Andrew Vine: Cut foreign aid spending for sake of public sector

Theresa May during a recent school visit, but did she learn any lessons about public sector pay?
Theresa May during a recent school visit, but did she learn any lessons about public sector pay?
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THERE could be no starker illustration of the burdens borne by our overworked, underpaid public sector than the despairing account of a teaching assistant I met last week.

Five years ago, when she started her job, she was responsible for helping six pupils at school, some of them with severe disabilities. Now she has 18, and the job is becoming impossible.

A trebling of her workload. No money to hire additional staff. No answers as to how she is supposed to cope. The frustration of knowing she is not helping the children as much as they need because her time is spread so thinly.

And the pay. Don’t mention the pay, because she’s one of the millions in the public sector whose wages have been capped. Small wonder that her husband, who has a well-paid job, is urging her to resign and be free of the stress that accompanies such an unreasonable workload.

She has that option of getting out, and knows how lucky she is to be in a marriage where the loss of a modest second income would be an inconvenience, not a crisis. Others aren’t so fortunate.

Like the 6,500 trainee nurses who have received hardship grants from their universities over the past three years, according to the Royal College of Nursing.

It isn’t just the trainees. During 2016, one in four of the hardship grants made by the RCN went to nurses working full-time who could not make ends meet on their wages.

These are the stories of desperation behind the debate raging over our public sector, with posturing within the Government over whether to end the cap on wage rises, and po-faced lectures about Britain having to live within its means.

On Thursday, it will be a year since Theresa May became Prime Minister, and won many friends with her pledge on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street to help the so-called “just-about-managing”.

The memory of that day now has a dream-like quality of unreality about it, thanks to Mrs May pressing the self-destruct button on her own premiership, and the chances of her making good on that pledge are vanishingly remote.

Yet the not-quite-managing, as well as the just-about-managing, in schools, the NHS, local government and the rest of the unsung, put-upon army of public sector workers are on the minds of even more people now than they were a year ago.

The proof of that was there in the bellow of revolt against austerity heard from the electorate last month, as voters made it clear they had lost patience with seemingly never-ending cuts.

That generalised anger needed a focus and the public sector wage cap has provided it. Public services are creaking anyway, and there is a widespread sense of unfairness that the people doing their best to make them work are arbitrarily being told they do not deserve better wages in return.

It appears increasingly untenable for the Government to insist that the cap must stay, not least because of the breathtaking hypocrisy of producing from supposedly empty coffers a £1bn bribe for Northern Ireland to secure the Commons votes of the Democratic Unionist Party.

In the run-up to the election, Mrs May resorted to the language of the kindergarten in telling voters that there was “no magic money tree”, as if we were children needing to be taught that two and two makes four.

Yet just such a money tree magically appeared when it was needed for naked political advantage.

That makes a nonsense of any insistence that the public sector will just have to grin and bear the continuing pain of a squeeze on funding. Any attempt to insist there is no other course would be further proof of how out of step the Prime Minister and the Government are with public opinion.

If Mrs May is to salvage anything of her tattered reputation as a politician who does the right thing in whatever time she has left in office, she needs to acknowledge that public sector workers have borne more than their share of austerity and deserve fairer pay.

It simply is not on for nurses to have to resort to food banks or hardship grants to survive. That isn’t the Britain that its people want.

And there is a pot of money available to help.

It is the £13bn a year that Britain spends on foreign aid, a laudable enterprise in times of plenty, but those are not the times we are living in.

Sending billions abroad – even to the most deserving of causes – appears increasingly impossible to justify whilst honest, hard-working people here at home are struggling.

To throw one of Mrs May’s platitudes about needing to live within our means back at her, this level of spending on far-away places whilst nurses have to be bailed out by emergency handouts is a largesse we can no longer afford.