Ben’s Echo Column: 24 March 2011

March 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

Britain’s growth has been down-graded yet again. Some minimal relief on petrol and, we hope, South West water prices was overshadowed in Wednesday’s budget by George Osborne having to admit for the third time is less than a year that our economic performance has worsened under his watch. While Germany, America and the other major economies are powering ahead, Britain is going backwards. This is a direct result of the Government’s decision to cut too far too fast, hitting growth and jeopardising the recovery. The 1p cut in fuel duty was more than offset by January’s 3p increase in VAT – which, taken with the other tax and benefit changes coming in next month mean the average family in Exeter will be £450 a year worse off. Not only have Osborne’s policies hit growth, they are also leading to higher unemployment, higher borrowing and rocketing inflation.  John Major, when he was Conservative Chancellor, famously said: “if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working”. Well, it’s certainly hurting and worse is to come, but it’s not working. In fact, it’s making things worse. It is hurting, but it isn’t working. In fact, it’s making things worse. Osborne also had to admit borrowing will be £45 billion higher between now and 2015 as a result of his approach. It is inexplicable to me that the Government is sticking obstinately to such a course given the overwhelming evidence about how much it’s damaging our economy. They’ve u-turned on forests and school sport and I hope for and predict major changes to their damaging upheaval of the NHS, but on the most important issue that affects all of us – the economy – they are refusing to face the facts and change course. I can only put it down to a mixture of arrogance and ideology. Arrogance in thinking they are right and the leaders of Germany, America and the other countries doing better than us are wrong. Ideology because it has always been an article of faith for the Tory right to shrink the state – regardless of the impact on the economy or public services in the real world.

The hint in the budget that the Government will honour the recommendations of Labour’s Walker Review on reducing water prices in the South West is welcome. But the devil will be in the detail.  Anna Walker said in her report that it would require £14 million a year to reduce bills in the South West to the national average. Now our hopes have been raised, anything short of full implementation of her recommendations and a permanent solution to this historic unfairness would be very disappointing.

I still haven’t met anyone who thinks the Government’s upheaval of the NHS is a good idea. Devon Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston, herself a GP, wrote this month that the proposals could “destroy” the NHS and criticised them as “totally unrealistic.” It’s a mystery to me why the Government is embarking on the health service’s biggest reorganisation ever, having promised no reorganisation at all, at the same time as forcing the tightest ever funding settlement on the NHS in its history. Another report out this week from the respected King’s Fund found there was a wide variation in the quality of GPs. So who is going to address that when GPs are handed control of virtually the whole of the NHS? One senior Westcountry health professional confided to me recently that he fears chaos. The Lib Dems are clearly getting jittery. They passed a motion overwhelmingly at their spring conference condemning the plans. But so far, the Government shows no sign of listening to their or anyone else’s concerns. The influence of the Lib Dem Ministers in this Government, which has always been hard to detect, would now seem to be zero.

Committing UK forces into armed conflict is the hardest decision a Government can take. I’m glad, therefore, that the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly – 557 to 13 – to support the decision to implement the United Nations resolution to stop Gaddafi slaughtering his own people. There will of course be concerns about how quickly a resolution in Libya can be reached and what the exit strategy is. But if the international community hadn’t acted, we’d be facing an international outcry right now as Gaddafi carried through his threat to eliminate population of Benghazi. Inaction by the international community would also have been a green light to despots everywhere to clamp down brutally, rather than concede the freedoms and democratic rights their people are crying out for.