Last week’s Budget, and the fuller data that has emerged since the parliamentary set-piece at Westminster, confirms the lived experience of our members and their families as a result of the decisions and long-term political priorities of those in power. This is not ‘just’ a trade union perspective, it is objective fact. As reported by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, for example, “real disposable household income is still undergoing its largest fall in living memory…set to drop by 3.7% this financial year, and by a further 2% over the next year”. Similarly, the Chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) describe this drop in real household disposable income as "the largest two-year fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s."

Obviously, given that the architects of this destruction are still in charge and that they were always likely to hold back some fiscal gimmicks until closer to a General Election (scheduled for late 2024/early 2025), our hopes that there would be much in this Budget to address the multiple crises of underinvestment and negligence across our society were not high. It was still shocking, however, to find that there was nothing at all within it on public sector pay and to see that locally departmental spending will fall in the next two financial years.

In the absence of the Assembly, it remains to be seen how the wider timescale/funding issues raised by this Budget relating to England/Wales will affect us (beyond the estimated Barnett consequential of £130m). While some issues that were discussed on “economic inactivity” (in terms of disability benefits and further “sanctions” for those without a disability) are ultimately devolved matters, at this stage they still represent an early warning of what the next local battle against punitive “welfare reform” may look like. In addition, the general discussion of inactivity for older workers will need to properly address not only the question of their health condition[s) but also how many of the “inactive” are involved in an (unpaid) caring role in relation to a child or providing adult social care to fill the gaps within a patchy, underfunded system. The fact that the Budget’s English/Welsh childcare promises do not apply to Northern Ireland also reinforces how the stop/start Assembly consistently failed to deal with this issue despite announcing a Childcare Strategy in September 2022 and the fact that Northern Ireland’s economic activity rate was lowest for mothers with dependent children under the age of four. This issue must not be lost in any discussion of a restored Assembly’s priorities.

The Budget’s pension changes that were extensively previewed in relation to addressing the specific issue of the retirement plans of NHS doctors/consultants could have been addressed by looking at their specific sectoral/occupational pension/tax needs. Instead the issue was used as a cover for the Conservative Party to yet again favour the wealthiest members of society by abolishing the “lifetime allowance” (the limit on how much can be build up, with full tax benefits, in a pension). In contrast, by freezing personal allowances and not upgrading them in line with inflation, ordinary taxpayers will be hit by a “stealth tax”. In this way, there could scarcely be a clearer example of “them and us” - between the world of the majority - of higher taxes, real terms pay cuts, the struggle to make ends meet, of no or negligible personal savings in a society with food/warm banks and the (less than) 1% possessing the funds and gifted the “freedom” to top up their pension pots by £60,000 tax free.

This specific measure and the Budget more generally again emphasised how all of these “fiscal rules” are not inevitable but are constructed for a political purpose just as a future Autumn statement, no doubt, will attempt to set the scene for the next Election. The scale of unprecedented industrial action and its cross sectoral success, however, has shown that workers no longer accept this script. The Chancellor of the Exchequer may have tried to ignore what was happening on the streets last week, but the public sector trade union protests whether in London or Belfast and the scale of the public support for them was clear. We commend the efforts of our members and those in other unions who have shown their collective determination to resist the failed, destructive politics of austerity that this and previous Westminster Budgets have offered. It is essential that local politicians join us in this fight but if they are to do so in a restored Assembly it is one that is: properly funded; invests in public services/public servants and makes the needs of wider society not party politics the priority.

Carmel Gates
General Secretary