Damian's article for this week's Herald and Petersfield Post...
A week ago, the Chancellor announced his spring budget. This ‘budget for growth’ may have surprised many in terms of the positive news on falling inflation rates and growth forecasts.
The IMF’s assessment is that the UK economy is on the right track despite the enormous challenges ahead.
As well as a further freeze on fuel duty, the Chancellor also announced reform of the duty on draft ale, long called for by publicans, plus a £200 million fund to mend the many potholes that blight our roads.
There’s also £100 million earmarked for thousands of local charities and community groups across the country. These organisations provide such an important public service, so they are rightly receiving more funding.
But the biggest headline of the budget for me was the plan to help people return to work. In all the time I have represented East Hants as MP, the number one issue for businesses locally has been finding a sufficient number of people, with the right skills, to support their business and its growth. The issue has become all the more acute in recent times.
At the same time, we have such a rich resource of talented people who, for one reason or another, be it early retirement, starting a family or as a result of an illness or disability, are not working.
These are former nurses, business owners, local shop managers and teachers, to name but a few. Individuals with vast experience, knowledge and skills and with so much to offer our local workforce. We are missing a trick by not helping these people get back to work. And dealing with the barriers stopping them from doing so is key.
One of these barriers is of course the cost of childcare and the pressure that brings onto family finances. So I was delighted to see the massive expansion in free childcare announced by the Chancellor, which should boost the number of parents returning to work after maternity or paternity leave.
The plans to increase wraparound care for all primary school children in the next few years, meaning that parents will be able to work a fuller working day, will also make the lives of parents juggling work and childcare that little bit easier. I think the Chancellor was absolutely right when he said ‘a career break shouldn’t mean a career end’.
Parents on Universal Credit wanting to return to work, but avoid the so called ‘cliff effect’ of a decrease in benefits payments, will also be supported with upfront childcare costs.
In total, the benefits package alone announced last week amounts to an investment of £3.5 billion over five years. This includes £70 million in support to the over 50s in the form of ‘returnerships’.
Here in East Hampshire we have hosted two ‘New Directions’ events in recent years where the focus has been encouraging the over 50s back into the local economy. These community events brought hundreds of employers, potential employees, and volunteering organisations together, providing practical workshops on CV writing, applying for jobs and how to volunteer.
It’s fantastic that there will now be a national programme in place demonstrating the endless possibilities that are out there for those that want to work again or retrain. But it’s not just about the individual. It’s also incumbent on the employers themselves to come up with creative and innovative ways to attract and retain older workers.
When I was Minister for Employment I published the Fuller Working Lives strategy. This ambitious plan asked two questions – how do we create a genuinely multi-generational workforce and how do we stop people leaving the labour market earlier than they choose? I believe that this budget can bring some answers to those questions.