The potential effects of the Budget on those already struggling have yet fully to emerge.
A variety of views are already being put forward. Let’s start with some dark things already encapsulated within various in-year budget reductions.
Government departments are already subject to reductions. Schools are placed on a standstill cash funding settlement with no uplift for markedly increased pension contributions, National Insurance, energy, infrastructure, exam fees, curriculum changes, consumables or other costs. They are struggling. It is real. It is strenuously denied at the centre.
The Department for Education’s other spending lines, including social care and safeguarding, 16-19 education (with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, non-departmental public bodies and early years services), are not protected. Because schools’ budgets are, however, limited to a degree, those budgets are to find £450m in savings now, plus whatever comes in future years.
This will cause enormous difficulties: post-16 education, in further education and sixth form settings alike, is already suffering. Adult education, including programmes seen as vital second chance programmes for struggling adults and those with learning difficulties, are under serious threat. The warnings about them are long standing, backed by strong evidence. They are denied.
Local authorities, diligent and determined, have borne the brunt and found the greatest proportional share of savings since 2010. They look likely to go on being squeezed. By prudent action, as 8 May 2015 dawned, there was money left in their public health streams, spoken for in their forward plans, of course. It was aimed at families who needed support to become active, positive citizens; at drug and alcohol harm reduction; smoking cessation; school nursing; health visiting; preventive mental health programmes; and better perinatal health. But in-year, unannounced and unpredicted, £200m has been taken from these budgets with who knows how much more to come. It will affect frontline services no matter what the claims to the contrary. That fact is denied.
Social care funding in preventive programmes for both adults and children has been under the cosh since 2010. The implementation costs of both the 2014 Care Act and Children and Families Act, too often falling on the already poor and on a frontline workforce least empowered to make a difference, are already starkly evident. Again, this impact is ignored or denied at the point furthest from that front line.
Prior to yesterday’s Budget, the tight squeeze was already obvious. Local authorities and partnerships were all facing cuts. Police services reported cutting on-street presence. Social housing bodies were cash-strapped and likely to become more so. Clinical commissioning groups and other commissioners faced budget difficulties in part created by summary reductions of prices paid for medical procedures so that real costs are not met and deficits result.
Families who in 2010 were one large bill away from catastrophe as costs rose and wages stood still, were likely on the morning of the Budget to be already deeply in debt. Families were already moving from expensive to supposedly cheaper localities. As they moved, housing costs were rising to greet them. There may have been no school places, spaces on GPs’ lists, or suitable housing waiting for them. Local authorities are already struggling to meet the need.
And what now, after the Budget? If the promised Living Wage of £9 per hour by 2020 comes - one assumes by the magic of job creation and the sheer good heartedness of employers, given implementation will be difficult - analysts have already said it will be cancelled out by the withdrawal of in-work tax credits and other benefits. Meanwhile, 18-21 year olds - we must presume including those without a supportive family with a cost-neutral spare bedroom on which they are not being taxed - will not be permitted housing benefit. If they are poor and want to go to university they can only have a loan, not a grant. They may come from a family affected by a benefit cap of £20,000 gross income equivalence if they come from a place like the one where I grew up, well outside London. From my family, where both parents worked full time, one in a highly skilled crafts trade, the other as an infant school teacher, I would never have made university had there been no grant. Never.
The champions of the Budget will continue, in the face of clear contrary evidence, to say that its aim is to level the playing field. In my former role as Children’s Commissioner, I said it simply was not so. My successor and the other UK commissioners, the Mayor of London, a raft of think tanks, faith groups and commentators of every political stripe who could never be accused of being “the usual suspects” who resist and protest, have warned and objected. They have had their evidence, quite simply, denied.
The sound of ladders being pulled up and dismantled by those at the top, leaving swathes of the population - particularly children and young people - at the bottom without hope of a foothold, is audible. It is also shameful. We, but still worse, they, will live to pay for it for years to come.
Maggie Atkinson was the Children’s Commissioner for England from March 2009 to March 2015