Sunday, June 27, 2010

Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Later

You know when you eat something bad and feel like you want to throw up? For ages you think you couldn't feel any worse - then you actually do throw up and its horrendous. That more or less encapsulates how I have felt since the coalition was formed. That sick feeling in my stomach started on that infamous Tuesday evening when the coalition nuptials took place and has continued, getting worse with each new announcement - leaving me devastated this Tuesday with the budget - and culminating in the meeting of CHYPS (Confederation of Heads of Young People's Services) I went to last Thursday.

When I warned at the special conference that we would find ourselves locked into all sorts of things that would turn our stomach, I had no idea how prophetic my words would turn out to be, nor how quickly they would be fulfilled. I find myself surrounded by Lib Dem friends beaming with delight, constantly pointing out how much of our manifesto is included in the coalition agreement and the budget.........but to me its a bit like this. The doctor tells you what a wonderful job he has done in mending your broken leg while totally ignoring the fact that he has chopped the other one off! Oh yes, a modest increase in CGT is to be welcomed, but a devastating increase in VAT? Oh yes, great to give an additional £150 to poor families, or to take so many more out of paying tax, but what a joke when those same people will find themselves far worse off with benefit cuts and additional regressive taxes - and for so many, no job at all not to pay taxes on!!!!

Some of my dearest Lib Dem friends think I have made a mistake speaking out and should try to be a little more diplomatic, well frankly that is a bit like saying you should let your enemy overrun your country, raping and pillaging at will, with just the odd polite "would you mind stopping please?"

Of all the budget measures this week, for me the most worrying is something that has gone relatively uncommented on. That is a the promised 10% cut in housing benefit for those unemployed for over a year - so not only are we going to rub your nose in it, we are going to tip a load more shit over you while we do it. The massive cuts in the public services, particularly in some areas like the North East where 60% of all jobs are in the public sector, will not only take away people's livelihood, possibly for years to come, but they will also face the double whammy of either losing their homes because they can't pay their mortgage, or losing their homes because they can't pay their rent.

So, back to last Thursday. I had been invited, as chair of the Youth Policy Working Group, to go and speak to the heads of young people's services from across the country. Like me they were gobsmacked that there was virtually no mention of young people in the coalition agreement. Given we had some key commitments to young people in our manifesto, votes at 16, equalising minimum wage, additional educational, training and job opportunities for that lost generation of nearly a million "NEET" young people, statutory youth service, the fact that none of this appeared in the agreement is deeply worrying. Not only that, but sending the opposite signal by cutting the Future Jobs Fund. Nearly everyone there reported having to make massive cuts, usually around 30% and this is BEFORE the budget measures kick in. There is a very real fear that in many areas the Youth Service and Connexions will disappear altogether. The fact that youth services are non statutory means they are top of the hit list - and after all, young people can't vote until they are 18 and then they are less likely to vote anyway.

Following my input was a brilliant presentation predicting the future for the sector, central to which was a warning of the apocalypse to come. The fact that given the 25% cut in public sector and the fact that cuts would not be evenly spread, unprotected services like the youth service were very vulnerable - the predicted cuts in the long term being up to 50%. Equally as vulnerable will be the voluntary sector, for whom 50% of their funding comes from the public sector. Ironic really, given the Tory mantra of the "Big Society" which will rely so heavily on the voluntary sector.

The impact of these cuts cannot be underestimated. And this is where I am afraid I totally find myself parting company with Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. Nick rightly points out that we have a responsibility to our children to get out of this mess - but the irony is that by cutting services to the most vulnerable, by decimating youth services, the very children and young people he wants to protect will have their life chances blighted before they even start! Even more ironic is that we know all this is likely to cost more in the long run. We know crime rises when youth provision is cut. We know that if we don't provide adequate children's services more children are likely ultimately to end in care, or worse. We know that poor housing, poor nutrition, social exclusion, means worse health outcomes and a greater burden on the NHS. Only this week a report by David Stuckler warned the budget cuts would increase the death rate and today we hear that poorer families will be hit 6 times harder. Or Professor Joseph Stiglitz quoted in the Indy saying this strategy will ensure the recession is longer, slower and harder than it needs to be. Calling this a progressive budget is a bit like calling the Pope an atheist.

I for one am praying for our backbenchers, lead by Simon Hughes, to rebel - to at least push for amendments to the budget that make it fairer. To challenge the notion that it has to be like this, this is not the universal view of economists after all. Lets face it, this approach has far more to do with neo-liberal ideology than economic necessity. As someone who rejects the simplistic solutions of both left and right, I am frankly far more interested in what works. Yes, make cuts, there is slack, there are the trappings of a Big Brother state, the unnecessary targets and bureaucracy, the quangoes, the attempts at social engineering, the ASBOs, Trident.......oh forgot, we won't even consider Trident. But for goodness sake, don't cut the roots off the very measures that contain the prospect of recovery. Don't condemn another generation to the very thing you bleat about, namely a welfare dependent culture. Don't get hoodwinked by the ideology that cares more about monetary than human cost.

My worry is that the debate is being framed around the merit of cuts or tax rises, rather than the far more fundamental question about what sort of society we want to be part of, my worry is, that when the dust has settled and cleared, when we discover we have cut off our noses to spite our face, no amount of hand wringing and apologies from Osborne and Cameron will disguise the fact that it was us, the "progressive" Liberal Democrats, who held their hands while they destroyed our future. Broken society? We've seen nothing yet.


Chris Black said...

A frank but fair post, I think Linda. Thanks for writing it.

Though I personally don't think a 2.5 percent increase in VAT is a 'devastating increase' the housing benefit issue is something that does worry me.

As for the report that poorer families will be hit '6 times harder' by the cuts, I'm not sure what that exactly means, or which group they are comparing poorer families to. Of course its possible to point to certain services and say 'if they are damaged , poorer people will suffer more' but I don't how meaningful that "6" is. Am I right in saying that Labour were proposing 20 percent cuts and the coalition are proposing 25 percent? I suspect that reality will kick in a little over the next months and that 25 percent figure will be reduced.

Although the Guardian is the only national newspaper that I aim to read daily, they are pushing their own agenda (like all papers) .. e.g. the slanted reporting of a slanted opinion poll today.

I don't know how many Lib Dems have feelings like my own - realising that no one party won the election, hoping that the coalition will indeed be good for the country as a whole (including the poorest families and individuals) but will be watching anxiously throughout this parliament....

Anonymous said...


Jen said...

Personally I'm angry with the budget and the cost cutting actions that have followed. As someone who has been on Incapacity Benefit and DLA since having to stop work in 2001 and has always got through reviews, the latest being last year, I am angry that just over a year on I am going to be taken off of IB and made to apply for the new ESA. No doubt even the process will work in their favour as the first rate of ESA is a lot lower than IB. It wouldn't be as bad if the assessment was done whilst you are on IB. And the assessment phase takes ages! Why isn't it a medical report from your own doctor that is used? Everyone knows their folk just want people off of what they term expensive benefits. Have they ever tried to live off of the benefit?

And the Lib/Con coalition are behaving just like the Tories under Maggie and using Scotland as a testing ground! We didn't vote for the this government! Well only the Lib part but I guess people thought that the Lib Dems would look out for Scottish folk.

In a way it's lucky for me that the state my leg is left in after my horrendous attack of cellulitis has given me more problems than I already had and has made my depression so much worse.

KelvinKid said...

@ Linda, I am glad to see a fellow Lib Dem stand up unequivocally against this monstrous budget. Quite apart from its effects on the poor it represents a doctrinaire attack on the whole public sector and threatens to stifle the growth we need to get the economy moving and pay off the deficit.

@ Jen, appeal the IB disallowance immediately and get help to do so. The ESA test is more stringent and arbitrary and any appeal against disallowance is less likely to succeed.

Rebekah said...

Thank goodness for a fellow Lib Dem who also believes, as I do, in "telling it as it is". There is far too much prevarication and flummery amongst many of the rank and file Lib Dem Members that I was beginning to wonder if there were any others who were not looking at the current situation through rose-tinted spectacles.

Thank you, Linda, for your excellent analysis. I think there must be many folk who are not living in the real world or, if they are, have their eyes and ears firmly closed.

You keep on telling it as it is, Linda - the message will get through eventually!