Deborah Orr: A decent budget with a thin film of glad tidings

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The Independent Online

There was an interesting moment during Gordon Brown's speech when he announced measures to tackle the gender pay gap. This year has been notable for its lack of leaks - which turned out to be because there was not much material to put out there. But there had been some noises about tackling women's low pay, and what these might be, was awaited with great interest. However, by the time I'd let out a beautific sigh and sat forward in my seat, the moment had passed.

I don't doubt it is possible to double the number of women with low skills in training - the only direct address to the pay gap I could identify. But I have a suspicion that something like this would be happening anyway, as part of boost in further education mentioned later. Brown is always good at wringing maximum impact out of his pieces of good news. But this particular Budget spread the glad tidings so thinly they sometimes looked more like a nasty greasy film.

There were a few minutes when that old Brown magic started working its charms nonetheless. As he started talking about new investment in education - which, for a moment, sounded like a promise to match forthwith the spending on each child in private schools - I began wondering why the Education Bill couldn't have been as sound and sensible as Brown's proposals.

Then I cottoned on to the fact I'd been slightly duped. You could, by building a new school, claim to have lavished on each child within it vastly more than is earmarked for a child in the private sector. But that isn't necessarily going to get them all thinking: "Andrew Motion is right. I should read Ulysses before I turn 18."

Certainly the schools infrastructure needs capital investment. But representing the investment in the way that he did, is not so very far away from buying a bendy bus and claiming you've given everyone on the bus route £500 to spend on transport. That oily film again, prompting a touch of nausea.

It's a shame really, that the demands of politics, and the demands of this grand set-piece event, tempted the Chancellor into overdoing the rhetoric quite so much. Because when all the overblown fanfare is stripped away, what you have is a Budget targeting the right places, within its limited means, and staying focused as much as possible on social justice.

The emphasis on lifting children out of poverty continues apace, with the Chancellor keen to ensure the next of his targets is squarely hit. Between them, tax credits, childcare vouchers, and the child trust payments for seven-year-olds, can make a real difference. So too, despite earlier cavils in this piece, can the extra money earmarked for schools and further education colleges.

The increase in direct payments to heads, for example, will do far more to assist them than the theoretical right to go it alone that Mr Blair and Ms Kelly have toiled so hard to deliver. Likewise, though it is less an strategy for closing the gender pay gap, and more an admittance that far too many children throw away their chances at school, the new funding for further education is great. Brown says he hopes adult learning grants will offer a second chance to school leavers who fall through the net, and offers free adult learning grants to anyone wishing to study at a further education college until they are 25. My feeling is that alone will "double the number of low skilled women in training." But if, as the Chancellor promises, it will result in them being able to make contacts with local business while still at college, it could, again, make a real difference.

A lot was conspicuous by its absence, though, and some shocking in its absence. Previously, the Chancellor has pledged to address the crisis in Britain's housing provision, and shortage of affordable homes. Some work has been done on this but nothing like enough.

So it was disappointing to see Brown is returning to his old sure-fire economy booster, and trying to bolster demand in the house purchase market by pumping more money into shared equity. This is a compromise option great for those who are in a position to take it up - and a 25 per cent minimum holding is admittedly generous.

But much of Brown's social engineering, by so very much favouring "hard working families" and the aspirant hard up, exacerbates some of our society's most deep-rooted troubles. It further isolates those who have the most intractable problems and the least ability to address them. This has a negative impact in all sorts of areas - from tackling disablism to reducing recidivist crime. As long as social housing remains at such a premium, a lot of these issues are never going to be adequately addressed.

* Treasury Budget site

* Chancellor's Statement in full

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