“Austerity was sold to the British public as the only way to shore up our feeble national finances. Cutting public spending, voters were told, might make the UK a bit meaner. But if there was a social price to pay for this less generous approach to public spending, it would be easily outweighed by the benefits of making the UK into a leaner and more prosperous place.
It didn’t work. Eight years on, the economy remains anaemic and, while unemployment is low, under-employment and low pay are widespread. Meanwhile, the true costs of many of the cuts are only now being fully revealed. Unemployment support and the other payments that make up the UK’s system of social security were the number one target for reductions in spending, with legal aid and grants to local councils not far behind. Figures produced last year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that the Department for Work and Pensions will have had a real-terms cut in its budget of almost 50% between 2010-11 and 2019-20. And local government leaders warn that they face a financial black hole, with county councils citing a £3.2bn funding gap over the next two years.
With the upcoming conference season sure to be dominated by Brexit, the question is when, if and how the reckoning that is urgently required with regard to these decisions is going to take place. Universal credit, the flagship welfare reform of the coalition and brainchild of former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, is a disaster. This week the Resolution Foundation thinktank issued a stark warning that unless the timetable for migrating claimants to the new system is relaxed, the whole thing could collapse. Following a highly critical National Audit Office report highlighting official intransigence as well as flaws in delivery and design, the question must now be asked whether this hugely expensive project should be abandoned altogether.
Meanwhile, mounting chaos in the justice system is finally attracting public attention. Last month the government stripped the private contractor G4S of responsibility for Birmingham prison, admitting that officers there had effectively lost control. This followed an announcement that the partial privatisation of probation services has failed and will be reversed. This week MPs debated a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act amid rising concerns over the impact of legal aid cuts, including the phenomenon of “advice deserts” in parts of the country where services have virtually ceased to exist. A growing sense of crisis in the courts themselves is ably documented in the new eponymous book by the Secret Barrister.
Now council leaders are warning that children’s services face a tipping point, with 90 children entering care every day but repeated appeals for additional funding from the Treasury rejected. Only a safeguarding catastrophe will propel these most vulnerable members of society to news headlines. Mostly these distressed, frightened and neglected young people are hidden from sight.
Universal credit is due to be rolled out to more than a million tax credit claimants. Its failure carries a significant political risk. But mostly the political calculation appears to have been that people will not notice as spending on jails, support services for vulnerable families and legal aid is whittled away. Or that if they do notice, perhaps they won’t much care. Often, those whose tribulations go unnoticed are the same people: so the children who grow up in foster care because their parents couldn’t manage face a statistically far higher chance of ending up in the criminal justice system, or suffering poor health leading to reliance on benefits.
Current and former ministers as well as the MPs who voted through legislation must be held accountable for a litany of failures that amounts to an abandonment of their responsibilities to some of the most vulnerable people in the UK. Some ameliorative measures have already been taken, for example in adjustments to the legal aid rules. Politicians can be mistaken. Now is the time for them to change.