My speech in the budget debate – cost of living, unemployment, childcare and taxes

Yesterday I spoke in the first day of debate following the budget. You can read the full debate here, but I’ve reproduced my speech in full below.

In June 2010, the Chancellor led his band of merry men, straw men and tin men on the yellow brick road towards his emerald city: the elimination of the deficit by 2015, the cutting of public sector net borrowing to £60 billion in this financial year—in fact, it will be £108 billion—and growth of about 2.5% every year during this Parliament. The trouble was that he fell off his yellow brick road fairly quickly and started wandering around in the wilderness of low growth and higher borrowing. Suddenly, after four years, he seems to have found himself back on his road, albeit not as far down it as he expected. Like all expeditionary leaders, he is quick to tell us that he always knew where he was, and where he was going, and that it was all part of his long-term plan, despite the fact that he has not gone as far as he expected.

Does all that matter? It does, for a number of reasons. We are being asked to believe that someone who gave us that fantasy journey can still give us something credible. It also matters very much to the people who had to accept the austerity measures that we were told were essential to get us down the road as quickly as possible. People have suffered, and to find out four years on that we have not actually made much progress is bitter gall for many.

What about the people left behind? The cost of living crisis is real. People’s real earnings have fallen. All the Treasury and Institute for Fiscal Studies figures show, slightly differently, that the people who have lost out most are those at the bottom and the top of the earnings scale. However, for someone to lose 5% when they are earning £3,000 or £4,000 a week is very different from losing 5% when earnings are £150 or £200 a week. The impact on everyday life in the latter case is far greater, because the issue is not about having to cut out a few little extra luxuries—perhaps not go out for a meal as often as one might otherwise have done—but about basic foodstuffs, heating the house and buying clothes for the children. It is not good enough to say that the situation is all right because the people at the very top have also seen an income drop, which makes it fair; in the real world, that is not fair.

The other group that the Budget has rather lost sight of is the unemployed. People often say that unemployment has dropped by such and such a percentage, but the number is still very high. In April to June 2010, 2.46 million people were unemployed; according to today’s figures, the number is 2.33 million. I make that only 130,000 fewer than in 2010. Unemployment, of course, went up between 2010 and now and has come down again, and that doubtless explains some of the percentage drops that people are talking about. However, 130,000 fewer unemployed people, although better than before, is quite marginal.

What are we doing for the 2.3 million unemployed people? There are still 700,000 more people unemployed than before the recession. Where are the measures to get those people into work and to help the young people about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke so eloquently? There are very few such measures. Talking about percentages going up and down as if we have solved the problem is no answer to people struggling on very low incomes who, in many areas, cannot find jobs no matter how hard they try.

On the child care proposals, at least one Government Member made a lot of the fact that child care costs for those on universal credit are now to be met by up to 85%. We have now had, or will have had, at least five years of this Government cutting help with child care costs from 80% to 70% for people on tax credits—the predecessor of universal credit. So for each of these five years, those people will have found things much more difficult. It is not clear when families in this situation will even be on universal credit, given how that is going at the moment. Will this provision start when the tax relief starts, or will it start only when these families finally get on to universal credit, if that happens? We have not been told.

Moreover, the proposal is to be paid for not by people who are better-off but by another group of people on universal credit. We do not know which group of people because we have not yet been told; apparently, we will know in the autumn. The change will be financed entirely out of the universal credit budget, so some families with children on universal credit will get a little bit more, but somebody else is going to get a certain amount less.

We always make choices in policies, and that is why debates about matters such as raising the tax threshold are exceptionally important for all of us. The 5 million people who are already below the tax threshold will get nothing out of this move. Some 10% of the total cost, which has already been about £10 billion, goes towards lifting people out of tax; 15% of it goes to people on median earnings of up to £26,000; and three quarters of it goes to people earning above the median. That choice has been made, but it could have been made differently. The money could have been used, and could still be used, to help people on lower earnings. If we want to help low-earning families, there are number of other measures that we might want to use, but we are not using them. This is a choice that the Government are making. Constantly portraying it as something that is there only to help low-earning families does a disservice to those families. They know the situation; they know that they do indeed have a cost of living crisis that is not being resolved by today’s Budget.

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Some Vouchers with your Calpol?

Stressed and anxious parents will soon be able to collect £100 worth of ‘parenting class’ vouchers when they visit their local Boots store.

This is apparently one of David Cameron’s ‘big ideas’ for tackling family problems, school discipline and even rioting youth.

It bears some interesting hallmarks of this Government’s approach. Why give out the vouchers in Boots? This may be to make it less threatening, but why not through health visitors or doctors’ surgeries? Unusually for a Government which usually argues that ‘help’ should be concentrated on those most in need, this approach is proposed on the basis that targeting here might stigmatise and put people off seeking help.

I welcome any renewed interest in universalism, but if there are to be no eligibility criteria, is the funding unlimited? If not, is it ‘first come first served’? One commentator has already expressed concern that the opportunity will be taken up by the parenting equivalent of the ‘worried well’ rather than those who really need help.

Then there is the question of who provides these parenting classes. A familiar pattern is already emerging. Charities like the National Childbirth Trust have been mentioned , but also private firms such as ‘BabyGym’. According to one newspaper report this organisation is owned by a friend of the Prime Minister.

We’ve seen the same pattern in other Government initiatives such as ‘welfare to work’ programmes. Often under the umbrella of the argument that such services are better provided by specialists and the ‘voluntary sector’ the work is tendered out. I wouldn’t be surprised in due course to hear that once this is rolled out nationwide (it’s starting as a pilot in 3 areas) large companies like Serco and Ingeus suddenly display an interest in parenting. These private ‘public service’ companies aren’t ‘subject specialists’ in anything but simply ready to put together teams of people to carry out what were traditionally public sector tasks.

Funding for Sure Start Centres, and for Youth Work is shrinking. These vouchers are no substitute!

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