The harsh realities facing ordinary families up and down the country were ignored by chancellor Philip Hammond today (March 13) in a Spring Statement that was thin on new ideas or substance.
Hammond crowed over what he a called a ‘jobs revolution’, economic growth forecasts and deficit reduction but failed to mention, as shadow chancellor John McDonnell highlighted in his response, that growth forecasts have in fact been downgraded and growth has been “largely sustained by consumption with large levels of household debt”.
Nor did he mention that 2.5m people are in jobs which offer them less than 15 hours a week, and an additional 3.8m languish in insecure employment such as zero-hours contracts. Average wages, too are still stuck below what they were a decade below.
McDonnell countered Hammond’s assertion that the government has effectively tackled the deficit.
“[Hammond] has not eliminated the deficit,” McDonnell said. “He has simply shifted it onto the shoulders of head teachers, NHS managers, local councillors, police commissioners and worst of all, onto the backs of many of the poorest in our society. The consequences are stark. Infant mortality has increased. Life expectancy has reduced. Our communities are less safe.”
The chancellor repeatedly highlighted the threat of a no-deal Brexit, saying that many of his spending plans would be contingent on what he called “an orderly Brexit”.
And despite a pledge last year that austerity was over, Hammond gave no concrete assurances that his government would reverse the massive cuts that have damaged public services over the last decade to breaking point.
McDonnell slammed Hammond for holding people to ransom over Brexit.
“The Chancellor turns up today with no real end or reversal of austerity and to threaten us because this is what he means that austerity can only end if we accept this Government’s bad deal over Brexit,” he said.
Today (March 13) Unite urged the chancellor to take decisive action at a time when thousands of people are facing the loss of highly skilled, well-paid jobs in car manufacturing after Honda announced in February it would close its Swindon plant in 2022. The announcement came just as Nissan announced it would be cancelling the production of two different models amid Brexit uncertainty and a global downturn in the demand for diesel cars.
Unite outlined simple measures that Hammond could have taken to revive car manufacturing, such as support for the sector to become a world leader in the development and manufacture of electric vehicle batteries and fuel cell technology.
Unite also called on the chancellor to use its public procurement budget to help support the transition of the entire UK taxi, rail and bus fleets to clean fuel, and likewise use procurement to support the steel industry.
But the union’s calls fell on deaf ears in a Spring Statement that Unite general secretary Len McCluskey described as one coming “from a government that has run out of road and run out of ideas, dominated by the Brexit chaos of its own making”.
“With the planned closure of Honda’s Swindon threatening the livelihoods of 15,000 people, it was absent of the need to support UK manufacturing and our beleaguered car industry through the transition to electric and alternatively powered vehicles,” McCluskey said.
“Instead it was a masterclass in denial of the damage successive Tory governments have wrought on people and their communities,” he added. “Philip Hammond glossed over the fact that in work poverty is on the rise and inequality growing amid the longest wage squeeze since the Napoleonic era and crippling austerity.
“For all Theresa May and her government’s talk of tackling burning injustices, working people know that they will burn fiercer, for longer with the Conservatives in charge of the economy.”
Despite overall disappointment with today’s Spring Statement, Unite celebrated an important victory for its Period Dignity campaign after Hammond announced a commitment to make sanitary products available at no charge in schools and colleges in England.
The announcement follows commitments by major global employers such as Rolls-Royce, Manchester Metropolitan mayor Andy Burnham and Liverpool City region mayor Steve Rotheram to sign up to Unite’s period dignity campaign.
Unite national officer for equalities Siobhan Endean hailed the decision, calling it “a victory for Unite’s period campaign and builds on commitments Unite has secured from global companies and metro mayors”.
“Unite has been at the forefront of campaigning for sanitary products to be available at no cost in workplaces and public buildings so that women and girls can have period dignity,” she said.
“We trust the government views the chancellor’s commitment as a first step in making sanitary products freely available at no cost across all public buildings in the UK and ensure VAT is removed as soon as possible.”