote, begin the next phase. And the Chancellor followed up with what was meant to be a real crowd pleaser.


Chancellor Jeremy Hunt The biggest package of tax cuts to be implemented since the 1980s. An Autumn Statement for a country that has turned a corner.


Coco Khan Tax cuts. Jeremy Hunt promising tax cuts all round and pints or round two for some reason.


Chancellor Jeremy Hunt So as well as confirming our Brexit pubs guarantee, which means the duty on a pint is always lower than in the shops. I have decided to freeze all alcohol duty until August 1st next year. That means no increase in duty on beer, cider, wine or spirits.


Coco Khan At a time when taxes are at a 70 year high, the words tax cuts may be music to many people’s ears. But of course, it’s never all that simple. Our public services are looking pretty rickety. With more than 7 million people on hospital waiting lists, schools underfunded and some 3 million using foodbanks.


Nish Kumar Here to help us understand what the Autumn Statement is really about is The Guardian’s political correspondent, Kiran Stacey . Kiran, thank you so much for joining us on what I imagine is a hectic, hectic day.


Kiran Stacey It is. Crazy out there. Yeah, yeah.


Nish Kumar But look, so let’s let’s cut to the quick. Just help us out here. What are the key headlines coming off the of the Autumn Statement?


Kiran Stacey Well, the key announcements are, as you were mentioning, the big tax cuts, the bigger than expected cut in National insurance, which is going to cost quite a bit of money and she’s going to cost about 10 billion pounds. We also saw a bit of a squeeze on benefits. There’s cuts in taxes for self-employed people. But really, I think the underlying theme of this is the stuff that Jeremy Hunt didn’t say that was there in the forecast. And that’s very low growth. And the fact that he has chosen to use all of the money that the Obama said that he had beyond what we thought he had. He’s chosen to use almost all of that on tax cuts rather than spending increases, which means that to meet these forecasts, it would need the next government, whichever party it is, to make cuts of about 4% every year to unprotected departments. That’s basically a second round of austerity coming after this election if these forecasts are going to be met.


Coco Khan Wow. So do you think he’s setting labour up for this horrible position where if they are to take government, they will have to do this and therefore lose the confidence of the electorate?


Kiran Stacey Yeah, for sure. I mean, if you want one take away from this Autumn Statement, for me it was that Jeremy Hunt doesn’t expect to win the next election. This is an almost undeliverable package. This looks like to me, just a giant trap for Labor. And it will be incredibly difficult if Rachel Reeves is going to be the next chancellor for her to figure out, well, what on earth do I do with this? If these are the forecasts, you know, the NHS falls over. Local government, several local authorities will go bust. You know, waiting lists will get worse and worse and worse. But at the same time, labour absolute desperate not to, you know, undo any of the tax cuts or to offer spending increases beyond what’s already on the table. So it’s quite difficult position for her to be in.


Nish Kumar So you don’t see this as I mean, there’s a lot of reporting happening now about how this is the sort of starting gun for an earlier than anticipated election next year. The Guardian’s committee was drawing a comparison between the 2% National Insurance cut and Nigel Lawson cutting 2% of the basic rate of tax before the 87 election.


Kiran Stacey But that was a very smart analogy.


Nish Kumar Yeah, but you don’t say. You don’t even say that. It’s a question of them setting up the election. It’s a question of them setting up for the next period in opposition effectively.


Kiran Stacey Well, to that extent. But it’s also a way for them to frame the next election, which they’re hoping will be Tory tax cuts versus labor spending increases.


Coco Khan Well, I did want to ask you just about a few of the specific policies. Just for our listeners, you know, a big headline was about the changes to the national insurance rate. What is that about?


Kiran Stacey And that’s a way of cutting income tax without cutting income tax. The idea of National insurance is it’s the contribution that you make towards benefits such as pensions later in life, and you have to make those contributions for a certain period to get your full pension allowance at the end of it. But the way it actually works is it’s an income tax in all but name, and it’s paid by people mainly on payrolls. It’s also paid a bit by self-employed people. It’s a slightly less expensive way to cut lots and lots of people’s taxes, basically. It will make up to about 1,000 pounds a year a difference for some people. So it will make a major impact. The problem that, you know, the Tories have got is that more people are going to be paying more tax because of what we call fiscal drag, which is Jeremy Hunt’s habits and previous Chancellor’s habit of keeping the thresholds where they are in cash terms, which means that inflation means you’re. Wages go up and therefore you end up paying more tax because they haven’t adjusted the threshold at which you start paying those tax rates. That is a huge, huge money spinner for the Treasury. Not many people realize it’s going on, but it’s such a massive deal that just because of that, almost entirely because of that, our overall tax as a percentage of GDP is forecast to be higher than ever before by the end of this five year period. So, yes, national insurance contributions have been cut. Overall taxes are going up. And I think the worry for the Tories will be that people feel the latter, not the former.


Nish Kumar What you’ve described sounds like the literal opposite of tax cuts, but it’s just done by stealth. It’s a tax increase by stealth. Your means, essentially.


Kiran Stacey That’s exactly what it is. Yeah. Yeah. And it’s a very effective thing to do because people don’t realize you’re raising taxes. If if what you’re saying is, well, we’re freezing the thresholds, but that is what you’re doing. It’s a massive tax hike.


Coco Khan So how would you compare this budget to in terms of previous chancellors? You know, there was lots of mentions of 2010. Is this George Osborne’s doing.


Kiran Stacey It feels very Osborne like to me clever tax cuts that put labour in a bind, coupled with the prospect of swingeing spending cuts to come. It feels very close, but obviously it’s not anything like Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng. But yeah, this is quite a strategic Autumn Statement, I would say quite a politically clever one.


Nish Kumar Just expand on that, the sort of politics of it, because he’s been very keen, Rishi Sunak, to distance himself from his two immediate predecessors for any number of very understandable reasons. But with bringing Cameron back into the Cabinet and the consistent, as Coco said, referencing of 2010, specifically as a year when only a year ago Rishi Sunak was sort of trashing the record of the last 13 years of government, essentially trying to portray himself as the insurgent change candidate in the upcoming election. He now seems to have backtracked. Am I reading that right?


Kiran Stacey Yeah, that’s exactly right. I was talking to a Tory candidate last night who said, look, there’s three ways you go into an election. It’s either a change election, it’s a steady as she goes election or it’s a be scared of the other guy’s election. We’ve already had a change election. That was back at Tory conference all of a few weeks ago. Now we’re trying a steady as she goes election and presumably as we get towards it, it’ll be much more about the dangers of Labour. But their strategy is just veering wildly all over the place. It was people within number ten who said, Look, this is going to be a change election. You have to be a change. Prime Minister. So they tried it for a bit, realized it didn’t work and decided to bring David Cameron back.


Coco Khan Is this an austerity 3.04.0 budget or is this a genuinely generous nation building budget?


Kiran Stacey Given the forecasts he had, this was a generous budget, so he was told by the idea there was 27 billion pounds worth of headroom to be able to hit his overall target, which is to have debt falling as a proportion of GDP at the end of the five year period. So 27 billion pounds basically to play if he’s used three quarters of that and he’s used it mainly on tax cuts. So to that extent, he’s been generous. He hasn’t said it would just pay off the debt faster. And you asked earlier about George Osborne. Maybe that’s what George Osborne would have done. But they’ve not they’ve not done that. But it’s not generous in terms of public spending. And as I was saying earlier, 4%, 4.1% average real term spending cuts every year for the next five years. I mean, that can’t be called generous by any measure.


Nish Kumar And Kiran, do you think that they’ve managed to by just repeatedly saying the word growth over and over again distract all of us from the fact that the Obama has actually downgraded its forecasts for the UK’s economic growth for the next, I think, five years.


Kiran Stacey It’s a growth growth budget with lower growth rates, horrible tricks, a pull off, isn’t it? Yeah, I mean, I don’t think we get close to 2% growth in the OBR forecast now for three years. I mean, it’s basically no growth in the economy. Inflation is still way above the 2% target, even though it’s come down a huge amount. So overall, it’s not a healthy economic outlook.


Coco Khan Gosh wow.


Nish Kumar Um, Kiran.


Kiran Stacey Sorry, was that too much doom and gloom?


Coco Khan I’m not going to lie Kiran, yeah, yeah, it was. But listen, Kiran, we get cheaper pints? Did I hear?


Kiran Stacey Cheaper pints. Yeah, more expensive rolling tobacco though. So, anybody, sorry about that.


Nish Kumar There was, there was just a great when you finish that it was just to both Coco at the same time went ooh.


Coco Khan Yeah, just a silence in the room.


Nish Kumar Took a second to absorb to absorb what you said. Kiran, thank you so much for your time. That was that was.


Coco Khan Great.


Nish Kumar Both fundamentally depressing, but also extremely good.


Coco Khan Yeah. I had a fun time getting sad.


Coco Khan Political storytelling in the run up to an election is all fun and games. But we also want to understand what does this Autumn Statement mean for the UK’s poorest citizens? Our next guest is Helen Barnard, director of policy research and impact at the Trussell Trust.


Nish Kumar Helen, we just spoke to political correspondent Kiran Stacey, who helped demystify the politics behind the Autumn Statement and also talked us through this idea of fiscal drag, which means that despite the headlines about tax cuts, more people are actually going to be pushed into paying income tax for the first time. And you very much at the front lines of all of this. Some of the stats are sort of very upsetting in their own way. Between April and September this year, the Trussell Trust provided 1.5 million emergency food parcels to people using its food banks. That was the highest number ever and a 16% increase from the year before. We heard the Chancellor almost talk about a country that I’m not sure a lot of us recognize from the day to day realities of what’s going on for people on the ground. What are people coming into food banks at the moment saying about their current financial situation?


Helen Barnard Well, it is really, really bleak, if I’m honest. So as you said, the first six months of this year was our worst ever. But last year was our worst ever. So last year, the level of need had gone up by 37% on the previous year. So what we’ve seen is actually a longer term trend over the last 5 to 10 years of just ever increasing destitution. If I’m honest, you know, the most extreme form of poverty. So people who cannot afford to eat properly to pay their bills. We’re seeing people who are missing a hospital appointment because they can’t afford the bus fare to get there. There’s one woman who was getting up at two in the morning to do the washing because the electricity is slightly cheaper. There have been literally millions of people who have been unplugging their fridge freezer because they can’t afford to keep them on. So people are facing really severe hardship and it just keeps getting tougher. So we are bracing for our worst winter ever. And I think for the first time I’ve heard food banks are saying they feel like they’re reaching breaking point, that the need is just so great, it’s far beyond what any charity could try and deal with.


Coco Khan We were in the room with you when you were listening to the Autumn Statement. How did you react to a couple of things that you thought might be good, might be beneficial? What jumped out to you?


Helen Barnard So our biggest fear coming into this, there had been a lot of talk about whether benefits would be raised in line with inflation. So the normal thing is each April benefits go up and they go up by whatever inflation was in September the previous year. That’s been the case for a long time, for the last couple of years at least. There’s been really strong indications they might not do that. They might freeze them completely or upgrade them by a lower amount. Now, that’s an effective cut to people’s incomes. And that was really scary. The idea you would look out on the level of hardship and actually reduce the amount of money, that was terrifying. But they didn’t do that. They pulled back. They have uprated. So all benefits, universal credit and so on. They’ll go up in April in the way they’re supposed to. It isn’t going to take away the hunger, the hardship we’re seeing. It means it’s not going to get worse. So that was great. We were so relieved. The other big thing, though, which is really is an active positive, as it were. So local housing allowance, it’s basically housing benefit that if you’re in the private rented sector and you’re on a low income, it helps you pay your rent. The amount was frozen back in 2020. Now everyone will know quite how much rents have gone up by in the last few years. And so that local housing allowance, it was just far below what most people’s rents were. And people were coming to foodbanks partly because they were using the food budget to try and pay the rent. And it was one of the biggest things that was forcing up homelessness. So a lot of the homelessness charities are seeing more and more people. And that gap between housing benefit, local housing allowance and rents was one of the biggest drivers. Now, the thing the government did announce today is that they are really linking it with rents. It will again cover the bottom 30% of rents. Now, that’s a big thing. It’s going to help hold back the rise in homelessness. It should help foodbanks because people will have to spend a bit less on the food budget, on the rent.


Nish Kumar I know we’ve discussed this idea of the tax cuts being slightly smoke and mirrors because of this fiscal drag, but the headlines will inevitably or certainly the positive headlines will inevitably focus on tax cuts. But I noticed that you didn’t really foreground them in your list of things that you thought were positive about the or do you not? Do you see the tax cuts as having a positive impact for people on lower incomes in this country?


Helen Barnard Not massively for most of them. Yeah. I mean, essentially we have a progressive tax system, which means that people on higher incomes pay more taxes, which means when you cut taxes, by and large, it’s people on higher incomes who see greater gains from those cuts. Yeah. Now, that’s especially the case for income tax. But it’s also the case in a national insurance. So the group that are going to see the most benefit from that are kind of middle earners.


Nish Kumar Right.


Helen Barnard So actually, if you really want to help people on low incomes in and out of work, universal credit is the tool you use if you want to funnel more money to that group. You do it through universal credit, not through any of the tax cuts.


Coco Khan So I wanted to talk to you about something that they speak about in today’s Autumn Statement. Just be completely honest. It really scared me. Jeremy Hunt talked about essentially putting people in disability benefits into a mandatory job seeking scheme. Some of my relatives are not well and are out of work, and I can quite literally visualize them being put into this class room or whatever the spaces being whatever patronized. I didn’t I didn’t even know physically they can then do that. They’re out of work because they’re not well. I, I found it dystopian and scary and one. Do you think it can happen and to if it did happen, would it work?


Helen Barnard So there has been something really odd in the last few days. So last week the government kind of preannounced a bit of this, which they do sometimes called the back to work plan, which is all about how to get more disabled people back into work. And it’s worth saying loads of disabled people would really like to work if barriers removed. So I’ve got no problem with the aspiration and they have actually, there is quite a lot that’s really good about what they’re doing. So they are putting really serious money into employment support and good employment support schemes. They’re going to put more money into talking therapies. You know, we all know how hard it is to get mental health support right now. Yeah. So that’s all good. The trouble is they’ve kind of wrapped up this positive stuff in really frightening rhetoric. Yeah. Talking about sanctions, talking about forcing people who are not well enough to work to get out there. Now, that has an effect in itself. Actually, this rhetoric has an effect of ramping up fear and actually, I think making it less likely that disabled people will choose to engage with the good support that’s out there because they are so scared they’re going to get put into this regime. We’re saying about 7 in 10 people coming to food banks are disabled. There is incredibly high destitution among disabled people. This could make it worse.


Nish Kumar What you’ve done for us and we’re so appreciative of your time, is give a kind of reasoned assessment from your perspective about what the Autumn Statement means. And you have said positive things, but the sense with the positive things is they might just be sticking plasters. You’ve actually written a book on how we can end poverty once and for all in Britain. And I just want to ask you about structural stuff and structural changes, big picture changes that we can make this country. What would it take to break the disconnect between the UK being one of the richest countries in the world and also being a place where we’re seeing spiraling homelessness, spiraling food, bank usage, foodbank usage by people who already have jobs? What I’m asking really here is how can we rebuild the connection between the UK’s national wealth and the wealth of the people who actually live in the UK?


Helen Barnard Yes, you’re right. It does. Still, sometimes you have a day like today and we focus in on the kind of tweaks to the existing systems, don’t we? Yeah. And we don’t zoom out to what are the big things we could do that would actually make a step change in people’s lives? So I think so when I wrote this book, it was out last year and it was tied in with the anniversary of the beverage report. So that kind of set up all of our modern institutions, really. And that came after the Second World War, which I think is interesting. It was kind of this big national trauma. And then you emerged out and that gave a kind of impetus to say, you know, the purpose of victory is to create a better world to live in. And I was writing this during the pandemic, and it really felt to me as if, you know, we’re going through this national trauma when we emerge, can we rebuild a better world the way that beverage.


Nish Kumar And so we consciously trying to update so we again we should just contextualize for international listeners and I suspect some British listeners as well. The beverage report was published in November 1942, and it takes its name from William Beveridge, who was the social economist who kind of headed up the report. And it was, as you say, about how to rebuild the country coming out of, you know, I mean, the similarities feel overwhelming. Good points coming out of the aftermath of a global financial crisis and coming out of the national crisis of the Second World War. And it’s essentially the kind of instigation point for conversations that culminate in the welfare state in the National Health Service in the 1945 labour Administration. And we consciously trying to do something on what I guess was it was the 80th anniversary of the report’s publication that was this is a modern 21st century version of that report.


Helen Barnard Yeah. So I went into it thinking all these institutions that were created, are they still fit for purpose? Right? You know, 80 years later, I’m one of these they’ve actually lasted amazingly well. If you go back about, you know, even within years of them being set up, people were saying it can’t last, it can’t last. This is going to people always thought and actually, you know, they’ve been incredibly durable. But the conclusion I came to was that they are still a really good basis, but they are not fit for the modern world. So if you kind of think about what they were set up to do, so you’ve got the National Health Service. But if you think about, you know, health challenges today are about long term health conditions. It’s about mental health, it’s about back problems, it’s about diabetes. The health service was never really created to deal with that or to do preventative work. And the same is true of kind of education. In some ways, the education system was basically, can we teach all the kids to read so they can go and work in factories? It was, you know, it was never designed to have be able to let adults retrain four times over their lifetimes because technology is changing. And now you have to do this thing with A.I..


Nish Kumar Yeah.


Helen Barnard And then you take kind of social social services, employment support. And it was all about a kind of it was like a mass dating agency. So you’ve got all these workers and all these factories and we need to put them together really efficiently. But the problem we face now is firstly poor quality employment so we can match you up with a job. But as you were saying, you’re still going to be in poverty. It’s not very good at saying how do we get employers to design better jobs? So all of these services, I think need to be refreshed to meet the modern problems.


Coco Khan So on a kind of closing note, are there things listeners who care about this as much as we do? I mean, look, I donate to the Trussell Trust. Of course I always.


Nish Kumar Of course. We’re all we’re big Trussell trust donors. The least surprising thing about the two hosts of this podcast.


Coco Khan I resent that I donate to, no offense, Helen. You’re great but. I don’t think I don’t think your organization should exist,  I think it’s outrageous. I hate it when I see.


Nish Kumar You’re trying to work yourselves into obsolescence essentially right?


Helen Barnard Oh, God. Yeah. No, it’s like the headline of our strategy is we don’t want to have to exist.


Coco Khan I mean, when I see a politician doing a photo op outside of food bank. I want to scream, you know, in. Ahhh. Anyway, I’m getting angry. But outside of charitable things, what political things are listeners can be doing to kind of nudge this up the agenda.


Helen Barnard So I think for me, the biggest thing so with we’ve been talking today about the fact that Social Security, even with today’s boosts, it is failing in its most basic duty of protecting people from extreme hardship. The reason for that is because within Social Security there is never been a connection between how benefits are set and the actual cost of essentials. That’s never existed under any government. And what that means is every year we have this fight about where do you set benefits and how high should they be? But never with any kind of direct reference to what two people need to buy. So what we’ve been so Trussell trust with other with loads of other charities now I think it’s over a hundred. We are campaigning to put an essentials guarantee into legislation. So that would be a legislation that says universal credit would always at least cover the cost of essentials. And we set up an independent body which would assess what that level was. And you can then set benefits with reference to that. Now, that is one of those things which would be transformative across the whole system. So we wouldn’t just be arguing about this little tweak there and that little tweak there. We’d be saying as a society, we’re going to commit to each other, that we’re going to make sure that everyone can afford the essentials. And that’s protection we can all rely on. Now, we have got a campaign on that. We have a petition. So if people want to help, go on our website and you can sign the petition. You can write to your MP. And it’s interesting, we’re getting a lot of support from across the political spectrum. So quite a lot of MPs, politicians, just people in the communities where our foodbanks are going out talking to people. This sense that that would be this one thing we’re talking about a fundamental change to a system which would then just radically transform the lives of so many people.


Nish Kumar Helen, thank you so much for your time.


Coco Khan Thank you so much.


Helen Barnard Oh, thank you. It’s been lovely.




Coco Khan So Nish, who is your villain of the week?


Nish Kumar Well. This is something we actually talked a little bit about with Helen Barnard. But on the question of what this Tory government thinks of disabled people. My villain is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Laura Trott, who was previewing their plans earlier this week. Just further background. Rishi Sunak has called the current UK welfare system unsustainable and has pledged to clamp down on supposed welfare fraud. So in a move to change that, a new plan has been floated where people with mobility and mental health problems will be asked to work from home or they’ll lose their benefits. And that means hundreds of thousands of people will be told to look for work that they can do from home. If they can’t, they face having their benefits cut by nearly 5,000 pounds a year. Now, Lord Trump was actually asked about this policy on Sky News this week, and here’s what she said.


Laura Trott I think that if you can work, as a principle, you should work. And that is what the government believes. That’s been the thrust of all of our policies. Of course, there should be support for people to help them into work or to help them with issues that they’re facing. But ultimately, there is a duty on citizens that if they are able to go out to work, that’s what they should do.


Nish Kumar James Taylor from the disability charity Scope said it will be deeply damaging to force disabled people to look for work when they aren’t well enough. It is absurd to even suggest that people who are unwell have a duty to work through it. And Ina Osmond, from the anti-poverty charity Zed 2K, said there is no evidence to support the idea that there are fully remote jobs available that are suitable for these groups. It’s an absurd policy in any case, especially given that the government has spent the last few years explaining how terrible working from home is and how everyone should go into the office and how we need to salvage Pret A Manger by going in. So already there’s a dissonance at play here, given what they’ve been telling us since the end of the pandemic. The thing that I always want to ask these people is, do you honestly think that these people don’t want to work?


Coco Khan Yeah.


Nish Kumar Why? Why are people of benefits routinely dehumanized? Maybe the whole point of this is just to wind people like me up. You know, it’s you know, it’s it’s a government that essentially has abandoned meaningful policy shifts and is simply governing by owning the Libs. You know, I think that is the kind of troll government that has nothing to offer except things that are designed to wind me up. So am I playing into their hands with this? Or should we all still retain a basic sense of human morality and consider that the benefits system is actually there for a reason and not everybody on benefits is desperately trying to scam you?


Coco Khan Yeah, exactly. I mean, there’s been a long history of like demonizing the poor, but also demonizing those who are ill. And normally, I. I don’t know, it would be wrong to rank which one is more effective. Traditionally, they would go migrants. Every problem is the migrants.


Nish Kumar Well, they’ve got. But they’ve got so much that they’re really covering that base already.


Coco Khan They can’t cover the base of the migrants because they are not bringing the numbers down. Yeah. So they can’t really keep going on that. So I honestly think they just have some sort of horrible hat where they put vulnerable groups in there, like who should we get, who should get who should we scapegoat today? And they’ve just once again been like, Oh, yes, I forgot. There’s many people who are quite unwell because there was a massive pandemic. Excellent. Yeah, let’s go for them. It’s really opportunistic and it is gross.


Nish Kumar Before we jump to Hero of the Week, okay, We’ve had a lot of listener reaction to last week when you highlighted the work of foster parents across the UK. On YouTube. ChrisPalmer7893 said fabulous pick for Hero. We adopted our two boys and whilst it’s not always been easy, it was made infinitely easier by them having been under the care of excellent, highly experienced foster parents before they came to us. This was some years ago and I remember the foster parents telling us that whilst they loved our two, they were looking forward to a little time off from fostering just to replenish their batteries. Less than a week later, they had three little girls under their care because their need was so great and they couldn’t bring themselves to refuse to have them. Heroes, indeed, as I’m sure what by now is probably well over 30 children that they’ve fostered. It’s absolutely incredible. What an incredible what incredible message from Chris and what an incredible thing he and those foster parents have been doing.


Coco Khan It’s been interesting, actually, because of all the heroes, this was probably the one I had the most response to. Yeah. And it’s yeah, it’s sort of really hard in my view that this needs to be much higher up on the political agenda.


Nish Kumar So who’s your hero for this week?


Coco Khan So my hero for this week is the campaign group Stop MSG Sphere London. Their work has stopped the development of a giant sphere. That’s what it is in Stratford, East London. I live near there, so I’ve been following this quite closely. Yeah. Okay. So it is a big sphere.


Nish Kumar It looks bananas.


Coco Khan It’s bananas. Inside the sphere is a state of the art live event space, you know, for sporting events, for music, concerts. No one’s denying that inside. It’s kind of cool. But the main thing that’s controversial about it is that the outside of this giant glowing sphere is, yeah, just hundreds of Led screens projecting advertisements all day and all night. Well, certainly the one in Las Vegas is 24 hours a day is just on the strip. So you can kind of imagine it, right?


Nish Kumar Yeah. Yeah.


Coco Khan So Madison Square Gardens, MSG, they wanted to build it in Stratford, but there was lots of resistance from the local residents, mainly, quite understandably. They said, We’re not going. We have to sleep with this thing. Forget the roads for now. I mean, people need to sleep. And Madison Square Gardens Company is run by a guy called James Dolan. He was a Trump donor. Just saying. Does that seem like a cool guy?


Nish Kumar But I think it’s fine to say he seems like an absolute piece of shit, but I think that’s fine to say.


Coco Khan Okay. Well.


Nish Kumar It is my personal opinion that if you donate to Donald Trump, you are a piece of shit. I’m not claiming it as fact.


Coco Khan Okay, But let’s just be clear that we say, allegedly, piece of shit. I don’t want to get sued. Anyway. So the Madison Square Garden had the audacity to return to these residents who had concerns about the light pollution and said, Alright, we’ll get you blackout blinds. How rude is that? And finally, the campaign reached London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who this week has rejected the planning application. Here’s Lindsey Mase, who’s part of Stop MSG Sphere London, giving her response to that news.


Lindsey Mase I mean, obviously we’re over the moon. It’s been nearly six years that local residents have dealt with the stress and uncertainty of whether this deeply damaging development would be felt right next to their homes.


Coco Khan There is talk about Michael Gove intervening that he might actually allow it, but Madison Square Gardens are very, very salty about this decision. They’ve already given a presser where they’ve said, We’re going then fine, bye. You snooze, you lose. We’re going to go to, and I quote, more forward thinking countries.


Nish Kumar Just say Dubai. We all know you mean Dubai.


Coco Khan Just say Dubai.


Nish Kumar If anyone’s going to let you build a massive glowing orb that based on some of the artwork I saw only advertises the Trolls movie.


Coco Khan Yeah. No, it is weird because they keep saying like, this is this is the future of live events, this is the future of buildings. And then you look at the geniuses involved with designing the displays and it was like, Oh, on Halloween we did a big pumpkin.


Nish Kumar Yeah.


Coco Khan At Christmas we did a Christmas Orb. When it was a sports match, we made it into a basketball. All right, guys its round things you’re going to do round things.


Nish Kumar Yeah.


Coco Khan Like I don’t know how edgy it is. I mean, look, you know, Las Vegas. No shade to Las Vegas. I’m sure we have some listeners based in Nevada, but people do not live on the Strip if you live in Stratford. And I think there is a question here about who cities are actually full. So fair play to these residents. They worked really hard. They all got together. The group knocked on hundreds of doors and they gathered, you know, support from from local councilors. The local green councilor was very integral. And ultimately, you know, Sadiq Khan, he he called it. And you have to give him credit where credit is due. That’s a lot of money. It was a lot of investment into the city and which he denied, because fundamentally people have a right to live happily and healthily in the city that they choose to call home. So anyway, also, I just want to mention this sphere was going to be in Newham. Newham is one of the most economically deprived areas of London. Tell you what, though, they wouldn’t do it in Chipping Norton They’re all like oh, we need this. The country needs this. All right, then do it somewhere else, which they wouldn’t. But yes, these these guys got together and I think they really force the politicians to and just the wider world, the wider establishment, if you will, to sort of say, okay, actually, let’s think about our priorities. We don’t really want this. Who is this for? So fair play to them.


Nish Kumar I am personally and professionally interested in there being more performance spaces in London.


Coco Khan Oh you want your face 360.


Nish Kumar But yeah, but I just the thing that I always think about a lot of the best about these is, you know, when I think about what makes them good, it tends to be, you know, the acoustics, the sightlines. I’m never in a venue and I think, you know what? This would be better if it was constantly burning the retinas of people outside the venue.


Coco Khan You’re not just like, Oh, I just wish this was 10 pounds a pint. And I really wish that when I queue for my coat, the security guards just rude. No reason I really want to get talked down to. Anyway, we’ve got enough of those places in London, so shout out to the Stop MSG Sphere London Group. You did it, guys. You actually did it. So well done to them.


Nish Kumar You could get in touch with us and we’d love to hear from you by emailing We also love to hear your voices, so do send us a voice note on WhatsApp. Our number is 07514 644572. Internationally that’s +44 7514 644572. You can always nominate your own heroes and villains. Just email us at


Coco Khan Pod Save the UK is a Reduced Listing production for Crooked Media.


Nish Kumar Thanks to senior producer Michael Brough and digital producer Alex Bishop.


Coco Khan Video editing was by David Kaplavitz and the music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.


Nish Kumar Thanks to our engineer Alex Bennett.


Coco Khan The executive producers are Anoushka Sharma, Dan Jackson and Madeline Haeringer with additional production support from Ari Schwartz.


Nish Kumar Watch us on the Pod Save the World YouTube channel. Follow us on Twitter and Tik Tok where we’re at Pod Save the UK or Pod Save the UK on Instagram.


Coco Khan And hit Subscribe for new shows on Thursdays, on Spotify, Amazon or Apple or wherever you get your podcasts.