On one level, we have to admire the sheer audacity of the Chancellor. The audacity of someone who genuinely thought that he could get away with rewarding Tory donors in the City with a cut in corporation tax while attempting to cut benefits for disabled people; get away with cuts affecting those who were least likely to vote Conservative while sticking to his mantra that “we are all in this together”; or get away with preaching about the Northern Powerhouse just as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills closes its Sheffield office and moves all 200 jobs to London.
There was never any compassion in trying to cut the benefits of 370,000 of the most vulnerable disabled people in our society by £3,500 a year. As we know, this Government has always hit disabled people hard through the bedroom tax and cuts in employment and support allowance, but I would have had much more sympathy with this U-turn had it been based on the warnings from charities, such as Sense, which called the Budget a “bleak day for disabled people”.
A constituent of mine is disabled, and determined to carry on working. The personal independence payment helps him to do that. When he gets home, his joints are so stiff that his wife has to help him go to the toilet and have a bath, yet he is determined to go on working. He wants to keep working because he wants to keep his dignity; the Chancellor wanted to take it away.
The Chancellor has performed a U-turn, not to help my constituent keep his dignity, but in an attempt to keep his own dignity. All that we need to know now is who he will pick on next in order to fill the £4.4bn hole in his Budget. We can be sure of one thing: the most vulnerable in our society will continue to pay for the Government’s failures.
Let us take the announcement of business rates relief. On the face of it, the announcement was good news for small businesses in my constituency, but our local councils could find themselves cutting more services for those in need in order to make up the shortfall in their budgets.
In Kirklees, small business relief accounts for 11 per cent of net rates income, as opposed to four per cent n England as a whole. When 100 per cent retention is introduced and the promised compensation for the loss of income ends, the council will be stuck once again, trying the balance the books to pay for a short-term victory for the Chancellor. Despite the vague assurance that councils would be compensated, the Red Book includes no explanation of where the money will come from and how long it will last.
The Chancellor was no less audacious in telling us great things about the Northern Powerhouse. If only we could believe him. Electrification of the trans-Pennine rail route would be a crucial development, but the project has been announced, cancelled, re-announced, delayed and then re-announced once more, and we still have no clear commitment as to when it will happen. There is nothing clever about announcing big investments and then running for cover when it comes to their implementation.
Indeed, work has only just started on nine per cent of the projects in the Chancellor’s infrastructure pipeline. A lack of infrastructure investment fuels poor productivity. Like so many of the Chancellor’s audacious predictions, productivity forecasts – as we now know – have been revised down for the next five years, and, once again, it is the North that suffers as low productivity strangles economic growth, holds back wages and delays the much-promised recovery. The output of the Leeds city region is now 12 per cent behind the national average.
I am afraid that I can feel no compassion for this Chancellor. He wanted the poorest fifth in our country to lose an average of £550 a year, while the richest fifth gained £250. There was also nothing for long-term social care, nothing for the NHS and nothing for the next generation, despite the Chancellor’s rhetoric.
In fact, the Chancellor was playing politics with some of the neediest people in our society. He should stop playing politics, and start planning for an economy that works for the benefit of all, not just his wealthy mates. If he cannot do that, he should have the courage to say so and take the consequences, rather than asking others to pay for his failures.
Jo Cox is the Labour MP for Batley & Spen who spoke in a Commons debate on the Budget. This is an edited version.