The UK Budget statement (27th October) was preceded by some now familiar rituals. With the days of Budget details being first released within Parliament long gone, we are now subject to days, sometimes weeks of well spun previews in pro-Government outlets with already allocated monies re-bundled into headline grabbing totals that melt under examination. In addition, those politicians who most enthusiastically supported the bulldozing of the public sphere now shamelessly use rhetoric about “levelling-up”. It is crucial that NIPSA and the wider trade union movement refuse to facilitate amnesia about the damage that was wilfully done to the mass of the population by austerity or tolerate any signal that suggests we are returning to “austerity lite” in the years ahead. Austerity was and is a human and economic catastrophe that led to unnecessary death, cruelty and indifference due to political negligence. This was a stripping away of public health in its widest sense – leaving all of us vulnerable to any societal/economic shock to the system never mind a global pandemic.
We will soon know, beyond the “smoke and mirrors” of Wednesday’s announcements, the finer details of the Barnett consequentials for the Northern Ireland Executive. Initial “headlines” suggest that they will receive an annual increase of £1.6 bn. and that average “day to day” spending will rise by 2.1% (2.5% for infrastructure) between now and 2025. With a three year Stormont budget forecast for release before the end of this year, the accuracy of these predictions will become clear. We must not, however, lose sight of the broader picture, not least that even this £1.6bn figure pales in comparison to the tax cuts on UK business rates announced on Wednesday (£7bn). More significantly, while the graphs on the economic consequences of the pandemic will obviously be volatile, some facts are “settled”. One is that we went into this pandemic with wage growth historically low – most often referenced by the fact that the last decade was the worst period for wage growth since the Napoleonic era. In this context the Office for National Statistics points out that median pay in the UK between 2009 and 2021 has not increased and has only just returned to its 2009 value. In addition, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, on Wednesday, suggested that the crisis of already low growth in average incomes following the 2008 crash, now compounded by Covid, will see “average incomes…expected to be 28% (£9,000) below the pre-2008 trend”.
The initial economic response to the pandemic showed two economic facts. The first was that the “there’s no money” mantra repeated throughout and used to justify austerity is, as the trade union movement always said it was, a lie and second, linked to this fact, as we face a “cost of living” crisis, only the state operating through properly funded and staffed public services and a genuinely supportive social security system has the reach to create the society we need. On the latter, while we welcome any decisions that improve the situation re raises in the National Living Wage, changes to the Universal Credit (UC) taper etc. these are tinkering with existing provisions that are wholly inadequate.
Given this, we need a truly long-term budgetary settlement and we repeat our view that locally, the rhetoric of “New Decade New Approach” (NDNA) needs to be underwritten by appropriate funding. In addition, as public sector pay is a devolved matter, we need pay settlements that are above inflation (forecast to rise to over 4%) especially in the context of the planned rise in National Insurance Contributions and other pressures on household budgets. Anything else is unacceptable and a de facto pay cut. Our members, their families and the wider community deserve a better future. NIPSA, along with the wider trade union movement must now organise and fight for this.