Missed opportunities of the Autumn Statement

By John Freeman

| 24 November 2016

The Autumn Statement wasn't exactly exciting or revolutionary, but that's what Philip Hammond promised in advance. But it's pretty depressing reading for many people, and in particular the JAM group (as I must now learn to call them) and especially those who are already not ‘just about managing'. One of the highlights was that there will be no further cuts to welfare spending for the remainder of the parliament, which is itself pretty depressing, and unlikely to be welcomed by street parties - "Thank goodness, the Chancellor isn't going to cut our benefits any more - so we only have to worry about the inflation that is stacking up from early 2017 as the fall in the pound starts to bite".

Actually, of course, for these families - JAM and 'not quite managing' families - I hate the acronym, but I'll use JAM/NQM - it's all much worse than that. Public services of all sorts are being slashed as Councils, the health service and other agencies are being forced into cuts that would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago. Departmental budgets - the budgets that fund public services - are not being changed from those set out in the last Spending Review, and the budget cuts have not yet fed through to the front line.

The NHS, the largest single public service, is close to melt-down already - in debt to the tune of £1.85 billion at the end of the 2015/16 financial year, and being required to deliver £22 billion of "efficiency savings" by the end of 2020. All the evidence and informed analysis indicates that the NHS can't deliver within the present funding envelope. And who uses the NHS most? For a range of reasons, including poor nutrition, lack of heating, too few warm clothes, and the general stress and strain of living in poor conditions, it's the families who are JAM/NQM who will suffer the most as the NHS falls apart.

I won't touch on libraries, children's centres, and the police service - it's too depressing.  

But consider schools for a moment. There is to be a new national funding formula which will redistribute school funding at a time when aggregate school budgets are being cut in real terms by about 8 per cent by 2020. That is a huge reduction and should be a national scandal. The public accounts committee has launched an inquiry into the financial sustainability of schools, and they don't take that sort of action without evidence of imminent catastrophe.

It's been reported in the Guardian that schools in deprived areas have increasingly been playing a part in social welfare - everything from the cost of uniforms and PE kit to lunches, breakfast and educational trips. Don't mistake me, on one hand this is good news - exactly in line with Every Child Matters and shared responsibilities for children's outcomes, with a recognition that educational outcomes are closely linked to poverty and affluence. But on the other hand, schools are under the cosh of Ofsted and performance tables, and are just unable to provide these vital (but seen as ancillary to examination success) services. Again, it's the families who are JAM/NQM who will suffer most.

And then we have Sir Andrew Carter, the "mastermind of school success story" according to Get Surrey, knighted for services to education in 2014, and who has advised the DfE on education policy. His contribution to the debate on school funding - only this week - is "Charge parents £500 a year to boost school funds". I don't need to say anything here about families who are JAM/NQM as it's only too obvious.

As I said in a previous blog, life isn't easy, but the difficulties are multiplied and multiplied again for families in extreme and grinding poverty - let's not mince words or acronyms - and I see no sign that the government recognises the depth of the issues, with the DWP simply repeating the mantra about encouraging families into work by reducing benefits.

I'm ashamed, not to be living in a country with poverty, though that's bad enough, and we ought all to be doing what we can, personally, professionally and politically,  but to be living in a rich country where the Higher Rate Income Tax Threshold is to be increased to £50,000 while hundreds of thousands of children are being made homeless.

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