Despite claims it had been “ring-fenced”, in reality over £700 million will be cut from the health service. Thanks to previous Assembly cuts, our health service is already at breaking point, with staff under huge pressure and shortages of basic resources. These cuts will lead to the slashing of even more beds and services across the North, with 4,000 more job losses expected. Ulster Hospital in Dundonald has already been earmarked for closure. Community support services for the most vulnerable in society will be hit.
Education will be similarly hit, with over £150 million removed from the service. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation has predicated that 20% of teaching staff could face losing their jobs, not to mention classroom assistants and support staff. The huge backlog of school maintenance – with many schools in temporary buildings not fit for purpose – will deepen. Cuts to transport and school meals will have a real impact, particularly on children from working-class communities.
At the same time, the Department of Employment & Learning plans to slash the miserly Educational Maintenance allowance for school students while hiking tuition fees to £6,000 per year, making higher education inaccessible to many young people.
This budget will only deepen the economic crisis. Over 40,000 jobs will be destroyed by the Assembly’s budget, not just in the public sector but also in the private sector which is reliant upon state spending. Real unemployment already stands at 14% and well over 20% among young people. Public sector workers who hold onto their jobs will see wage cuts in real terms. Those thrown onto the dole queues can expect an ever more meagre existence, as the Tories cut £1 billion from benefits in the North.
This budget can only be described as Thatcherite. While launching a war against workers, the unemployed and young people, the interests of big business and the super-rich have been carefully protected. Extortionate payments to construction companies through PFI/PPP privatisation schemes have been guaranteed. Huge rates subsidies to manufacturing companies and those who live in mansions will be maintained.
In fact, all the main parties want to hand even more wealth over to big business by slashing corporation tax, even though this would require even deeper cuts to public services. Their hope that this would bring significant multinational investment in the midst of a global economic crisis is a pipe a dream.
The political parties have conducted a phoney war around this budget. While Sinn Féin blustered about fighting the Tories’ cuts – rhetoric similar to that they used in the Southern election campaign – they proved themselves to be their willing accomplices, acting as one of the main architects of the budget and pushing it through the Assembly. With elections round the corner, the SDLP and Ulster Unionists opportunistically voted against the budget, even though they supported the draft budget which was fundamentally the same. After the election, these parties will be in the Executive implementing brutal cuts. None of the main parties represent ordinary people – we need a new, anti-sectarian party of the working-class.
Urgent action is required from the trade union movement to prepare to resist these cuts. However, the leadership have been found wanting, pointing no way forward for workers to fight back except token demonstrations. As the beginning of a determined campaign, all public sector unions should now co-ordinate a one-day strike to build the confidence of workers and to send a message to the Assembly parties.