24 November 20199 Years of Austerity
THE ASSAULT ON WELFARE: NINE YEARS OF AUSTERITY
One-third (34%) of all children in the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency were living in poverty in 2017-18. Elsewhere in the North-East it’s even worse. In Newcastle Central constituency’s Westgate Electoral Ward, the proportion of children living in poverty in 2017-18 was 66.1%. (Child Poverty Action Group 2019. Local indicators of child poverty 2017-18)
- A lifetime ago the Labour Government of 1945-51 brought about a sea change in our system of welfare, including the foundation of the NHS and the establishment of a social security safety net. This was done in a spirit of solidarity and despite the financial exhaustion that followed the Second World War.
- Sir Keith Joseph, a close associate of Margaret Thatcher, signalled the fracturing of the post-war consensus on welfare when he gave a speech in 1974. Harking back to discredited eugenicist theories, he said: “… the balance of our population, our human stock, is threatened” and that “… a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world.” These mothers, he explained, were “ in social classes 4 and 5.” (Speech in Birmingham, 19 October 1974).
- Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street in May 1979. Eight years into her Government and its mission of wholesale privatisation she said: “You know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” (Interview with Women’s Own in October 1987).
- In 2007-08 the Labour Government bailed out the bankers whose greed and reckless risk taking had created the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Subsequently the Tories blamed Labour for the resultant increase in the deficit and used this to try and justify their policy of austerity. Sir Nicolas Macpherson (now Lord Macpherson) wrote of the 2007-08 crash “It was a banking crisis, pure and simple.” Macpherson was the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. (cited in William Keegan Nine crises 2019)
2010 - 2018
- The Tories and Lib Dems working together in the Coalition Government introduced so-called welfare reforms between 2010 and 2015. The Tories have continued on their own from 2015 onwards. The results have been confusion and severe hardship for those living in poverty.
- David Cameron entered Downing Street in May 2010. In June the Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, introduced his first budget. This was described by Robert Chote, Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, as "the longest, deepest, sustained period of cuts to public services spending at least since the Second World War.” (Daily Telegraph, 23 June 2010).
- Osborne claimed that “we are all in this together” and that “we are building an economy that works for all”. (George Osborne at the Conservative Party Conference 8 October 2012). Not so. It has been those amongst us who are least able to bear the burden who have suffered the most grievous losses, notably people on low incomes with dependent children, the chronically ill and people with disabilities.
- The Coalition’s flagship welfare policy was unveiled at the Conservative Party annual conference in 2010 by Iain Duncan Smith. Hailed as a great simplifier of the complex benefits system it was supposed to incentivize claimants into work. The scheme was beset by delays. Eight years later the official watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), concluded that the scheme was in many respects unwieldy and inefficient. Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, cast doubt on Tory claims that Universal Credit would incentivise claimants to enter employment and would ever represent value for money. (Guardian 15 June 2018).
- In a Sunday Times interview in 2012 Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pension s Secretary, mocked benefits claimants: “This is not an easy life anymore, chum. I think you’re a slacker.” (quoted by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian 22 March 2016).
- George Osborne tried to justify the cuts by a false distinction between people in work and those on benefits, claiming in 2012 that he was. “being fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees their neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits.” In fact, the statistics show that being in work is no longer a route out of poverty. “Two-thirds of children in poverty live in a working family. In the 3 years to 2016-17 the number of people living in poverty in working families has risen by over one million.” (Joseph Rowntree Foundation: Tackling the rising tide of in-work poverty 2018).
- The Government has imposed benefit caps, limiting the total amount that can be paid to households. In 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that “… it cannot possibly be in the best interests of the children affected by the [benefit] cap to deprive them of the means to provide them with adequate food, clothing, warmth and housing, the basic necessities of life”. (cited by Fair Justice Submission to House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee 2018).
- In 2016 there came a damning judgment: “the scale and sustained nature of the welfare spending cuts seen over the current and previous Parliaments are in some respects unprecedented”. (Office of Budget Responsibility Welfare Trends Report 2016).
- A Parliamentary investigation into the imposition of sanctions upon benefits claimants concluded that the scheme is pointlessly cruel. The committee “… heard from a man who was sanctioned when he missed a job centre appointment three days after being taken to hospital suffering from a severe epileptic seizure.” (Guardian 6 November 2018).
- Scores of homeless people in the North-East have died in the last five year., new figures have revealed. Official data released for the first time by the Office for National Statistics has shown that an estimated 120 homeless people in the region died between 2013 and 2017. (Chronicle Live 20 December 2018).
- In recent years there has been very little construction of affordable social housing and private sector rents have risen sharply. Only 6,287 Council homes were built in 2018-19.
- Funding to Councils has been drastically reduced over the last nine years with devastating impacts on children’s and adult social care, on youth services and on much else besides. “Funding shortages for social services that protect vulnerable children have pushed nearly nine in 10 Councils into the red. New analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA) is revealed today, prompting warnings that funding for children’s care is now in a country-wide crisis… Councils say that the combination of increased demand and cuts in central government funding have left children’s services at a tipping point.” (LGA Annual Local Government Finance Conference 8 January 2019).
- At the beginning of 2019 the TUC reported that 780,000 workers were stuck on zero hours contracts. In one wat or another job Insecurity was rife. “’ I can’t get a mortgage as a supply teacher. I have no job security. I don’t get holiday pay or sick pay. I’ve missed appointments for my own children as I don’t feel able to ask to have a day off as I have no contract. (TUC 11 February 2019)
- Sure Start centres were introduced by Labour in 1998 with the aim of “giving children the best possible start in life" through improvement of childcare, early education, health and family support. Between 2011 and 2017, over 500 Sure Start centres have officially been closed. About 100 of those closures have been in the poorest 20% of neighbourhoods. Sure Start had major benefits for children in poorer areas. (Nuffield Foundation 4 May 2019).
- Two of the worst aspects of Universal Credit have been the introduction of the two-child limit by the Tories in 2017 and the customary 5 or more-week delays in making payment. This frequently results in household debt and rent arrears. The Child Poverty Action Group recently carried out a review: They pointed out that since the inception of Universal Credit there have been cuts that have undermined its initial promise to reduce poverty. (Child Poverty Action Group: Universal Credit June 2019).
- Since 2010 a cumulative total of £7.7bn has been cut from adult social care budgets in England. This figure was announced by Julie Oxley, Director of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) in early July. “They and their Councils were having to make invidious decisions that ‘should not be allowed to happen in a modern, compassionate society,’ she said”. (Guardian 2 July 2019).
- There are now over 2000 food banks in the UK. An MPs’ report in July 2019 found that more and more people have become dependent upon food banks. One charity worker whom they met in Chester said: “I don’t meet a single person who isn’t cold and hungry.”. (The Other Britain. Report by Frank Field and Heidi Allen July 2019).
- “New analysis by the TUC shows that at least 3.7 million workers in the UK, around one in nine of the workforce, are in insecure work. Insecure work is not restricted to any particular corner of the country. It is widespread. In every region of England and in Wales and Scotland, insecure workers make up at least 10 per cent of the workforce. These include agency, casual and seasonal workers, those whose main job is on a zero-hours contract and self-employed workers who are paid less than the National Living Wage.” (TUC Insecure work 20 July 2019)
- “[Citizens Advice] said since the level of most benefits such as Universal Credit and tax credits was frozen in 2016, it was having ‘serious consequences’, with more than a quarter of people who claim benefits saying financial worries had made them feel lonely or isolated or affected their mental health.” (Guardian 2 September 2019).
- “Low income families in England are being punished two-fold. No longer able to access social housing because of the dire shortage of it, they now can’t access enough housing benefit to rent privately either.” (Independent 7 October 2019).
- “It is a picture playing out in hospital trusts across the country. One Midlands emergency medicine consultant tells The Doctor the summer was ‘absolutely brutal’. He says: ‘It felt like winter from five or six years ago. It was just incredibly hard going. It felt like January of 2017 or 2018. ‘It is just horrible out there and it is incredibly difficult for people to do their jobs well.’ This is a three-fold crisis: this country’s most beloved national institution is bursting at the seams. Patients are suffering and frontline staff have little more to give.” (The Doctor (BMA) NHS On the cusp of collapse 14 November 2019)
- “There are 14.3 million people in poverty in the UK. This includes 8.3 million working-age adults. Nearly half (48%) of people in poverty-- totalling 6.8 million people - live in a family where someone is disabled.” (Social Metrics Commission Press Release 29 July 2019).
- There are currently 151 billionaires in the UK. he Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has said: “Someone on the national minimum wage would have to work 69,000 years to get paid one billion pounds and a newly qualified nurse would have to wait 50,000 years. (Labour Party report 19 November 2019).
- The wealth of the 1000 richest individuals and families in the UK was assessed at a record of £771.3 billion, up £47.8 billion in a year. The UK has more billionaires than any other country apart from the US and China. (Sunday Times Rich List .12 May 2019)
- In May 2019 Professor Philip Alston of the UN reported on the situation in the UK after nine years of austerity. He wrote “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.” (Visit to the UK: Final report by UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights May 2019)
23 November 2019Hard Times In Berwick
HARD TIMES IN BERWICK.
Pam Vassie is the Secretary of the Berwick Branch of the Labour Party. She and her husband came here in 2004. For twelve years she worked as a voluntary adviser for the town’s Citizens Advice. Since 2010 she has witnessed the deterioration in the situation of people on low incomes whether they are in or out of work. What follows is based on an interview with Dick Barbor-Might.
Poverty and debt figured largely in the inquiries. There were a lot of employment issues. Some employers did not behave at all well. There were and still are a lot of low paid jobs and seasonal work. Zero hours contracts are prevalent. Over the years there have been a significant number of closures with negative impacts on the local economy. Pringles knitwear closed in 1998 with the loss of over 300 jobs and in 2016 Jus-Rol’s pastry factory closed with the loss of 265 local jobs. There have been other losses and the port is nothing like as active as it used to be.
Then came the general election of 2010 and the formation of the Coalition Government of Tories and Lib Dems. Chancellor George Osborne announced that he would be taking £12 billion out of the budget for benefits. In 2017 I gave a talk to the Berwick Trades Union Council: ‘Myths about Benefits’. There had been much talk about claimants being “skivers” and “scroungers” as against “hard-working people”. These terms were designed to persuade the public that it was OK to cut benefits.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan was elected as Conservative MP for Berwick in 2015. I went to see her on several occasions about the way that benefits were being changed - and to explain that the cuts were rendering some people destitute. It was apparent to me that she did not understand how the system was working. When she did recognise that it was resulting in destitution, she simply did not care. I went to see her specifically about Universal Credit when it was being discussed and about the impact on families of the “two-child limit” that meant that after a certain date no extra benefits would be paid for a third or subsequent child.
I told her that this was wrong and plunged whole families into poverty. I remember that she said that “hard-working people” would act responsibly and decide how many children they could afford. Everybody should be like that. I said to her that it’s all very well to say that you should be as organised as that but that events happen. It was neither fair nor just that families should be penalized. It wasn’t the parents’ fault and it certainly wasn’t the children’s.
In ruling circles there has been a shift away from the concept of relative poverty, being below what is regarded in society as being a decent or adequate standard of living. The shift has been to a much lower standard, labelled absolute poverty. The shift means that they can reduce the figures!
So the argument goes: if people have washing machines or fridges when once these were not even necessities for the rich, how then can they be poor? But that takes no account of how things have changed. Who can do without a washing machine these days when so many live-in small flats and when there are no longer communal laundries and when there may not even be a local launderette?
The reality is that when all the fixed costs have been met there may be virtually nothing left over for food. Then there is the dilemma -heat or eat.
There is great pressure on the stock of social housing. In places like Berwick where a lot of the housing is old and damp, heating is expensive. Landlords aren’t rushing to make repairs. Getting access to accommodation in the first place is terrible for anybody in debt: you will not be accepted as a social tenant if you are even £5 in arrears. Starting from April 2019 the Conservative Northumberland Council changed the rules so that those of working age, even if they are on benefits, have still to make some contribution to Council Tax. Those in difficulty who can’t pay will incur the costs of a Liability Order imposed by the Council, making a bad situation worse and leaving even less money over for food.
When I first started working for Citizens Advice in Berwick there was no food bank in Berwick but by 2014 there was one. We could refer people but sometimes they would not go even if the need was there. I think parents would go without food so as to provide for their children. Was their reluctance to go to the food bank because of stigma, shame? Probably. Or it might be that people would go hungry because the next benefit was just about due.
Benefit rates have been frozen from 2016 until 2020 taking no account of inflation. A benefit cap was introduced which placed a limit on the amount of benefit a household could receive irrespective of the high market rents those in private rented accommodation are obliged to pay: - more pressure on already very limited budgets.
The Labour Party has promised to scrap the failing system of Universal Credit. The whole system of benefits is underfunded, far too complicated and beset with delays in payment. Medical assessments for people who are chronically ill or living with disabilities are a disgrace. The pressure is on the claimants from Day 1 to get back to work when it might take months for them to recover. In the meantime, they don’t have enough money to live on. Those who fall ill when they are of working age will be poor.
There is no respect at all for people in this system.
21 November 2019
23 November 2019Solidarity
Excellent and highly recommended by the TC (meeting 22nd November)
Solidarity, Film by Lucy Parker, Berwick, The Maltings screening
The film explored the damage caused by “blacklisting” in the past and more recent infiltration by the police into CND and other activist groups and how those affected fought back with solidarity. Q and A with Lucy after the film screening.