Tuesday, 3 February 2015

"If we keep on cutting, what services will be left in five years?"



Austerity has become a commonly used word in politics today, so what does ‘austerity’ mean? The Oxford dictionary defines austerity as,
‘difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure’.
But, what does it mean to the parents who are losing nursery or library services, or consultant-led services in their local hospital? Or to the older people who used to mitigate their loneliness by going to the local day centre that has now shut, or to one of the 40,000 people who were forced to use a food bank in the past six months? Austerity, for so many people, has meant hardship. It has meant pain, and there is a lot more of it to come.
The week before last, Members of Parliament from each of the three parties represented on the other side of this Chamber voted to sign up to Westminster’s austerity charter. That charter commits to at least £30 billion of additional cuts. It’s explicit about targeting those cuts at those with the least. Plaid Cymru voted against that charter because we simply cannot see how there can be more cuts to public services, more attacks on people’s costs and standards of living.
Many of the people I speak to are deeply concerned about what more cuts will mean. What services or safety net will we have left after five more years of this? So, why have people, and our public safety net, had to take such a hit?
First of all, it’s worth reiterating the point that Plaid Cymru has been making since the banks crashed in 2008: people bailed out the banks, and now the people themselves are paying the price for the bankers’ mistakes. 
We must remember who is responsible for this crash. We know that it was not caused by the parents of small children now without nursery provision, or those unable to make ends meet because the minimum wage is too low. It was not caused by those children who can no longer have music or swimming lessons, or who no longer have a youth club, or playing facilities, or a local library, or those using food banks; while those who are largely responsible for the crash have been able to largely carry on untouched, continuing to reap big bonuses.
It’s pretty obvious, from the point of fairness, who should be paying more. It’s those who are instead being allowed by Government to avoid or evade paying a fair share of tax; those who are responsible for the UK being the only G7 country where the gap between richest and poorest is actually widening. So, has this austerity been worth all the pain? Has it achieved what it set out to achieve? The answer to those questions is ‘no’.
In 2010, the Chancellor had two principal goals: eliminating the deficit by 2015, and maintaining the UK’s AAA credit rating. We’re only approximately halfway to eliminating the deficit. Despite years of hurt and swingeing cuts, the UK’s deficit is already over £86 billion for this financial year so far. The UK’s debt is £1.4 trillion and it is growing. The coveted AAA credit rating has been downgraded by one agency. According to Credit Suisse, wealth inequality has risen four times faster in the seven years after the crash compared with the seven years before. This supports the case put forward by French economist, Thomas Piketty: the richest are getting richer quicker than ever before.
We should all be alarmed when the International Monetary Fund, of all people, are warning of the dangers of further austerity. It’s worth noting, too, that the austerity plans of Tories and Labour differ only slightly, with Labour committed to further deep cuts in public expenditure, just as they had planned the 40% cuts to capital projects in their budget of March 2010.
And it’s not just here: the politics of austerity has dominated the thinking of European politics for some time. It’s been presented to us as the only option. We are told, just as Mrs Thatcher told us, that there is no alternative. Those of us who are proposing an alternative approach are told that we are fantasists. I’m sure that the people of Greece don’t see an anti-austerity approach as fantasy, and the result of the Greek elections means that now the whole of Europe must consider whether bailing out the financial system at the expense of jobs, public services and communities is really in the interests of our citizens.
Plaid Cymru does not accept that there is any inevitability about our poverty. In the same vein, we do not accept that austerity is inevitable, either. We have hope and we know that a different way is possible. So, what does Plaid Cymru’s alternative to the damaging ideology of austerity look like? Firstly, redistribution. We want to place a legal duty on the Government for macroeconomic policy to be geared towards an equalising and levelling up of wealth per head, which would make for a much fairer economy in terms of prosperity and opportunity. Other measures that would follow on from this legal duty include a UK convergence fund, like there is in the European Union, where under-performing areas are supported. Industrial policy to sector-rebalance the economy away from financial services and towards manufacturing and advanced engineering. A system whereby areas with the lowest gross value added are prioritised for infrastructure spending and investment. We want the minimum wage to rise to the living wage, because a day’s work should pay a fair wage. There’s a principle to uphold here: no-one should work full time and not earn enough to live on—no-one.
 Plaid Cymru believes that the public sector can be a force for good, and we reject this false contest between the private and the public sector. If rail services can provide improved services and better value for money in public hands, then so be it. If we want energy prices kept down all the time, not just after elections, then let’s break the big six monopoly with a public company.
Austerity and unfettered market economics is a choice, and where savings are made in public spending is a matter of choice, too. Plaid Cymru wants to end the £120 billion a year tax evasion and avoidance. Other parties would rather take billions out of social protection. While our own First Minister has engaged in an unedifying haggling process to get Scotland’s rejected nuclear weapons relocated to Wales, Plaid Cymru wants to cancel the renewal of Trident weapons of mass destruction, saving £100 billion. Other parties here would rather freeze child benefit and exacerbate child poverty; Plaid Cymru wants to end tax relief for millionaire pensioners, saving £15 billion a year. Some parties would rather break up and sell off our NHS. Plaid Cymru wants to invest in it to make sure it’s fit for now and for the future.
Hand in hand with the choice as to whether or not London-based parties back austerity is whether or not they also back home rule for Wales. 
We can decide for ourselves if we want to follow a different course to Westminster’s race to the bottom. By demanding and securing parity of powers and parity of resources for our country by gaining home rule, we can not only build the country our people want to see but also put in place the building blocks for the society that we want to create. Parity for resources means that Wales gets the same spending per head as Scotland, and why should we not? This would give us an additional £1.2 billion a year to invest in our country and in our communities. We’re not asking for more than the going rate, but we should not be prepared to settle for anything less either.
Wales’s needs are evident and Wales’s disproportionate suffering at the hands of welfare reform, as demonstrated by the Wales Audit Office, has been made clear.
I’ll finish by saying this to the parties opposite: once you’ve made your choice on austerity and on home rule, I very much hope that you will have the courage to look the people of Wales in the eyes and justify your decision.
 It is duplicitous and hypocritical to make grand statements condemning the consequences of austerity in this Chamber and in your communities, only to then support your counterparts scurrying through the lobbies at Westminster to vote for more austerity and for more cuts and for more pain.
As the leader of the Party of Wales, I can tell people in Wales today this without any hesitation: these are the values that guide us in Plaid Cymru. Plaid Cymru stands for investment, and not cuts. Plaid Cymru stands for the rebalancing of power and wealth, not austerity. Plaid Cymru stands for home rule, not London rule. And we want you to stand with us for these values and for Wales.

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