Deborah Orr: All the familiar buzzwords – and the gaping holes
There are various reasons why Alastair Darling's first big set piece looked like the action of a government that is becalmed, and one of them is that we have become used to budget statements being made by a man who has always been keen to emphasise that he is the power behind the throne.
It is good that this Chancellor is less inclined to view the second most important job in government as some sort of slight and injustice than his predecessor. But it is not such a good thing that Darling seems happy to press on with the delivery of Brown's obsessions quite so slavishly.
The government looks becalmed not just because it is nicking Tory proposals, and not just because we'd already heard much of the rest of this stuff from Brown in March, but simply because it really is becalmed. All Brown's obsessions were writ large in yesterday's government spending forecasts, while all of his blind spots were played down. All the familiar buzzwords were there, and all of the gaping holes were too. No shifts in the general direction of funding indicated that Brown was not willing to try anything that was new to him at all, and it does not bode well.
Brown has never understood, for example, how social justice interacts with actual justice. He just doesn't seem interested in crime, or in prisons or in any of the issues around such matters. In the past he has been notably uncooperative when funding has been needed to ease the prisons crisis, and therein lies one good reason why it continues to stagger on without much in the way of decisive intervention.
Darling can stress as much as he likes that he agrees with his Prime Minister that helping people into work remains the primary lever by which Labour tackles social exclusion, and that tax credits – yesterday slammed as highly inefficient in an independent report – are a good way to achieve that. But all that really tells us is that Darling maintains Brown's sentimental fondness for "hard-working families", as do we all. The proposition is so obvious, indeed, as to be banal.
Darling chose to echo Brown's long-standing ambitions about "lifting children out of poverty", even if the rhetoric was very far from as rousing at it was in Brown's early budgets. Darling yesterday promised that changes to the tax credit system would lift 100,000 children out of poverty, which was more or less a confession that the ambitious targets of the old days had fallen by the wayside.
Yet that view of the difficulties of welfare dependency is a passive one, oddly innocent in its idea that the choice people face is between work and benefits, when the reality is that many people, especially young people, feel they have rather darker choices that they tend to consider as far more dynamic.
Budget statements, of course, are not a forum for debating social policy. But they are forums for indicating which social policy areas lie close to the heart of a Chancellor and his Prime Minister. Considering the level of public unease there is about the penetration of violent crime into the lives of some children – especially in the wake of the Rhys Jones tragedy – it was interesting that the Labour party chose yesterday to present a budget indicating that the Tories are entirely wrong and that society is not broken in the least. If this was at one point envisaged as a budget that might win an election, the failure to acknowledge the importance of the criminal justice system in delivering social justice was a huge omission.
What's left out in grand speeches to the House of Commons is always just as significant as what gets trumpeted, and of course governments are keen to play down cuts and play up increases. But it is still extremely important that the brand new Ministry of Justice went unmentioned by Darling. It is being left with no room for manouevre in this tax-raising round of spending guidelines, at a time when the very people Brown claims to champion – children on the margins – are more vulnerable to the lure of genuinely profitable and highly dangerous illegal activity than ever, and at a time too when the Ministry is mired in complex and unpopular attempts at delivering radical reform.
Some of that reform needs to tackle the high numbers of children imprisoned in Britain, and the increasing numbers of women who are incarcerated. It needs to look at the number of men in prison too, and to continue delivering and increasing rehabilitative programmes. It needs to expand community sentencing, and build public support for this too.
It needs to tighten probation procedures in parts of the country where they are in chaos – particularly in London, and it needs to do this with a grumpy staff who haven't had a pay rise for some years and have been told already that a rise in line with inflation will happen only in their dreams. This doesn't have to be tackled because every human spirit is a little angel worth saving, but because anarchic activity impacts most on those who are on the breadline themselves and trying to move forward. Hiving off a Ministry of Justice then constraining its budget just isn't going to ease the troubles of those hard-working families in the least.