So many of my constituents have written to me since the Budget was announced last Wednesday to tell me that they are concerned and angry about the proposed cuts to Personal Independence Payments, which will make the lives of people living with disabilities worse. I do not believe there is one member in the Chamber who came into politics to make life worse for disabled people. I cannot support this move and will vote against the proposal.
In the House I have heard a number of colleagues’ reservations about further cuts to local government budgets. On social care, the government’s two per cent precept proposal does not go far enough in making up for the billions taken out of social care budgets. Since 2010, local authorities have tried to reduce the cost of residential care, domiciliary care, meals on wheels, day centres and transport for older folk and the learning disabled. Initially, some efficiency savings were manageable. However, now, there is no more fat to be cut from those budgets and communities are feeling the squeeze. Having been told over a number of years that services like day centres are being cut back so that disabled people can have more money in their pockets, people are seeing through the government’s empty promises. They know that not only service cuts but also benefit cuts will lead to their being worse off in the long term.
So should the Chancellor cut back from older people?
New research in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine shows that cuts in Pension Credit have a significant link with a rise in death rates among pensioners aged 85 or older. Since 2012, average spending has fallen on this vulnerable group at the same time as we have seen a 4 per cent higher death rate for men and 6 per cent for women. So in case Mr Osborne is seeking to cut back on older people to make up for mistakes in his Budget, the Treasury ought to be very careful in how it seeks to do that. Cutting back to meet an arbitrary benefit cap could have fatal consequences.
The local government community is also worried about the lack of an announcement on affordable housing in this Budget. With borrowing for capital at a historically low rate, councils should be able to borrow to build in parts of the country where the lack of housing infrastructure is holding our economy back. It is making our record on poor productivity worse. People cannot afford to pursue the job they are qualified to do because there is nowhere they can afford to live. Capital borrowing could be a Treasury-backed scheme where genuinely affordable rental income pays for the initial investment of the building of the home over the lifetime of the property.
Finally, local councillors have been expressing their outrage about being cut out of local education by the rash, costly policy announcement in the Budget that all schools will become academies. In the local government community, it is being described as just as dangerous as Lansley’s NHS reforms.
There is no evidence that academy schools do better or worse than LEA schools. Not only would this proposal take away choice from parents, because some parents want to choose a comprehensive, LEA school where the admissions policy is fair, where they know the curriculum will be taught, the school menu will be of a high standard and there is local scrutiny over the appointment of key personnel in the school. This blanket, one size fits all approach is foolish. It is a slap in the face to parents, many of whom have served as governors in local schools, pushing schools on in their improvement journey and holding them to account.
Former teacher and Tory County Councillor Peter Edgar said: “I am horrified to think that the county council’s role in education is going to be destroyed by George Osborne in his budget…. what on earth are we doing so wrong that we need to be abolished? I am a lifelong Conservative but this statement of policy could lead to the country’s education system imploding”.
We know what works. Good teaching and leadership. Sadly, we are losing our good teachers faster than they can be trained. This from a constituent over the weekend: “I have been teaching for 23 years…. I bucked the national trends and was consistently proud to be Head of Department in the top 5 per cent nationally… the announcement during George Osborne’s budget was the final blow for a profession whose morale is at, I believe, an all time low… I am looking at other career options”.
Structures cannot love a child but a good teacher will value a child. The devotion of a good teacher is altruistic, brings enlightenment, provides the dynamic of respect and patience. In my 12 years in local government, I have known so many good teachers who dream up grand schemes for their students, day and night, inject enormous enthusiasm and display ingenuity and perseverance. Their passion can turn around the attitudes of boredom or disruptive behaviour, bringing hope to young people. The good teacher draws on reservoirs of vigour to get the most out of their students. In short, they should expect more from this Budget to provide a sense of respect and common endeavour. Instead the answer has come back with an aridity which knows no bounds: “reorganise”.
I look forward to the revising of the Budget to eliminate the disgraceful proposal to attack the disabled and I join with the local government community to make the case for Councils investing capital to solve the housing crisis. I join parents, teachers and communities’ calls for the Department for Education to look again at its reckless proposal to reorganise education, ripping it away from local democracy.