The last ten years have been a period of austerity in Government spending to reduce the national debt inherited from the thirteen years of the Blair/Brown administrations. The message from the Johnson Government is that that era has ended. The NHS, education and policing are to be given the funds they surely need. The NHS is short of nurses and doctors and some hospitals need rebuilding or replacing and £33.9 billion have been promised. In the same way, schools need more teachers and the increased incidence of knife crime on our city streets points to the need for more police.
That said the Prime Minister is conscious that he has to repay the traditional Labour supporters who helped to give him a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons. After the election he said, “You have changed the political landscape. You have changed the Conservative party for the better, and you have changed the future of our country for the better. I want to thank all the people of Sedgefield, of Bishop Auckland, of Stockton South, of Darlington, North West Durham, Blyth Valley and Redcar.”
The Spending Round for 2020-21 reflects this commitment. They promise the fastest planned growth in departmental spending since 2009-10. We are told that this spending will be achieved within the current fiscal rules, which require that the structural deficit remains below 2% of GDP. Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen and there is a risk that a number of big projects could cause it to be missed. The Government’s commitment to HS2 is an expression of its payback to the northern constituencies that helped to give them their majority of 80 but its costs continue to grow. A second example is the £5 billion for new bus routes and electric buses in northern England. If the Prime Minister’s idea of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland were to be built it would be a third example.
Whatever transpires in those projects but there other dark clouds on the fiscal horizon that should not be ignored. Storms Ciara and Dennis have exposed the effects of past austerity. The fire and rescue services in the worst storm-hit areas have had their annual funding cut by £141.5 million. News reports reveal many homes flooded by exceptional rainfall. If these storms are a symptom of climate change this could become a regular phenomenon requiring flood prevention measures and even the rebuilding of homes in flood risk areas.
Another issue that cannot be ignored is the evidence that a tenth of 14-year-old children’s lives are blighted by poverty. The Children’s Society says 73,000 14 year olds are living in persistent poverty and a further 153,000 live in homes that struggle with intermittent poverty. Mark Russell, the CEO of the Children’s Society says, “It is scandalous to find out that so many children have spent their entire lives growing up in poverty or live in families who regularly struggle to pay the bills and put food on the table”.
A third cause for concern is what is going to happen to jobs and the economy if the Government fails to agree a satisfactory trade deal with the EU by the end of the year. The Office of Budget Responsibility said last July that even a modest scenario could leave us with a £30 billion hit on our public finances. The Withdrawal Act requires that if a deal is not agreed by December 31st, we will not extend the transition period and that leaves an exceptionally short time to negotiate a satisfactory deal. Without such a deal there could be job losses and additional demands on public finances.
Whatever our political sympathies we need to be praying for the Government to handle these challenges wisely and skillfully. There are not many professing Christians in the Government and that makes our prayers all the more important.