25 October 2022

People, not just the markets, need confidence and stability too

By Andy Cook

MPs have been consumed by the race to find a new Prime Minister, but what about the people they are supposed to serve? Rishi Sunak is right to prioritise confidence and stability, but in dampening down the fire raging through global bond markets, I fear that the poorest in our society and those just about managing are still going to get  burned.

Jeremy Hunt last week gave us fair warning about needing to take ‘decisions of eye-watering difficulty’ going on to say that ‘every single one of those decisions, whether reductions in spending or increases in tax, will be shaped by core Conservative values, that will prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable’.

It’s about time, and I have consistently argued for a more targeted approach to help those at the sharpest edge of the economic turmoil. But as a die-hard Leeds fan, who has seen too many false dawns, I have learned that actions speak louder than words.

Where are those core Conservative values when it comes to the promised inflationary increase to Universal Credit? People, not just the markets, need confidence and stability too. While the Chancellor brought forward his announcements to mollify the hedge funds and bond markets, he is forcing those with the least in our society to wait until late November to find out if they are going to have enough to feed their families.

Meantime, the Schools Bill has been shredded leaving 100,000 so-called ghost children left to fend for themselves. The Modern Slavery Bill is on hold, extending the evil trade of the gang masters. Over 1m Brits are resorting to loan sharks to pay everyday bills and1.6m more people are dependent on benefits since the start of the pandemic. Drug related deaths are at the highest level on record. Everywhere you look, the most vulnerable and just-about-managing are slipping below the waterline.

Before becoming the Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice, I ran a small charity in the Midlands working to help left-behind kids find a brighter future. It was hard, but when David Cameron invited me to speak about our work, I got the sense that the government was on our side. I am hopeful that our new PM will pick up that baton. As Chancellor, he reduced the taper rate on Universal Credit, further incentivising the benefits of work. He found the funding to begin the roll-out of Family Hubs. He targeted support at those in need to help with the energy crisis.

But I am hearing the same stories over and over again from our Foundation’s alliance of 500 small, front-line charities holding the line in some of the most challenged communities in Britain. They understand that the toxic legacy of the pandemic lockdown, and that the economic crisis is not entirely homemade. But their focus is on addressing the heart-breaking needs of the people they serve. Future economic growth will come far too late to help with the kid’s supper tonight, their school uniform tomorrow, or how to survive this Christmas. ‘Everything may be on the table’ for the government to mull over in its own good time, but for millions of hard-pressed Brits, the table, the cupboard, the fuel tank and the bank balance are all stripped bare.

Compassionate Conservatives do not view growth as a contest between cutting people’s taxes and funding immediate spending requirements. The UK continues to devote eye-watering levels of public funds to filling the empty gaps in society. The cost of family breakdown is estimated at £51bn, reoffending costs £18bn, debt problems £8bn, while the cost to society of low numeracy alone is estimated at £20bn per year. Tackling the root causes of poverty, rather than just throwing cash at them, offers huge gains in reducing the overall size of the state long-term.

I believe that we need nothing less than a root-and-branch growth strategy to prioritise shoring up our national industrial capacity, upskilling UK workers and delivering better paid jobs. Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor, is right to say that what drives our economy are ‘the talents and efforts of millions of working people and thousands of ordinary businesses’.

If we want to reduce the scale and the need for public spending, we need a society made up of strong families and thriving communities. This means tackling the root causes of social breakdown. Realising the full power of the welfare system to help people become independent. Building safe communities where people want to live and businesses can invest. Addressing the impact of lockdown and unashamedly promoting stronger families.

For many Conservative MPs, far more now than just those in Red Wall seats, their jobs depend on it. For millions of British citizens, it’s a matter of survival. I hope our new Prime Minister remembers that.

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Andy Cook is Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.