This is a Government fiddling around the edges when comprehensive reform is needed, and announcing figures with a flourish in the hope that no one will notice that the sums are inadequate.
When the Chancellor spoke of the end of austerity, my constituents across Dulwich and West Norwood wondered what he was talking about. Lambeth Council, one of the councils serving my constituency, has already lost six in every 10 of the pounds it had to spend in Government grant in 2010, but it faces a further £43 million of cuts over the next four years, which is more than it currently spends on recycling, parks, libraries, children’s centres, roads, pavements and community safety combined. Further cuts can come only from services that are already stretched to the limit. When the Chancellor and the Prime Minister speak of ending austerity but make no pledge to reverse the cuts to local government funding, it should not come as a surprise that councillors across the country of all parties, including thousands of Conservative councillors, react with total incredulity and disbelief. The Government have outsourced austerity to local government in an utterly shameful way.
Adult social care services across the country are at breaking point. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has seen evidence of care home and home care providers handing back contracts to councils that they cannot afford to run, and we know that 1.4 million vulnerable people who are in need of care are not receiving any care at all. A lack of social care capacity continues to present huge challenges for the NHS, both in terms of acute hospital admissions and delayed discharge, and to create misery for countless families who are battling to secure the care that their vulnerable loved ones need. Into this system the Government have announced the injection of some short-term funding to address winter pressures, but there is no short-term fix for care homes that have closed. Dealing with that requires months of planning, refurbishment, recruitment and training, which can be delivered only if there is long-term certainty about funding.
The funding for 2019-20 announced this week in the Budget also falls far short of the £2.6 billion that is widely accepted as the funding injection required just meet current social care needs, and more funding is required to plan for and meet the expanding care needs of our ageing population. Social care funding needs comprehensive reform if we are to create a system that can look after everyone who needs care with the dignity and compassion that any of us would expect for our loved ones. It is testament to a Government mired in internal division and thinking only of how to avoid short-term defeats that they are not up to the challenge of reforming social care and can only find inadequate, piecemeal, short-term sticking plasters.
Children’s services in many local authorities are struggling to fulfil their statutory obligations, still less to proactively support families who may be at risk. There is a crisis of recruitment and retention in children’s social work because of the risks involved in working in a system that is stretched to the limit. Yet the Chancellor’s Budget speech did not even mention this vital frontline service. Schools in my constituency are making extraordinarily difficult decisions to cut teaching assistant and teacher posts in order to make inadequate levels of special educational needs and disabilities funding stretch further, and to sustain extra-curricular activities. School staff are going above and beyond every day to sustain the quality of our local schools. On the Friday before half-term, I and many other parents at my youngest daughter’s school were in tears as we said goodbye to a deputy headteacher with more than 20 years’ service who had taken voluntary redundancy because the school could no longer afford her post. When the cuts are striking at the heart of school communities in this way, the Chancellor’s announcement of a pitiful amount of funding for “little extras” is simply insulting.
Last Friday, I joined a police response team in Southwark on their late shift. We spoke of the huge challenges of increased knife and gun crime and gang violence, moped and cycle-enabled robberies, which particularly affect secondary-age children, and increased burglary. Last night there was a double shooting in my constituency. Members of the team told me how their job is being made harder by cuts in police numbers; by the closure of our local magistrates and youth court, which means that they have to travel much further to attend court to give evidence; and by the larger numbers of people in mental health crisis for whom they end up being the first port of call. Yet the Chancellor announced not a penny of extra funding for neighbourhood policing or for the criminal justice system.
Overshadowing the whole Budget is Brexit, which will create chaos for our economy, cause many businesses to grind to a halt, and drastically shrink the tax receipts that we need to fund our public services. This Budget is a cynical attempt to create positive headlines in the midst of Brexit gloom. My constituents see austerity as it is, because they are living with its consequences every single day. Saying it is over does not make it so. That will require comprehensive reform, and a commitment to empower local government and fund public services that can be delivered only by a Labour Government.