Last week, the Chancellor delivered his Budget on International Women’s Day, a day when women, and men, across the world celebrated women and their contribution to society, and highlighted how important it is to have an inclusive, gender-balanced workplace. I cannot think of a better day for the Chancellor to show how much we value the contribution that women make to the economy. Instead, he used his Budget to continue the hard Tory austerity policies that disproportionately affect women, men and their families across the country.
We know that women are affected twice as hard by this Government’s dangerous obsession with austerity. It is clear that Tory austerity is gendered because cuts to public sector jobs and an increase in temporary and zero-hours contracts affect women the most. Women make up the majority of workers living in poverty, with many juggling two or three low-paid, part-time jobs as they try to make ends meet. Where is the help that they so desperately need to scramble from just about managing to being able to provide for their families without the fear and stress of ever-shrinking household budgets?
The Chancellor started his speech by talking about preparing for a “brighter future”, but I have to ask him and his colleagues: in what parallel universe is the future bright for the 300,000 children who will be forced into poverty as a result of his refusal and that of his colleagues to stop the cuts to the work allowance? That is despite a report from the Resolution Foundation only this month warning that the Tory Government’s tax and social security policies would drive the biggest rise in inequality since Thatcher. I grew up in a single-mother family under Thatcher and it strikes me that, sadly, not much has changed.
It is both sad and ironic that, on the same page of the Budget document, the Government give money to tackle domestic abuse—a welcome move—yet refuse to take action on the punitive two-child limit and to scrap the repugnant rape clause. As the Chancellor spoke about this “brighter future”, hundreds of WASPI campaigners, including women from my Livingston constituency, protested outside Parliament—and still he failed resolutely to outline a single measure to tackle state pension inequality. Those women worked hard for their bright future, and this Tory Government are extinguishing it.
The cuts that have been announced will mean that Scotland’s day-to-day budget will be a massive £1 billion worse off. By 2020, Scotland will be £2.5 billion worse off in real terms. The IFS forecasts that austerity could last until the middle of the next decade, meaning that Scottish households and public services could ultimately face 15 years of UK Government austerity.
A separate report from the IFS this month projected that child poverty would increase to 30% by 2021-22, and said that this is “entirely explained by the direct impact of tax and benefit reforms”.
Let us not forget that only a few months after the Tory Government came to power, they scrapped child poverty targets, and that came just before child tax credit cuts. What a shameful way to start their time in government. This Government and this Chancellor had a chance to reverse that, and he did nothing.
I ask the Government to tell us why they brought forward nothing to reverse the punitive cuts that will hit mid-low income families? Why has the Chancellor done literally nothing to protect millions of children from the prospect of poverty? The Resolution Foundation found that the poorest quarter of working-age households will be between about 5% and 15% worse off, and says that this “is the worst period of household income growth for the poorest half of households since records began in the mid-1960s”— and that is before the swingeing cuts that are due to hit, and before Brexit.
The Chancellor told us that his Budget “continues the task of getting Britain back to living within its means.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2017; Vol. 622, c. 809.]
I am sure that there are thousands of families across the country who would love to have the means within which to live, but they do not, and they are simply struggling, every day, because of the punitive measures of this Government.
What would the Chancellor tell lone parents on universal credit, who will on average lose £2,380 a year? The End Child Poverty coalition has said the impact of the benefit freeze, in the context of rapid price rises, has a dramatic effect on family incomes. Families on a low income simply cannot afford to pay the increased prices that will result from this Government’s policies.
A hard Tory Brexit remains the major threat to Scotland and our economy. Brexiteers will claim that revised figures on debt, GDP and borrowing show that the negative effect of Brexit has been exaggerated, but it has not happened yet. The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that there has been no structural improvement in the public finances and forecasts for the next five years remain virtually unchanged. The impact of a hard Brexit is yet to be felt.
Amidst the utter chaos of a hard Tory Brexit, the change for entrepreneurs and the self-employed is going to be devastating. The SNP wholeheartedly believes in flexible labour markets, but that flexibility must be guarded against vulnerability. Some self-employed workers in the UK, particularly those on low incomes, do not enjoy the same guarantees as other people, as we have heard.
This Budget was an opportunity to do the right thing to support women and low- income families, to boost business and to put an end to austerity, yet it is nothing more than an opportunity lost by this Government. This Government might see a “bright future”, but it looks more to me like the dark clouds of a perfect storm for the rest of us. Winter is coming, and Scotland is headed in a different direction—it will, I think, be a new dawn for us.