My Lords, I shall address these brief remarks to the effect that the Budget has had on disadvantaged groups within the equalities agenda. I was hopeful that there might be some good news for these groups, given that the Chancellor received a lot more in tax revenues than had been expected. So what did he spend the surplus on? Some £2 billion went towards filling the gaping funding hole in our social care services. Unfortunately, when you consider that local authorities are facing a £5.8 billion shortfall in social care funding and that they have already lost £4.6 billion since 2010, £2 billion is not even going to scratch the surface.
Still, even that is arguably better than the situation of disabled people suffering at the hands of the Government, who last year cut personal independent payments in a bid to save the Treasury £4.4 billion. Many commentators have been surprised, and the disabled community was incensed, that the Chancellor failed to mention the word “disabled” in his Budget speech even once. There was no mention of the new amendments to personal independence payment regulations that the Government announced last month, which will tighten eligibility criteria, especially for those suffering severe mental distress and those who need mobility assistance. No mention was made of the almost £30 a week cuts, which come in next month, for new ESA claimants placed in the work-related activity group. I leave the last word on the disabled to Catherine Hale, a disabled researcher who has written on the failure of the ESA system to increase the number of people in work. She said:
“When they”— that is, the Government—
“say they want a country that works for everyone, they don’t really mean us”.
Nor do the Government mean the hundreds of thousands of women born in the 1950s who are caught in the pensions trap. Here I have to declare my interest: I am one of those women of a certain age who may support the equalisation of the retirement age between men and women—after all, we live longer than those poor, frail, delicate male members of the species—but have had the changes rushed upon them with insufficient time to plan for later retirement. The WASPI movement seeks a bridging pension to help women negotiate this shortfall—but, unfortunately, it does not look as if they will get any change out of this Chancellor.
I would like to give credit where it is due, however, and to welcome two initiatives in the Budget. I give a small welcome—because it is only a small amount of money—to the £5 million of “returnship” funding to support workers at all levels returning to work after a long period away from the workplace. The sentiment is great. The problem is that the amount of £5 million is tiny in relation to the problem that returners to the workplace—mostly women—face. Let us hope that industry embraces this very effective method of filling skills shortages with capable, mature people without too much need for financial inducement.
Secondly, the £20 million introduced to help tackle domestic abuse is welcome. As I mentioned in an intervention yesterday, Women’s Aid’s most recent annual survey found that over a third of women’s abuse organisations were running a service with no dedicated funding. So I ask the Minister again: will these organisations be supported by this money? Many support organisations have until now been supported by local authorities, but they themselves have been subject to such swingeing cuts that many are no longer in a position to help. Domestic violence is on the rise. Women and their children need the support of these agencies and refuges.
Finally, I wonder if the Minister saw the story in the Metro yesterday about a charity which sends sanitary products to girls in Africa being asked if it could donate some to girls in Leeds who are bunking off school each month because they cannot afford sanitary products to wear to school. I am sure that the Minister will agree that this is a shocking state of affairs, where low-income girls and women cannot afford hygiene products during their period. We cannot have that in this country. So perhaps I may make a suggestion for the Government to consider. Could we not give sanitary towels to girls who qualify for free school meals? We already know who they are, and the cost of setting up the system would, I am sure, be very small. It would mean that all girls in school could confidently attend school all month round without having to worry about the embarrassment of their period letting them down.
The Government are investing hundreds of millions of pounds for their pet project of free schools, many of which will end up being selective, helping mostly middle-class children further up the ladder at the expense of the rest. Liberal Democrats want you to invest a very modest amount to protect the dignity and the education of some of the lowest-income, most deprived children in our country. That is not too much to ask, is it, for a Government who want,
“a country that works for everyone”?