A budget bandaging wounds won’t end austerity

The government announced increased public spending for the first time in nearly a decade, but Hannah Westwater thinks efforts to give a boost to the vulnerable are transparent

Chancellor Philip Hammond has delivered the budget on behalf of the government – one that pledges to at least start ending austerity, filling potholes both figurative and literal. But the fixes are arguably surface-level. The conditions already bringing suffering to the UK’s most disadvantaged people are either here to stay or looming on the horizon meaning austerity’s worst-hit victims will remain as such for the immediate future.

Hammond announced that public spending would be up by 1.2 per cent – but told BBC Radio 4 that the NHS in England would account for most of this. A relative win for the NHS which has been gasping for air, though experts say the £2bn pledged for mental health spending is only half of what is needed. And Hammond was silent on homelessness, despite soaring rough sleeper numbers. Housing wasn’t on the agenda, either.

Otherwise, the small print tells a more familiar story of cuts and growth stagnation (the economy is projected to sit well under two per cent growth for the next five years).

Not only that, but if the government truly intends to curb austerity, a moderate foray back into spending is unlikely to cut it. The UK has been ravaged by eight years of austerity leaving all public services crying out for investment. Extra funding made available for schools for “the little extras” fails to acknowledge the structural problems in education – and still glosses over the number of teachers who have had to provide school supplies themselves, or ask parents for donations, all while schools face a staffing crisis. Some teachers reacted with anger.

Tweeting, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said of Hammond’s budget promise: “Schools have been cut by over £2bn since 2015 – today they get less than a fifth back and he tells them to be grateful!”

Personal tax allowance is being lifted to £12,500, which Hammond says will benefit the average person by £130 a year, and national living wage will reach a high of £8.21 an hour. But it will be the UK’s richest households which feel the long-term benefit of income tax cuts, as shown by the Resolution Foundation. Nearly half of the reforms will only affect the most well-off 10 per cent as tax changes become “even more regressive”.

Public spending will remain tight, forecasts may not always be so rosy,

The think tank said that austerity had been eased, but not ended, warning that the years ahead could be tough. “Brexit must be delivered smoothly, public spending will remain tight, forecasts may not always be so rosy, living standards are set to be sluggish and tax rises to meet pressures in the 2020s from our ageing society will still be needed.”

Yesterday’s announcement combined with increased spending already promised for other services, like defence and aid, implies continued cuts elsewhere (the Resolution Foundation said prisons and local government could suffer). Meanwhile, a new plastic tax was revealed for packaging that is less than 30 per cent recycled. Environmental experts were disappointed by the chancellor’s lack of detail and action on climate change, just three weeks after the shocking IPCC report was unveiled.

Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas called it “the most nature-depleted budget in decades”, adding that “our children will never forgive him”. It seems unlikely that the UK’s disadvantaged will forgive his government, too.

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