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The current form of austerity was introduced by the Conservative-Liberal coalition government that came to power in 2010. The world was still recovering from the aftermath of the financial ‘crash’ of 2008; the most significant global economic downturn since the Great Depression (1929-39). It is effectively a campaign of budget cutting designed to reduce the UK’s (at the time) unsustainable budget deficit. Although NHS and education spending was ‘ring-fenced’ spending was cut across all other areas of society.
As the then Chancellor George Osborne pronounced;
“The truth is that the country was living beyond its means…Today, we have paid the debts of a failed past, and laid the foundations for a more prosperous future.”
The Tory government also argued that austerity in government spending would enable a “Big Society’; reducing government bureaucracy would, by this logic, empower civil society groups such as charities, grass-roots organisations and private companies to fill the void.
It was argued that this would help revive communities and deliver public services more efficiently.
However, austerity has had a powerful impact on every area of British society, and not in the positive way George Osborne envisaged.
Before the introduction of austerity, significant progress was made in the fight against child poverty in the UK. Between 1998-2012, the number of minors living in ‘relative poverty’ fell by approximately 800,000 to 3.5 million. However, after the government introduced the Welfare Reform Act in 2012-a key pillar of austerity- the trend began to reverse: since then circa 600,000 children have slipped back into ‘relative poverty.’
In the same period, the number of children receiving food handouts from National foodbank charity Trussell Trust has more than tripled.
The impact of austerity has been particularly severe on the disabled. Dr Francis Ryan, author of ‘Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of the Disabled’ argues that any progress made on the treatment of disabled people in this country in the 1990s has effectively been undone by the Tories since 2010.
For Dr Ryan, the Tory government have launched an unprecedented assault on disabled people as manifested in policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’, ‘fit for work tests’ and the abolition of Disability Living Allowance; some have even died as a consequence.
To Dr Ryan, this is no accident; in the post-2008 economic climate, with the perceived need for austerity the so-called ‘scrounging sick’ became an easy target for the Tories and many sections of the media. As she opines for the Guardian;
“It is not simply that Britain is shirking its responsibility to its disabled citizens. We have reached a point where negligence is so widespread that at its extreme, it is tantamount to abuse. The British state has to all intents and purposes turned on the very people who need it most.”
Since 2010 the Tories have cut 20,000 police officers across England and Wales. In 2017 according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the police recorded a 10% increase in crime; the most significant increase in crime in over a decade.
The figures recorded in March 2017, showed an 18% increase in violent crime, including a 20% rise in gun and knife crime and a 26% rise in homicide. More worryingly, the statistics showed that overall crimes rates were accelerating year on year.
While some of this may be down to improved recording of crime, the ONS confirmed that this also reflected an actual increase in crime rates.
Theresa May has continued to maintain that there is no link between the reduction of police numbers and rising crime.However, many influential voices disagree. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has argued that central government police cuts and cuts to youth and social service budgets have played a pivotal role in increasing violent crimes in London.
Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner agreed saying that there was “some link“ between violent street crime and police numbers.
Health and Housing
Perhaps the greatest indictment of austerity is that it literally kills. A recent report published by the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) concluded that more than 130,000 deaths in the UK since 2012 could have been prevented if improvements in public health policy had not stalled as a direct result of the government’s austerity cuts.
Meanwhile, London saw an 18% year on year increase in rough sleeping between 2018-2019; something Mayor Sadiq Khan referred to as a “national disgrace” blaming the crisis on central government welfare reforms and a lack of investment in social housing; The Greater London authority, by contrast, has doubled its rough sleeping budget.
Further, according to a report by the Affordable Housing Commission, an estimated 4.8 million households across England have housing affordability problems. This translates to more than one in five households across the country.
Households with dependent children make up 57% of those facing housing affordability problems. Approximately 50% of these affordability issues have occurred since 2010, i.e. since the Tories came to power.
Racial and social inequality
The government’s austerity programme has also increased social, racial and regional inequality. A report by the UN’s special rapporteur on racism concluded that austerity has entrenched racial inequality in the UK. After visiting 7 cities and 2 detention centres, Tendayi Achiume said austerity measures had been
“disproportionately detrimental to members of racial and ethnic minority communities, who are also the hardest hit by unemployment.
Moreover, research by the IPPR North reached the conclusion that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ programme launched by George Osborne 5 years ago had stalled.
Although it had delivered some benefits such as Transport for the North, the report found that 200,000 more children in the North of England are in poverty, foreign investment has plummeted, and the number of late or cancelled trains in the region has more than doubled.
The research also found there had been a £3.6bn cut in public spending in the north since 2010, compared to a £4bn rise in the south.
Universal Credit was designed in theory to simplify the benefits system. It combines a six “legacy benefits” such as Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), into one all-encompassing benefit. It also takes over from Working Tax Credits to provide a ‘top-up’ for those in work.
However, the system has proved hugely controversial. Over half its recipients have complained that it has increased their financial difficulties and that they receive less money on the benefit than they did previously.
The initial delay in receiving the benefit has increased hardship, there have been issues with its roll-out, administrative errors and many recipients have complained that the processes involved in obtaining and maintaining the benefit are designed to deter people from utilising the benefit.
In fact, according to the Trussell Trust; the roll-out of universal credit has increased dependence on foodbanks. On average, they found that 12 months after the roll-out of universal credit, food banks see a 52% increase in demand, compared to 13% in areas with universal credit for 3 months or less.
Universal Credit has also apparently led to a rise in ‘survival sex’ (prostitution to meet extreme need), enough for the issue to be investigated by a Parliamentary committee.
So, has the Conservative government reduced the deficit it set out to? Their ostensible reason for introducing austerity in the first place. In a word, yes (even if delayed by a couple of years).
However, it has clearly come at a considerable expense. Even Paul Johnson, director of the conservative-leaning Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), notes that reducing the deficit is;
“quite an achievement given how poor economic growth has been. They have stuck at it, but deficit reduction has come at the cost of an unprecedented squeeze in public spending.”
The impact of austerity has been severe. It is a programme that pays little heed to its social consequences, and its desire for greater financial discipline has in many cases had a very powerful and detrimental impact on some of the most vulnerable sections of society (many of the same people who were struggling even before its introduction).
It is no wonder, therefore, that some argue it as a form of class or ideological warfare.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of ‘austerity’ is that much of it is entirely unnecessary. A UN report on the UK austerity agenda concluded it was more an “ideological” rather than “economic” agenda.
The UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Aston, argued that public spending cuts have had “tragic social consequences” and that;
“much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”
Considering that Britain is the fifth richest country on the planet, this is a shameful and stunning indictment of nearly a decade of Conservative (or Conservative-led) government.