Rail Chaos Continuous: Chris Grayling’s Failure To Deliver An Efficient Rail Service

The UK has experienced a significant increase in fare prices which many argue is not justifiable. Campaign for Better Transport has called for a fares freeze in January and wrote to Theresa May in June outlining passengers day-to-day train journey experiences. However, this seems to not have had much of an impact as another fare increase has been introduced for the near year. It was therefore not surprising when there was a public uproar over the 3.1 % increase in rail fares which will add hundreds of pounds to commuters’ travel in 2019.

To add to commuters’ concern, the introduction of this years’ new train times in May has not been a success with many passengers still complaining about the lack of punctuality. It has been announced that hundreds of new train services are to be introduced across the UK from Sunday, following the lack of cohesiveness with the latest introduced train times. However, some changes to train networks such as Northern, Great Western and South Western networks have been delayed until next year May.

Editor’s final comment- Heidi Boahen

Passengers pour over £10 billion a year into the rail industry alongside significant government investment, yet they are not receiving a service that is their money’s worth. It is fair to state, the Department for Transport is in need of a new Secretary. One who will take control and one who puts the passengers’ needs and concerns at the centre of all decisions.

I, therefore, agree with Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, Andy McDonald when he said there is a lack of concern for the interests of passengers and that the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has failed at his job to provide a decent and reliable train service. Many will be affected by the inconsistency of the train times, the lack of consideration for train networks in North of England and the consistent increase of rail fares which the average person living in the UK will struggle to afford. Trains should be run as a public service and not run for profit. As Andy McDonald MP said, “To deliver reliable services, we need an integrated network that acts in the interest of passengers, which requires the operation of trains to be brought under public ownership”.

Austerity – Asymmetrical, abhorrent and avoidable

“Unless we deal with this debt crisis, we risk becoming once again the sick man of Europe”. This was David Cameron in 2009, addressing the Conservatives in Cheltenham on how best to deal with the wake of the 2008 global financial crash. More specifically, this was the beginning of the age of austerity in the Conservative party mindset – the treatment of our nation as a failing business that demanded sweeping cuts across the public sector. Cut to the beginning of 2018, and it was announced that Austerity had finally reached its targets of debt reduction – a full 2 years later than the brutalist model of spending reduction was supposed to. But how successful has Austerity really been for the United Kingdom and its future?

With the aim of reducing the national debt to a level that investment could begin again without compounding trillions in national debt, Austerity has been ‘successful’ –  it has finally succeeded in its core promise to reduce the budget deficit significantly.  Indeed, according to UKPublicSpending.co.uk’s estimations, the current budget deficit between 2010 and 2017 has fallen from £99.74 billion to only £14.04 billion. Though this is a considerable reduction in national debt, there are two key issues that prove the truly devastating impact of Austerity on the United Kingdom – the impact on the economic prosperity of the people, and the precedent set by both former and future conservative action surrounding the national economy.

To take national debt reduction as evidence that austerity has worked for Britain is almost laughably reductionist. Rather, austerity has led to significant economic hardship, regional economic disparity and a fall in opportunity for many. This is not to argue that societal hardship in times of economic uncertainty is surprising; rather, the extent of such hardship was widespread, brutal and largely unnecessary.  Take women in the national economy, for example. Due to austerity and the severe public spending cuts, female workers in the public sector have been most harshly impacted by this policy of financial subtraction. Due to cuts in tax credits, sweeping redundancies across largely female dominated sectors, and the growth of the casual job market as the only route back into employment, it is estimated that women have been 15% worse off as a result of austerity – equivalent to just over £70 billion lost in potential wealth. Similarly, massive cuts to the welfare system have severely impacted the lowest earners in our society – with a 2016 WBG assessment estimating that the lowest 10% of households will be 21% worse off as a result of austerity.  Austerity has had a similar regional effect, with massive cuts to budgets outside of the regional south leading to a disparity in unemployment. According to the Office for National Statistics, unemployment in the North East reached 5.8% in 2017; compared with 3.3% in the South East. It is no complex conclusion, therefore, that the effects of austerity have been not only significant, but wide ranging and unequal.

But it is the failure of the neoliberal consensus that makes austerity not only brutal, but unnecessary. It must be conceded that the wake of the 2008 financial crash demanded a somewhat revolutionary economic response. In a world with families being kicked out onto the streets, Multinational banks closing and national economies such as Greece almost collapsing under the weight of their debt, to maintain the economic status quo would have achieved little else but gradual and unavoidable economic collapse.  But to claim, as the Conservatives did, that Austerity was the only solution is not a problem of debt but of failed foresight. The problem itself relates to the consensus of privatisation and state reduction that has prevailed since the 1980’s. The need for economic revolution after the brutal conditions of the 1970’s, coupled with a political desire to appeal to the electorate, led to a shift in economic models; away from taxation, and towards venture capital and debt. This allowed of economic growth based on lending, debt and speculation, whilst pacifying voters by protecting their ‘hard earned money’ from the evils of taxation. At the same time, the growth in faith that the private sector facilitated economic revolution led to mass privatisation, the shrinking of the state and the sale of numerous sources of government revenue, external to taxation. How, then, does a state fund itself whilst maintaining this ethos of low taxation and sale of its own revenue streams? Any attempt to increase spending through taxation, after the prosperity of the 1980’s, would have been little else but the proverbial bullet-in-your-own-foot; thus, the money must be borrowed or gained from the sale of government assets.

This is where the problem of failed foresight emerges. Austerity was not inevitable, had the neoliberal consensus recognised that privatisation, low taxation and increasing focus on debt was the recipe for economic crisis on an unprecedented scale. Austerity is the product of ignorance to the inherent fluctuations of capitalism; an ignorance that removed any state capability for self-investment, any capability to reinvigorate the economy and consumer confidence, and any ability to enact any alternative to brutal cuts that affected millions. Not only did the population face severe cuts, it also faced negative real wage growth. The UK achieved the 2nd worst economic performance in Europe between 2007 and 2015, only Greece managed worse. The nation sank to the bottom of the OCED wage growth index in 2018.

Perhaps more troubling than this, the rhetoric surrounding austerity removed the decision from the political sphere. The Conservative government made it appear as an unavoidable evil that we, the people of Britain, would just have to grit our teeth and bear the severity of. It is important, now more than ever, to challenge the ideas around austerity as a ‘success’ and those who seek to remove debate and democracy from political decisions. If light is not continually shed on how brutal, unequal and unsuccessful austerity has been for the current and future state of Britain, then we leave ourselves prone to this kind of unnecessary rhetoric again; perhaps even as a cover for more inherently unequal policy.

Lords delay Dickensian changes to free school meals, but they must be overturned

Approximately 30% of children live in relative poverty in the UK, and for most of these, school meals are the only way in which they get a hot meal each day. However, under proposals voted through by the Conservatives last week, which children get Free school meals will be changing in line with the controversial Universal Credit system.

With 1.3 million children claiming free school meals, there is clearly an issue in Britain with child poverty, and we can all agree that for such a developed country this is a disgrace. Under new plans, The Children’s Society and The Labour Party claim that “over a million children will be without a hot meal in schools”.

Under the new proposal, those earning over £7,400 from work and on Universal Credit, your child won’t be entitled to FSM if they’re in Year 3 or above. But by this definition, the government is effectively saying that if you are earning even one penny over the means test threshold (£7,401), you aren’t in poverty and you can afford to feed your child. This, to put it lightly, is atrocious.

With the cost of living increasing, and real wages going backwards, many people who has a household income of £25,000 per year are struggling to cope, let alone £7,400. For example, the Minimum Income Calculator shows that a couple with two primary school age children need to be earning £19,230 per year EACH to have a decent standard of living. Yet the government argue that if you’re earning over £7,400 per year, you don’t need your child to have free school meals. This is nothing short of a disgrace. The reform is yet another example of a Tory government that simply does not understand poverty.

The Government estimate that if earning “around the threshold of £7,400” and on Universal Credit, families would have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 when benefits are taken into account. But with the aforementioned Minimum Income Calculator statistics, its clear that earning in the government estimated amounts per year from benefits and work simply isn’t enough to live comfortably. And once again, it must be emphasised that if you earn £8,000 for example, and are on universal credit, you aren’t going to be eligible for FSM.

So what can we take from this? Well, clearly, less children will be receiving FSM in the future, and this could have a devastating effect on their education and lives as a whole. It’s a known fact that during childhood, proper nutrition is important to academic success. If a child isn’t eating enough, they will struggle in school and in their normal home life as a whole. Free School Meals offer them the chance to eat a hot meal in school and combat malnourishment caused by poverty. The Conservatives clearly don’t care about this.

The Labour party were desperate for these plans to go ahead, this meant the Tory party needed further support. The solution, buying of the DUP. Promising that Northern Ireland would be excluded from the proposals so they got the bill through the Commons. This is, in my view, political corruption, and while not punishable in any way by parliament, it should be by the electorate. So many children in the future will be adversely affected by these horrific changed, and we must fight them. Winning the vote by 312 to 254, the Labour annulment failed, much to the displeasure of the  Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, who promised to “continue to campaign for free school meals for the poorest children”. The fact the DUP knew that doing this was wrong, evident by the fact the initiative will not go ahead in Northern Ireland, yet voted for it anyway is disgusting.

I recently wrote to my local MP, Conservative Whip David Rutley, and his response back was simply an attack on the Labour Party, not a justification of the new policy. Claiming that Labour have lied about the policy and that no children will lose FSM in the future, Mr Rutley was insistent that this policy would be beneficial, inserting the claim that 50,000 more children will be eligible for FSM in the future. While this may be true to an extent, we have a rising population so naturally, with more people going into a state of poverty, and his party failing to combat this, of course more children will need to be eligible for FSM in the future.

On 20th March however, the government was dealt a damaging blow, when a motion proposed by Labour Peer Steve Bassam urging the government to halt the changes to its Free School Meals policy, and this motion was won by 167-160 votes. While having no complete power over government policy, this shows that even the Lords don’t agree with the policy. The lack of coverage of this by the Mainstream Media is disappointing, as not only is this a crucial blow for the government, but it also shows that the Lords have some relevance after all.

While they should be a fully elected body, the fact they’ve rebelled against the government shows that they can have a purpose. Obviously, they haven’t stopped the government on this issue, they at least have the chance to influence and stop them from putting forward such a disastrous policy.

The debate on Free School Meals is one that must not be brushed under the carpet. We have a duty to help our vulnerable children in poverty, and the governments careless and thoughtless policy will only serve to damage the lives of these children and indeed, their families, even further. We must stand up and fight the government on this issue or else face the most vulnerable group in society suffering even further.