May I begin, as a former Minister with responsibility for higher education, by welcoming the Government’s decision to award maintenance grants to those in part-time education? I also welcome the changes to business rate caps, the recognition that urgent action is needed to avoid a further meltdown in our health service and in social care, and the steps taken to boost technical education and improve its standing compared with that of our universities. I welcome the lifelong learning fund and the recognition that we are living longer; we will need to retrain and reskill throughout our careers, and we will certainly need to do much more to improve our skills base when we leave the single market.
However, it is difficult to celebrate massively overdue action on social care when the chair of the National Care Association says:
“We are now beyond the crisis point. We really are at the edge of the cliff now.”
When hospital beds are blocked by elderly patients with nowhere to go; when local authority budgets have been cut to the bone; when expenditure on social care has dropped by more than a fifth in real terms since 2005; and when £4.6 billion has been cut from social care budgets since 2010, it is difficult to be optimistic about this investment.
On technical education, the pledge to make vocational qualifications equal to A-levels or higher education was not fully explained by the Chancellor. This year, nine of the 10 most popular apprenticeships will be cut by between 27% and 43%. It is difficult to believe the spin about T-levels and streamlining qualifications when we have heard it all before. Less than 1% of apprenticeships are up to the Government’s much-vaunted new apprenticeships standards, first announced back in 2014.
A fund of up to £40 million to pilot new approaches to encouraging lifelong learning sounds good, but we need to put it in its proper context. The Association of Colleges has warned that adult education will disappear by 2020. The total number of adult learners is falling by over 10% a year, the number of adults getting a level 4 qualification has fallen by a staggering 75% in two years, and we have had a 40% cut to the adult skills budget between 2010 and 2015. We do not need a fund of a few million pounds; we need a rescue package to bring back night schools and bring back adult education. The reason why this is so important today is that we are about to trigger article 50. It is very simple: if we are to leave the single market, businesses will no longer be able to recruit from the continent to plug skills gaps. Much more will need to be done to reskill and retrain people in our country. We heard very little—in fact, nothing—about that in this Budget, because the emphasis was on young people, not adults.
The situation is already dire. Skills shortages account for a quarter of all job vacancies. Over two thirds of businesses are worried that they will not be able to find the talent to fill the jobs. We are living in an ageing society. In the modern economy, there is no such thing as a job for life; people will be changing jobs and careers for far longer. We should have heard more about those who have been left behind and have not benefited from globalisation. It is unrealistic to expect people with a mortgage and kids to drop everything and do a university course for £9,000 a year. Where was the articulation of the adult skills need in this country? We are talking about people who have lost out because of the loss of manufacturing and the hoarding of money in London and the south-east. There are no colleges for adults in seaside towns in particular. The Chancellor said nothing about that in his Budget statement.
This Budget is important because we are embarking on a journey that is so immense that the country has not really experienced anything like it, certainly not in my 45 years on the planet. The Chancellor talks about continuing to reduce the deficit, investing in the future and ensuring that we have a strong economy, but let us be clear: exiting the single market is the only show in town. It is the economic issue of our time; everything else is just window dressing. Growth, trade, inflation, public finances, jobs, wages and investment—every single aspect of our economy is vulnerable to Brexit and the leap into the great unknown outside the single market. That is the reality. That is where we are as we prepare to trigger article 50. To pretend otherwise is a totally ignorant view of what is going on. From what we have heard today, the Government have not grasped that.
Everything that the Chancellor talked about today should have been wrapped up in Brexit and the fact that we are leaving the single market. What do the Government mean when they brief the newspapers that they have put aside £60 billion? What are the consequences of having to put aside £60 billion? What does it mean for our surplus and our reserves? What impact does it have on the economy as a whole? The Chancellor said nothing about that. We have let the country down at this critical point in our history.