On Wednesday, I was in the House of Commons listening to the Chancellor deliver his budget speech. I waited and waited for the elephants in the room to be addressed: Brexit, the housing crisis, infrastructure in the West of England. I waited in vain.
This was an opportunity to bring the country together and give hope to those who fear for the future, who are worried about Brexit, or about climate change, or about the housing crisis. It could have set out a bold vision for how the UK will rise to these challenges and to others that the mid-21st century present, such as finding better ways to value older people, or tackle mental ill-health, or build the health and social care system we need for today’s problems. It could have set out how we make the most of the knowledge, digital and creative economies; how we protect and grow our industries as the country’s relationship with our nearest neighbours changes.
It could have set out a great future. It did not.
As Theresa May’s fingers hover over the Article 50 button which will begin our negotiations with the 27 other EU members, Brexit is the biggest threat to our economic stability. So it was incredible that Philip Hammond barely gave it a passing thought. Businesses of all sizes in Bristol have told me how access to EU markets is essential for their trade. From the aerospace industry to the financial services sector to traders on the Gloucester Road, Bristol businesses face huge uncertainties as our future relationship with the EU is negotiated. For the Chancellor to blithely ignore this uncertainty hanging over our city’s economy is an insult.
On housing too, mention came there none. Mayor Marvin Rees and his team at Bristol City Council are working creatively to help tackle our city’s homelessness problem, and to get more homes built in Bristol West. But the government clearly needs to take action too, and the Chancellor had absolutely nothing to say – despite the acknowledged housing crisis that is particularly affecting young people in Bristol West who face soaring house prices and growing rents.
When it came to discussing infrastructure spending, Philip Hammond was more interested in coining soundbites than getting Bristol moving. He announced extra funding for improving roads in the north and the midlands, while the West didn’t get mentioned. Bristol people have had to put up with the inconvenience and cost of work for railway electrification, followed by its postponement. We’ve had all the bother with none of the benefits, but the Chancellor ignored this. I have impressed on the government time and again that it needs to take action to help Bristol improve our infrastructure – not least to help bring down the dangerous levels of emissions which pollute our city daily. Despite this, the government once again overlooked the West of England. Bristol deserves better.
Philip Hammond did, however, find the time to break promises. Specifically, the 2015 Conservative Manifesto commitment not to raise National Insurance contributions. This was not a commitment buried in the small print. It appears on page three of the manifesto, and throughout the document.
The government plans to raise £2bn self-employed low and middle earners, at the same time as boasting about cutting tax for big corporations. This will affect many of my constituents in Bristol West. The Office for National Statistics estimates that there are 12,800 people in Bristol West who are self-employed – above the national and regional average. That figure includes freelance workers in the technology and creative sectors. It also includes taxi drivers, decorators, plumbers, hairdressers and electricians. All earning, on average, 40 per cent less than employees but now faced with having to pay more in taxes in an already uncertain economy.
Bristol thrives on the work of freelancers and the self-employed, but they do not have the same levels of rights and protections as employees. Work can be precarious, and making ends meet can be dependent on the prompt payment of invoices. If the Chancellor is going to take from Bristol’s self-employed with one hand, he should give something back with the other: statutory maternity pay for self-employed women, and statutory sick pay if you fall ill and cannot work, for example.
Then there are genuine fears over business rates among many of Bristol West’s small businesses, already under pressure with rent rises – worries not alleviated by a Chancellor more interested in making jokes than fixing our economy.
Growth has been revised down in 2018, 2019 and 2020 compared to the Autumn Statement. Average earnings have been revised down next year and every remaining year of the Parliament. Wages are still worth less today than nine years ago. Six million people now earn less than the living wage.
What’s more, there was nothing to fix the crisis in the NHS or properly fund our social care system. There was no mention of mental health at all. And our schools face continued struggles, with real-terms funding per pupil set to fall and a total budget cut of £3bn by 2020 – the worst funding cuts since the 1970s.
This could have been a budget to prepare our country for the journey ahead. To reassure Bristol West’s businesses and citizens in this time of uncertainty. To put Britain’s families, schools and hospitals on a firm financial footing. It could have been a budget to put minds at rest, and to help us look outward and fulfil our potential in the global economy.
Instead, it’s a budget that threatens the jobs, growth, and vibrancy of Bristol West. It’s a budget built on oversights and blind spots. And it’s a budget that fails to face up to the issues threatening our national economic stability.
What a missed opportunity.