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A Budget From Which Boldness, And Human Solidarity, Were Entirely Lacking

09/03/2017 11:19
JUSTIN TALLIS via Getty Images

It was a pity that the Chancellor chose International Women's Day, when the global and UK focus might have been on the discrimination and disadvantage that affect more than half of the UK's and the world's population, as the day to deliver the 2017 Budget.

My day was split in two: first I was joining staff and students from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University in a celebration of the Day. Its theme was "Be Bold for Change", and I took as my starting point the much-loved slogan "Well behaved women seldom make history".

I stressed the way in which women can make change when they get together, support each other and help each other - and the urgent need for such change in the midst of our economic, social, environmental and political crises.

I then turned my attention to the Budget - a stark contrast, for what was lacking from Philip Hammond's speech was both boldness, and solidarity.

For the people of Sheffield, South Yorkshire and the North, it was a huge disappointment. You might call it an insult.

The Chancellor spoke glowingly of people "enjoying the security and dignity of work" and in one of a number of nods to Women's Day referred to the "higher proportion of women in work than ever before".

He confirmed the already announced increase in the £7.50/hour to what should be called the "over-25s minimum wage". Now we have what I call "Philip Hammond's fake living wage". (He's taken it over from George Osborne - who we yesterday learnt is being paid £650,000 a year by a US fund manager - for working one day a week, a day he's apparently got spare from his work as an MP.)

For nobody is £7.50.hour a genuine living wage. That's currently set by the independent Living Wage Foundation at £8.45 in the rest of the country and £9.75 in London.
In Sheffield, and South Yorkshire generally, where as a recent Resolution Foundation report highlighted, the gross median pay is barely £11/hour, with the typical worker taking home £43/week less than the rest of the UK "security" is a word that rings particularly hollow.

Hidden in the official budget figures - not mentioned in Hammond's speech - is the prediction that real earnings will still be below the pre-crisis peak at the end of the parliament. For the 30% of women workers on less than the real living wage, that means more desperation, more impossible struggles to make ends meet. There's little sign of "security" and work-provided "dignity" for them, let alone for the under-25s working beside colleagues doing the same job for even less pay.

And in failing to even mention housing, Hammond entirely ignored the plight of many desperate private renters, denied the stability and security of social housing.

Hammond's words denied the reality for public sector workers who've seen a 15% cut in real pay since 2010, with a further 9% cut planned by 2020, while they struggle to care and provide services in underfunded, overloaded institutions.

The Budget announcement increasing of the higher rate tax threshold to £50,000 means nothing to these workers. Indeed, with the further slashing of already historically low corporation tax about which Hammon boasted, it means less money for the hard-pressed NHS and social services - for which the extra funding in the budget will not meet even the most urgent needs. Some is directed towards further privatisation, taking our health service even further away from its founding principles.

Rhetoric about "collecting the taxes that are due" rings hollows when in almost the same breath the Chancellor promises that the fuel duty tax freeze will continue, costing the Treasury billions while the price of public transport soars. And offers even further tax breaks to the oil and gas industry that's already costing tens of billions of pounds each year.

Both those decisions point to a further gaping hole in the budget, the failure to tackle the huge, pressing issue of climate change - the one that the world agreed in Paris little more than a year ago to act on with great urgency. When he was Foreign Secretary back in 2015, Hammond made a promising-sounding speech on climate change calling for action that offered some small hope he might have taken a different approach on the issue to Osborne. Any hopes of that how have been clearly dashed.

So what did this budget specifically offer Sheffield and the North? "Crumbs" is the best answer. We might see a little of the £690 million fund for tackling urban traffic condition, £300 million of general research funding, and no doubt there'll have been a frisson of interest at the Advanced Manufacturing Park at £270 million for technologies such as robotics & driverless vehicles.

For the many university students in Sheffield and the North, hope has come not from the Chancellor, but the House of Lords, which has defied the government's plans for further rises to tuition fees that most already will never be able to pay back. Hammond claimed his plans "won't saddle children with debt". That's demonstrably false.

What hope could we find in the budget? Well I'm drawing it from a perhaps unlikely item. Promised was £5million for projects to celebrate the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, as the Chancellor put it, "the decisive step in the political emancipation of women in this country".

I'm glad because it will provide a chance to highlight again the lack of reform in Westminster in the past century. Women getting the vote was the last significant change there - and the celebrations will be a great opportunity for campaigners calling for a proper democracy for the UK, not our current government with the support of just 24% of eligible voters, paired with an unelected House of Lords.

That way we could hope to achieve bold budgets delivering genuine solidarity, compassion, understanding of the reality of the lives of people in Sheffield, and around the nation. We're in an age in which the people are demanding change, demanding to take back control of their communities, of our economy, and the Chancellor has again demonstrated this government is operating for the 1%, not the rest of us.

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