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Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:12 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 6:12 pm, 18th March 2020

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I can only very strongly agree with her that the Budget utterly failed to address our desperately threadbare social infrastructure. I am speaking as someone who has just started cycling to your Lordships’ House and I am very keen to get those potholes filled in—but, while the Budget put some funds into the physical infrastructure, we are going far beyond the Budget in this debate. We are looking, as one noble Lord said, at the big picture.

I want to refer to the most recent episode of the BBC series “Child of Our Time”, which follows children born at the end of 1999. Experts at the start of making that programme said with confidence in 1999 that we were looking at

“a better society, a better world for our children”.

Look where we have got to. One of the first landmarks in that period was the financial crash of 2008. We bailed out the banks and made the people—particularly the poor, the disadvantaged, the disabled and the young—pay for that bailout. I draw on the New Economics Foundation for the statistic that welfare social security is now down £34 billion in real terms on the figure from 2008. Then, of course, we have come to realise that we are in a climate emergency. I go back to the Budget; as my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb suggested, it utterly lacked the climate bailout that we so desperately need, and what we had promised to sign up to through our words in declaring a climate emergency and through our position at the head of COP 26.

Then, in the scant week since the Budget, we get the coronavirus crisis. On Saturday, the Green Party called for a solidarity pact: for a guarantee that people’s utilities would not be cut off; a guarantee that there would be no benefit sanctions; and a guarantee of a freeze on council tax. Yet what we have not seen from this Government is the people’s bailout. Another thing called for in that solidary pact is a guarantee that no one will be evicted. We have heard about the Government backing that, but I hope that the Minister can give us more detail, which we have not heard in the other place.

Many noble Lords have referred to the damage done by austerity. I want to pick out one very relevant case study. IPPR analysis shows that there has been an £850 million cut in local public health budgets in the last five years. The poorest places have been hit first, and worst. We know that the people most vulnerable to coronavirus have type 2 diabetes, heart disease and respiratory disease linked to smoking, unhealthy diets and obesity. The figure for public health in the Budget was up about £150 million but that is based on a cut of £1 billion since 2014. This spending could have directly reduced the impact of coronavirus but has not been made.

Let us focus on the now and think about the situation of so many people outside your Lordships’ House. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury was prescient in referring to free school meals. As we now know, from Monday, huge numbers of families will be wondering how to feed their children without those meals. There are people sitting in households in the dark and the cold, possibly ill too, wondering how they will top up their pre-payment meters. They are not supposed to go out. Why do we not have a measure to top up automatically such meters, owned by some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

In the gig economy, which many noble Lords referred to, two-thirds of renters have no savings at all, and 1.1 million households made up of renters rely on self-employed people as their main source of income. They will be worrying about the rent but, even more basically, right now they are worrying about buying food. We have seen no steps to help them.

It is fascinating to listen to the debate. We have seen people move their positions hugely. The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, who is not currently in his place, said that incomes need to be made good by our Governments. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, referred to “helicopter money”. I must say, as someone who represents a party that has for decades spoken in favour of universal basic income, I feel some sense of shock at this moment. As my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb said, we agree with the DUP, which calls for a universal basic income; the SNP is calling for it in the other place too.

As noble Lords might expect from the Green Party, I want to go further than that. In opening the debate, the Minister said that the world has changed and that we must see beyond the short-term impact of the coronavirus. I absolutely agree. As I said with regard to public health budgets and making the people pay for the bailout of the banks, we have made choices that have created a profoundly fragile, insecure economy, which coronavirus is now exploiting. The virus is exploiting our weaknesses.

Let us look to the future and the long term. Let us unleash the creativity of people, give them a chance to develop their skills and give them security. Let us move immediately to a universal basic income to give everyone security, not just for a few months or a year but for the future.