The Autumn Statement - A Catalogue of Missed Opportunities

Yesterday’s Autumn Statement was characterised as much by the things that were absent from it as by its content, and it is clear that the government’s economic strategy is in tatters. 

The abandonment of the deficit elimination target is extraordinary. Six years of Cameron and Osborne doggedly insisting that deficit reduction was the single most important thing, to be pursued at the expense of all other considerations, sacrificing our public services and raining down the misery of austerity on families across the country - over in a single stroke. 

And why? Because the Tories have finally woken up to the fact that austerity has held back the growth of our economy, leaving the deficit higher than it would have been under a strategy to deliver sustainable growth. Its chilling negative effects have grown to such an extent that more voters now support investment than continuing with a failed economic plan.

But the deficit target was almost certainly pushed beyond reach entirely by the economic uncertainty caused by Brexit, for which the Government has no plan.  Far from the promised £350m a week for our NHS that the Tory and UKIP Leave campaigners promised, the Chancellor yesterday admitted that Brexit will cost our economy £58.7 billion over the next five years.

This Tory Government and its Lib Dem-Tory predecessor have presided over a crisis in social care across the country. Tens of thousands of people are receiving care which is insufficient in terms either time, quality, or both.  The Care Quality Commission reports that social care is at a ‘tipping point’, and across the NHS hospital chiefs are warning that this winter will be exceptionally difficult.  And yet the Autumn Statement delivered absolutely nothing for social care or the NHS.  Despite pleas from across the House of Commons for the Government to bring forward the increase in the Better Care Fund from 2019-20 to begin to address the current crisis and to invest in our hospitals and GP’s practices, the Chancellor has not taken the opportunity to do so.

Mental health is similarly under resourced. Despite the Prime Minister recently saying again that it is a priority, this Autumn Statement does absolutely nothing to commit the resources needed to make that ‘priority’ a reality.

Councils of all political persuasions and from all over the UK are creaking at the seams as they experience successive, swingeing Government cuts since 2010 and the Autumn Statement offered no respite. Locally, both Lambeth and Southwark councils have experienced cuts of more than 50% to their Government grants and over the coming years the Tories will continue to make further cuts, creating unbearable pressure on already hard pressed services like social care. 

Labour believes strongly in an economy based on full employment, but the Tory’s punitive approach to welfare is trapping people in poverty, rather than helping them back into work. The extension of the Local Housing Allowance Cap to all residents in receipt of Universal Credit will have potentially devastating consequences in areas like Dulwich and West Norwood where private sector rents are so high and there are so few genuinely affordable housing options available.

It is absolutely clear from the Autumn Statement that the Government is running scared from the political consequences of the ill-conceived and devastating Housing and Planning Act 2016.  However, instead of acknowledging the failure of this legislation and repealing the Act, it has simply announced a number of small u-turns, which deal piecemeal with some of the problems, but which do nothing to solve the structural problems in the UK housing market or deliver new affordable homes at a scale necessary to solve the crisis. 

In response to a petition that I delivered to Parliament just 8 weeks ago, the Housing Minister stated his opposition to a ban on letting agent fees. While I am glad that he has had a change of heart in the last two months, we need much more radical reform of the private rented sector to really make a difference. We need three year tenancies and capped rent increases to improve the stability and affordability of private renting. 

Funding for 40,000 affordable homes is welcome, particularly since the delivery of affordable homes recently hit a new 24 year low. However, the Government must ensure that the definition of ‘affordable’ reflects the reality on the ground. A one off commitment in a context which demands that we deliver 300,000 homes a year for 20 years really is small beer.  Until the Government halts the forced sale of higher value Council homes, we will continue to lose much needed affordable homes to the private sector both locally and across the country.  The Government is trying to fob communities off with headlines which belie the scale of the crisis they need to address.

Amongst the mess, there is good news in the indication that the Government is considering a new devolution deal for London. This is something I and colleagues on the All Party Parliamentary Group for London have been arguing for some time, as it would give the Mayor of London much-needed additional powers and responsibilities in areas like transport and skills. 

Overall, however, it is clear from the Autumn Statement that the Government has no grip – on borrowing, on health and social care, on council funding or on the housing crisis.  The Government’s policies continue to punish those who have the least with an approach to welfare focused on sanctions rather than support and incentives, whilst writing a blank cheque for a Brexit for which it has no plan.  It is time for a bigger vision, a strategic approach to investment which will support the public services we rely on and deliver the infrastructure, housing and economic growth that we need.