Christine Jardine: Budget will test Theresa May’s ‘end of austerity’ pledge

Is Philip Hammond about to fulfil Theresa May's pledge about the end of austerity in Britain? Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty.
Is Philip Hammond about to fulfil Theresa May's pledge about the end of austerity in Britain? Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty.
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Chancellor Philip Hammond has the opportunity to begin the process of healing the country and demonstrate Theresa May was right to promise the end of austerity, writes Christine Jardine.

Austerity is, the Prime Minister tells us, over. Nice thought, but I think the people are in a better position to judge that.

This week, like every other week since I was elected, I have met people whose lives have been, and are still being, damaged by it.

And today we will find out exactly what it is this Government means by “austerity is over”.

By the time the Chancellor sits down this afternoon after delivering his budget, many of us will already be working out the impact on our income, our food bills and whether we are now clear of that dark tunnel that began with the financial crash.

It’s been a difficult journey that has cost some people their jobs, their homes or years of stress over how to meet the financial commitments they took on in better times.

Then add into the mix the women born in the 1950s who have suffered through mismanagement of their state pension entitlements and the debacle that is the introduction of Universal Credit and the picture becomes even darker.

It’s been a decade through which most of us have suffered in some way, so the promise that it is over is one I would hope nobody would make lightly, or jeopardise with foolhardy, short-term policies to buy some popularity.

What we need now is vision, renewal and a way to reboot not just our damaged economy but our society.

And before we take this budget as the definitive version, let’s not forget that this is more of a stab in the dark and guesswork than is either normal or desirable.

By March, if some of the Chancellor’s Brexiteer buddies have their way, it may all have to be torn up and a fresh fag packet found.

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This autumn, we are undoubtedly seeing some short-term improvements in the economic picture but there are still worrying trends that the Government needs to recognise and tackle.

Its own independent advisory body, the Office of Budget Responsibility, has warned that the whole period of Brexit negotiations is so disastrous and clouded in uncertainty that it cannot asses the impact.

And while the Government suddenly seems to have discovered £13 billion from somewhere, we all know that finding some money down the back of the sofa may well help with Christmas but it won’t pay the bills for the coming year.

No. What we need now is not a quick fix for the short term.

This is the point when we need some vision. A long-term strategy for our future.

Today we need a Chancellor who will lay out how we will go about repairing the damage that austerity has done.

One who will fix our broken tax system. Most important of all, one who will find a way to restore a social contract that many struggling at the lower end of the income scale feel has been thrown on the fire, along with their dreams.

The very people Theresa May promised to support in her first statement as Prime Minister are still waiting the fulfilment of that commitment.

What we need is a budget that lays out a progressive way ahead for the 21st century.

READ MORE: Christine Jardine: Hard Brexit makes these people fear for their lives

In 1909, Lloyd George laid the foundations of what became the welfare state, and wrote the first page of the modern social contract, with the introduction of employment insurance.

A century later the descendant of that policy is again at the heart of the change we need in this budget – Universal Credit. Almost uniquely amongst government policies, there is near universal support for the original principle of simplifying benefits and helping people get back into work.

But condemnation for the implementation is almost as widespread.

In my constituency of Edinburgh West, we are about to see the benefit rolled out for the first time. And we are braced for its impact when it arrives in most of our post codes in November.

Experience elsewhere tells us to expect people having to wait weeks longer than expected to receive payments, problems with rent arrears because of late payments, people facing increased stress, mental health issues and so much more.

But it could be avoided if the roll-out was paused to fix the problems and the Chancellor announced that he was re-investing the £3 billion which was taken out of the system.

Re-investing that money will allow people to earn more before their benefits are reduced, something the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said would make a difference.

But elsewhere our public services need investment, and this should come from reforming our tax system so that it fairly taxes wealth and not just income.

If he grasps that nettle today the Chancellor will begin the process of healing the country.

If not, he simply puts off the day when we all pay the price of that broken social contract.