The Cost of Austerity


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the 2010 Conservative-Lib Dem coalition introduced new austerity measures to reduce public spending. The then-Chancellor George Osborne called it ‘unavoidable’.

In November, the current Chancellor Philip Hammond (pictured below) declared that fiscal austerity was ‘coming to an end’. Whether you believe Philip Hammond or not, austerity has had a huge impact on life in Britain. Here, I will consider a non-exhaustive list of the impact of austerity.

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Increased poverty

By 2015, poverty in the UK was worse than it had been in 30 years. According to Oxfam, one in five live under the official poverty line. The government is reluctant to admit a link between austerity and food banks, yet over one million people used a food bank between 2014-2015. One in six people who use food banks work or live with someone who’s employed. 1 in 3 households are affected by mental health problems and half of households who use food banks include a person with a disability. Single parents are also over-represented in using food banks.

Meanwhile, homelessness has also increased every year since 2010. Research conducted by MPs found that people with mental health problems and victims of domestic violence were vulnerable to becoming homeless. Additionally, some women were forced into prostitution to avoid rough sleeping.

Social housing is an issue too with over 100,000 people who have been on council housing waiting lists for at least five years. Some people are not even accepted onto the lists. Children living in poverty has increased. Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to reach the same level of development as their peers, to pass exams, to go to university, or to end up in a well-paid job. Theresa May promised a vision for Britain where “ordinary, working class” people’s interests were put first; yet, the past eight years present a bleak picture.

Cuts to benefits

In 2013, Mark Wood was found dead in his home. Mr Wood was 44 and had complex mental health conditions, but in the months before his death was found “fit for work”. Due to this, his sickness benefits were stopped. Around the same time, his housing benefits were also stopped. During an inquest into Mark’s death, his GP said that losing the benefits accelerated Mark’s illness and death.

Mark’s upsetting case wasn’t an isolated incident. Other people have died when their illnesses worsened after having benefits cut or been subject to a Work Capability Assessment. Some have taken their own lives. From 2008-2013, rates of suicide rose for the first time since the 1980s. In some areas, the rates are still rising, and men continue to be particularly vulnerable. All the while, mental health services struggled: community services were under increased pressures to respond to the increased needs, with reduced budgets. The number of mental health practitioners decreased from 2010 to 2016, double the amount of young people have gone to A&E with psychiatric problems since 2009 and 1 in 5 children were rejected by mental health services in 2015.

Health & social care services

Social care was underfunded before the coalition government. However, decreased spending was accelerated afterwards. By 2018, councils were expected to cut the budget for many services by 5%. Simultaneously, more people needed care. Consequently, other services faced greater strain, including the NHS and social services such as child protective services. Last year, a charity report found that 140,000 children were flagged to social services for neglect or abuse and weren’t receiving the support they needed.

Likewise, support for elderly people has sharply decreased – more than half of councils provide fewer “care packages”. In a similar pattern, 600 youth centres have closed since 2010, losing 3,650 staff. Childline reported a 14% rise in children calling because they were lonely. Critics have argued that the cuts to community centres, bus services and libraries have contributed to people feeling lonely, both young and old.

Police cuts  

The Home Office reduced the spending amount on policing by 20% since 2011. Unsurprisingly, the numbers of police officers have dropped by 20,000 since 2010.

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The Police Federation warned that the huge demand means police cannot respond to all crimes. Data has suggested that 95% of burglaries and robberies in the UK are not solved. In Hampshire, recorded crime has increased by 35% compared to the national 21%. Yet, charges have decreased by 21%, according to the BBC. Violent crime has also increased. Victoria Atkins states fighting violent crime ‘isn’t just about police numbers’.  Despite this, policing in London is at its lowest levels in 20 years and the total amount of knife offences have been at a seven-year high.

Prison service

The former head of the prison service said that prisons were in crisis because of poor political decisions and financial cuts. The Ministry of Justice states that nearly two-thirds of prisons are overcrowded. This creates a dangerous environment of violence between inmates and overstretches prison officers.  As the number of inmates increased, the number of prison officers decreased from 27, 650 to 14,900 from 2010-2014. Furthermore, in 2014, there were 1,575 serious assaults – the highest in a decade. There were also increased incidents of self-harm and the highest record of deaths in custody.

Is austerity over?

Theresa May and Philip Hammond may be eager to ensure their positions are safe come March 29th as the UK leaves the EU. The latest budget blunts the Labour Party’s anti-austerity rhetoric. Yet, it’s risky: stories of homelessness and dangerous prisons are unlikely to end. Spending on the NHS will remain below average. Whilst the minimum wage will rise by 5%, people in poor households are unlikely to feel “austerity is over”. Overall, any changes to tax and benefits are likely to hurt the poorest households’ incomes, whilst only slightly raising the richest. Regardless of the future, which is perhaps less positive than Philip Hammond would like us to believe, austerity has been hard for many people in the last eight years.


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