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Budget Resolutions - Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:09 pm on 13th March 2017.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley 9:09 pm, 13th March 2017

It is a pleasure to follow Neil Parish, He described the health and social care crisis in his constituency as “a little local difficulty”. It is a funny that “a little local difficulty” seems to affect every constituency in the country.

I want to deal with three Budget issues as they affect my constituency. The first is school funding. Teachers’ unions contacted me recently to express—rightly—concerns about funding cuts. Over the next few years, such cuts will have a considerable impact on schools in Knowsley, and the council predicts, as a result, a significant rise in the number of schools that will go into deficit or, in some cases, be forced either to merge or to close.

The Government’s decision to cut school funding while preparing to spend money on creating additional places in grammar schools and offering schools incentives to become academies is counterproductive, certainly in Knowsley. The Government’s policy will do nothing to deal with deprivation in Knowsley, or with the challenges posed by its above-average number of pupils on free school meals and high levels of absenteeism: that simply is not going to happen. The Department for Education has confirmed that there will be no inflationary increase in Knowsley’s dedicated schools grant for 2017-18. This will be the seventh consecutive year with no inflationary increase. If the grant had been increased by the average rate of inflation over that period, it would have grown by about 20%, so there has been a significant real-terms cut in school funding.

Training is one of the key drivers for long-term increased economic growth. It is also critical to ensuring that young entrants to the labour market are properly prepared for the opportunities for skilled people that a modern economy can offer. In some cases, however, skill training alone is not an option. Employers whom I speak to in Knowsley often cite another problem: young people who are ill prepared for any form of employment. The reasons for that vary from case to case. In some cases it results from challenging family circumstances, in others from poor attendance, or non-attendance, at school. There are projects—such as Knowsley Skills Academy, a charity that I chair—which can help by providing a structured framework that helps to address those problems, but it is increasingly difficult to fund such approaches, although they are overwhelmingly successful in putting young people back on track.

Having been an engineering apprentice originally, and having taught in further education, I know that skill training should be straightforward. Under successive Governments, however, we have succeeded in over-complicating the process, at best focusing on the names of technical qualifications, and at worst passing off tick-box training as a substitute for the classroom and the workplace. Calling something an apprenticeship is entirely different from actually providing apprenticeship training worthy of the name. The key, which will benefit our economy, is providing skills that are transferable, and not just relevant to a single workplace. That can be achieved only by day release to colleges that can provide transferable skills that are both valued and recognised. If the Government are serious about meeting the economic challenges of the future through training programmes, they need to engage in a radical rethink about skill training.

The second issue is health and social care. Chronic underfunding and increased cuts in local government budgets have created a health and social care crisis. The supplementary funding through the improved better care fund—in Knowsley’s case, it amounts to just under £9 million over three years—is completely inadequate to cover the needs of local residents appropriately. A large proportion of that extra money will be taken up solely by the cost of implementing the national living wage. Lack of resources threatens the financial stability of care homes at a time when they are badly needed.

Finally, Government cuts in local government grant funding have meant that Knowsley has had to save £86 million since 2010, with another £14 million needed over the next three years. Knowsley will have reduced its spending on key local services by £100 million between 2010 and 2020. The funding provided by central Government will have been cut by 50% by 2020. In Knowsley, it is simply not possible to generate enough funds to cover that, so this is a Budget that is unfair to schools, those who need social care, local authorities and those who depend on their services.