The alleged Chinese curse –‘may you live in interesting times’ – may have had more apposite historical reference points but for most of us, economically speaking at least, this is as ‘interesting’ as it’s been in our lifetime. There has been an extended hiatus in government since the May elections, with many statements of intent and an Emergency Budget, but since then government departments have been locked into their Whitehall offices planning for best and worst case scenarios in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review in October. What is missing is the detail, and until that is forthcoming most of us can only conjecture on how bad it’s going to get.
Of course, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, there are ‘known knowns’ – we all know the size of the deficit, and we also know that whichever party won the election, there were going to be swinging public sector spending cuts. The ‘known unknowns’ are where it gets interesting in the Chinese sense. The Coalition government is committed to speedier deficit reduction, and the scale of the reductions in public spending, and where the cuts will be targeted are the key debating points. There have been two noteworthy recent developments. Firstly, the Fawcett Society has sought leave to make a legal challenge to the government on the grounds that it failed to undertake the necessary impact assessment of the Budget on women in particular, and on minorities in general. Characteristically late in the day, their position has been cautiously supported, with caveats, by the hitherto non-interventionist EHRC.
Secondly, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has calculated that the Budget has had a disproportionate impact on the less well-off sections of society. Specifically, the IFS analysis implies that, once benefit cuts and other considerations are taken into account, the government’s claim that ‘we’re all in this together’ is not quite accurate, and that those with the least are losing a higher percentage of their smaller incomes. At the same time as public spending cuts are biting, the likelihood is that increasing numbers of the least well-off sections in society will turn for assistance to charities and not-for-profit organisations to take up the role of the safety net that so many of us have come to take for granted . For many of those organisations, though, their own existence is questionable, as local authorities and other sources of public support dry up.
In my view, all of the above means that the prognosis for minority communities for the best part of the current decade is bleak, if we continue to manifest the behaviour patterns we’ve slipped into over the past twenty years or more. Unless we develop a far greater sense of collective action, and revert to the sense of community, resilience and self-reliance that characterised our parents generations, we run the risk of large sections of our communities, with the exception of those who have ‘made it’, slipping into a permanent social underclass. Only concerted collective action can ensure that we emerge from this difficult period relatively unscathed. I hope that NBP members will rise to the challenge and provide the leadership that will be required.