Peter Kelly: Budget must fulfil promise to end austerity

Freezing benefits at a time of rising living costs has meant a cut to the incomes of families who can least afford it. Photograph: Getty
Freezing benefits at a time of rising living costs has meant a cut to the incomes of families who can least afford it. Photograph: Getty
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Theresa May recently announced that the days of austerity policies will soon be over. If the UK government is serious about making this a reality and offering some much-needed hope then the time to reverse the damaging freeze on working age and child benefits is now.

In our society we believe in justice and compassion. And yet, if current trends continue, by 2021 one in three children in Scotland will be living in poverty. That simply can’t be acceptable.

Tomorrow’s budget will be a huge day for people who risk getting caught up in the rising tide of poverty and those who are already trapped in its grip.

In the 2015 budget, the UK government decided to freeze all working-age benefits for four years. This single decision pulled millions of people across the UK into poverty and has ridden roughshod over the concept of social security as a safety net for those most in need of support.

Freezing these benefits at a time of rising living costs has meant a cut to the incomes of families who can least afford it. With another year of the freeze to go, new analysis from the Resolution Foundation has found that households on low incomes are due – as a direct result of the freeze – to see their incomes fall further. Lone parents, for example, stand to lose another £260 next year; locking them even more tightly into poverty.

For families it means having to choose between heating their homes and paying their rent. It means children not going on school trips, getting winter jackets, or eating healthy breakfasts each day. It means more and more people resorting to food banks. It means opportunities being limited, choices being restricted, and potential being unfulfilled.

So it was heartening to hear the Prime Minister declare a few weeks ago at the Conservative party conference that austerity would soon be over. As a set of economic and political decisions, austerity has served only to damage the lives and life chances of millions of people across Scotland and the rest of the UK, and so its passing is welcome and should be celebrated. And what better way to mark its passing, and to truly realise the words of the Prime Minister, than to end the freeze?

That’s why we wrote to the Chancellor ahead of tomorrow’s budget urging him to do just that. We told him that if the government is serious about turning the page on austerity and offering some much-needed hope then the time to end the unjustified and damaging freeze is now. In so doing, he can loosen the grip of poverty on the lives of people across Scotland and the rest of the UK. And he really does have the capacity to do just that.

While we all have a moral responsibility to ensure that everyone in society has a decent standard of living, those in positions of political authority have the power to accompany that responsibility. By using tomorrow’s budget to end the freeze, the Chancellor could show that the government really is ending austerity, and really is going to take different decisions about how our economy is run; decisions that better reflect the values of justice and compassion that we all share. It can provide a vision of a society that believes in social security as a true safety net, and in a social security system that can help, rather than punish, people who are trapped in poverty.

This budget takes place in the context of one million people in Scotland – and rising – living in the grip of poverty. Politicians often say that budgets involve making tough decisions, and they do. But in a just and compassionate society that wants to tackle the poverty that holds so many in its grip, the decision to end the benefits freeze really shouldn’t be so tough. In a world of difficult decisions let’s take an easy one, and end the benefits freeze tomorrow.

Peter Kelly is Director of the Poverty Alliance