When Chancellor Philip Hammond revealed his Spring Budget nobody expected anything particularly earth-shattering. Many observers, particularly the already-vulnerable most in need of concessions, weren’t expecting anything good, either.
They were right not to.
Hammond’s Budget might have been unspectacular, but it contains more than its share of bad news for those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum. For instance, public sector pay is to continue being frozen at a 1% rise. By Hammond’s’s own admission, inflation is forecast to be 2.4% this year, 2.3% next year and 2.0% the year after. This seems to have escaped him.
It won’t escape public sector workers with lighter pay packets, effectively earning less for doing the same jobs.
Nor will continuing freezes to many welfare benefits. Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) some types of Housing Benefit and Child Benefit will remain unchanged as part of an ongoing four-year freeze. Unchanged, however, except for abolition of Housing Benefit for those aged 18-21 and the widely-hated £30-a-week cut from ESA given to the disabled.
Not forgetting, of course, the Government’s already-decided cuts to Personal Independence Payment. To make PIP ‘fairer’ (while coincidentally shaving another £3.7 billion off the welfare budget) the rules will be changed to make PIP even harder to access than it already is.
For the ‘hard-working families’ so beloved of Tory election leaflets and party broadcasts there’s also bad news. If their third or subsequent child is born after April 2017, that child won’t qualify for the Child Tax Credit which can be more than £2000 annually. This also applies to families making their first claim for Universal Credit. The ‘family element’ of Child Tax Credits is also to be abolished. Families whose eldest child is born after April 6 will lose out on the £545 annual benefit.
The news in employment is equally bleak. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pressed Hammond over there being no ban on zero-hours contracts. Amid enough heckling and laughter from the Tories that Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle reprimanded them, he reminded them of something huge numbers of workers are all too aware of:
“There is nothing funny about being on zero-hours contracts.”
It isn’t much better for those in low-earning self-employment, either. Breaking their manifesto pledge not to increase direct personal taxation, the Tories have increased Class 4 National Insurance contributions. According to BBC economic correspondent Andrew Verity, any self-employed person with profits of £8000-a-year or more now faces a rise of 1% in April and a further 1.5% next April. The rise could cost as many as 1.5 million people at least an extra £240 per year in addition to wage freezes, benefits and pay rising well below predicted inflation, the savage cutting of some benefits and the elimination of others.
There is however, some good news. Corporation tax has been cut again, for the seventh year running, which should please the many big businesses that do their best to avoid tax altogether. For their lowest-level employees the National Living Wage has soared from £7.20-per hour to £7.50. Unfortunately for younger workers, especially those facing the removal of Housing Benefit, the £30 weekly cut in ESA or both, the rise only applies to workers aged 25 and over.
Which rather begs a question:
How exactly are unemployed and/or sick or disabled young people meant to survive?
Given the staggering crisis currently facing the National Health Service, people might have expected a little more to resolve the recurring, ongoing problems therein. There is more, a little more, anyway.
£100 million has been allocated to reduce waiting times in Accident & Emergency units of hospitals. Despite so many hospitals being chronically underfunded, understaffed and under-resourced and the NHS in general lurching from one problem to the next, Hammond has offered the equivalent of putting a plaster on a gunshot wound.
Despite this, Hammond still proclaimed the Tory record on health issues to be positive, stating proudly:
“We are the party of the NHS.”
For ordinary people, especially those further down the social and economic ladder, it’s impossible to commend this Budget.