National budgets, Local Budgets, Household Budgets. It’s that time of year. In the run-up to the festive season, folk worry about expenditure, and many volunteers come forward to help those in bad circumstances who find it particularly hard.
Last week was the Budget that affects us all – the UK Government’s budget. That dictates the financial circumstances we all face, informs the Budget for the Scottish Government, local authorities, public services and households – all of us.
This year’s UK Government Budget was particularly hard. No end to austerity, UK growth forecasts downgraded yet again, the costs of Brexit and the uncertainty of the future. Brexit has already had £3 billion set aside in potential costs – particularly galling here in Scotland where we voted definitively to remain in the European Union.
Despite the much-lauded reported increase to Scotland’s finances under this UK Budget, the reality is that Scotland’s grant from Westminster actually faces a reduction in real terms of some £213 million. Strings are attached to £1 billion – the ‘additional’ money cannot be spent on public services and it has to be repaid to the UK Treasury.
At last though the UK Government has admitted the unfairness of VAT being charged on Scotland’s Police and Fire Service – the only territorial forces in the UK to have this imposed. Despite the rhetoric by the Scottish Tories, it was a simple legislative change to make – after all, Highways England, the BBC and Academy Schools were made exempt some time ago. So, this unfairness has been lifted at last, following much lobbying by most of the members of the Scottish Parliament. However, over the last few years £140 million has already been paid by our emergency services to the Chancellor of the Exchequer – give our emergency services back their money!
The UK Chancellor also accepted last week that the Universal Credit rollout is failing. He hasn’t addressed how to fix it though. There will still be an in-built minimum delay in issuing Universal Credit payments, which will undoubtedly push more people into crisis and desperation. Now, instead of waiting six weeks for their first payment, people will ’only’ have to wait for five weeks. Is there no thought of just how difficult it is for folk who struggle day to day to last for five weeks without any income?
My office, colleagues’ offices and the Citizens Advice Bureaux locally and nationally are getting busier and busier with DWP and Universal Credit matters. Here in South Lanarkshire the Council is bracing itself to deal with the effects on local residents, and indeed Council employees, who will move on to Universal Credit as opposed to Working Tax Credits.
In 2010 when the Tory/LibDem coalition government started, 61,400 emergency food parcels were distributed. The latest figure is 1,182,594 – yes over one million, one hundred-thousand food parcels! Two of the most common reasons for food bank usage are benefit changes and benefit delays.
I was pleased this week to see that the National Lottery had granted £10,000 to East Kilbride’s Loaves and Fishes towards a van to help with food-parcel deliveries. As always I am relieved to see so many local organisations doing food and toy collections for the Christmas period. These things should be additional bonuses though; not there to plug the gaps caused by heartless UK Government policies.
Surely the honest and honourable thing for the UK Government to do is to admit that the system is failing, halt the rollout of Universal Credit, recognise the misery they are piling onto people every single day, and think again.