ALASTAIR DARLING arrived at the House of Commons on Wednesday 24th March 2010 to deliver his third and probably final budget, sweeping past picket lines of striking civil servants. He had promised there would be no startling changes or big pre-election give-aways in his third, and possible last, Budget speech and kept his word.
His budget contained small give-aways and small cuts, carefully balanced against one another — except for the details of the swingeing £11 billion public sector cuts first announced last November — the chief cause of those civil service picket lines.
Government borrowing is currently running at £167 billion, which is £11 billion less than previously forecast so he did have some money to play with but he resisted any urge to be profligate with it.
Darling promised to keep the pensioners’ winter fuel allowance at £250 for at least another year — not giving anything new but avoiding a cut that would have been made by both Tories and Liberal Democrats — and could still happen if Labour loses the coming election.
On housing Darling has raised the threshold for stamp duty for first time buyers to properties of £250,000 and over — to be paid for by raising stamp duty on properties over £1 million. This takes money from the rich to give to the poor but is such a tiny amount in the ocean of inequality — a cosmetic gesture towards social justice.
Since the vast majority of working households cannot contemplate even trying to buy a house this will benefit very few and does nothing to address the yawning problem of homelessness.
All Darling could do on that score is to point out that the financial measures he had taken to deal with the global economic recession have resulted in far fewer home-buyers losing their homes than in the 1990s recession under the Tories — and then make a cut to housing benefit pay able on expensive properties.
There was no mention of stepping up the pitifully tiny programme of council house building, which is so desperately needed.
Darling has extended the scheme by which young people unemployed for six months or more are guaranteed to be offered a job or training.
Again this is cosmetic, the training offered is low quality and the jobs on offer are often agency jobs with terrible wages and conditions and only last a few weeks. But forcing the unemployed through this system keeps down the figures for long-term unemployment.
The public sector cuts will hit the NHS by about £3.5 billion and the Home Office by a similar amount. Defence will be cut by only £700 million. The Government swears that frontline healthcare, policing, education and so on will not be affected by the cuts, which will all be achieved magically by “efficiency savings” in the back rooms.
This means cuts in the jobs pay and conditions of millions of civil servants. And when the support staff are cut it means that frontline nurses, teachers, police officers and so on will have to spend even more of their time on essential paperwork.
Ironically real billions could be saved without cutting services by cancelling PFI schemes and private sector incursions into the NHS, teaching and so on. But these are not on Darling’s agenda.
He did announce one crowd-pleaser, a measure to be agreed with various Caribbean governments to catch wealthy tax dodgers who move abroad to avoid paying their taxes in Britain. This would sting Tory billionaire bankroller Lord Ashcroft — if Darling ever gets the chance to implement it.
And Darling is to set up a £2.5 billion “bank” to fund green enterprises — not great but better than nothing.
He also announced that 500,000 small businesses would get massive business rates cuts for one year.
The best thing to say about this budget is that it not too bad compared to the shocks and horrors in terms of drastic cuts we would have seen from the Tories or the Liberal Democrats, both champing at the bit to make savage cuts, including pensioners’ winter fuel payments and the tax credit system for those on very low incomes.