This is What Austerity Looks Like

Joanna Mack, The Open University

 

The hulking, charred remains of Grenfell Tower stands as a symbol of the disastrous results of years of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing. When government ministers sit on warnings of the fire risk of high-rise social housing, when penny-pinching renovations involve unsafe cladding, when councils run inadequate inspection regimes, when warnings from tenants are ignored, then there is nothing accidental about the resultant loss of life. It is social murder.

 

Grenfell tower remains

Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

While Grenfell has brought these issues into focus, it is just the tip of the damage done by the neoliberal agenda to decrease the size of the state and the years of elective austerity. In the Violence of Austerity, Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, and their co-authors, set out the depth and extent of this damage, the way the very fabric of society had been dismantled and people’s lives impoverished. The effects are being felt by everyone, but one of the groups that has been hardest hit has been families with children and, in particular, lone parents.

Back in 2010, the coalition government promoted their aggressive programme of cuts, justified as an economic ‘necessity’, as fair, as something we were ‘all in together’. It was only after leaving office, the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – accusing the former chancellor George Osborne of taking the axe to welfare to boost Conservative popularity – admitted that the policies were designed to hit the incomes and housing security of the poorest households. And that’s what they did.

While the incomes of households without children on middle incomes rose between 2010 and 2015, those of the poorest two deciles fell by around six per cent. Before these cuts, adults in households with children were already over twice as likely to be in poverty as adults without children.  Lone parents – of whom, before the cuts, two-thirds were in poverty – saw the severest percentage reductions: getting on for ten per cent (around £2,000) for those out of work and nearly seven per cent for those in work.

And these households already had a hand-to-mouth existence, were already missing out on the most basic of contemporary needs. Before the impact of current changes to the benefit system had taken effect, the Poverty and Social Exclusion survey found that in 2012 more than two and a half million children, around one in five, lived in a home that is cold or damp. Over a million children, just under one in ten, missed out on an essential item of clothing. One in twenty households couldn’t afford to feed their children adequately, resulting in 600,000 children missing out on one or more of three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables each day, or meat, fish, or the equivalent, while 300,000 children went without two or more of these essential food items.

 

So, when the Coalition government opted for a programme of progressively harsher cuts to welfare spending of around £20 billion, the outcomes were entirely predictable – and predicted.  Back in 2012, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was warning that the absolute living standards of poorer households were declining and that as the welfare cuts began to bite there would be further pain in 2012–13 and beyond.

As a result, the UK’s child poverty record has slipped far behind many other nations with similar levels of economic development. Eurostat, which gathers comprehensive data across Europe, reports that in 2014 over 22 per cent of children in the UK lived in deprived households, taken as being unable to afford for three or more of a range of household items, compared with 14 per cent in France, around 12 per cent in Germany and a mere four per cent in Norway and Sweden. In 2007, before the austerity years, the UK’s rate was 15 per cent – well below the EU average. Now it is above.

Throughout childhood, poverty raises the risk of premature death.  The progress that had been made in the 1980s and 1990s in reducing child mortality rates, shuddered to a halt in this millennium with the result that the UK has fallen behind other European countries with similar levels of development. The BMA notes that if the UK had the same all-cause death rate as Sweden, around 1,900 children’s lives would be saved each year.

The UK infant (0 to 1 years) mortality rate, at around four deaths per 1,000 births in 2014, is higher than all but two of the nineteen Euro area member states. About half of these deaths are linked to short gestation and low birth weight, both of which are highly associated with deprivation.  Babies born into poorer families in deprived neighbourhoods are, as a result of many interlocking factors, more likely to die at an early age than children from richer families.

In addition, children born in poor areas have, as is well and long established, a shorter life expectancy than those born in rich areas and a much shorter period free of the limiting effects of illness and disability – inequalities that are increasing.

As well as the sharp reduction in benefit levels, the Coalition government also introduced a far more punitive regime, with more restrictive conditions for the receipt of benefits and tougher sanctions. These sanctions came with a new set of fixed-period suspensions of benefits ranging from four weeks to three years. Claimants are not allowed to appeal till two weeks after the decision. Combined with administrative delays in processing applications through over-loaded benefit offices, it leaves many desperate and penniless.

 

food bank queue- food poverty

Image source: www.foodpoverty.org.uk

 

Kayleigh Garthwaite, in her book Hunger Pains, talked to Gemma who was four days from giving birth when she ended up in a food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. She and her partner had had no money for three weeks as they waited for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to process their jobseeker’s allowance claim:

 ‘I was crying on the phone to them [the DWP] telling them I am pregnant. I don’t want my baby coming home to a house with no gas or electric. We have laminated floor and it’s so cold.’

Allowing a pregnant woman to go without food in a cold, unheated home, is to compromise her baby’s life-chances. WHO defines ‘child maltreatment’ as an action that in the context of a relationship of power results in ‘actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity’. If an individual takes such actions then they may be liable to prosecution. Yet if a political system results in such actions, it is seen as an inevitable, if unfortunate, by-product of economic necessity. This is not covert violence but overt violence.

 

After winning the 2015 election, the Conservatives announced a further £12 billion of welfare cuts, which included limiting tax credits to two children, a continued freezing of working age benefits and a lowering of the level of the benefits cap.  The poorest households were, again, the hardest hit; poor households with children were hit the hardest of all, set to lose up to 12% of their income.

The damage caused by austerity has been well documented. The United Nations has issued damning reports.  Claimants have told their stories. Advocacy groups have warned of the dangers and damage being inflicted.

All ignored.

 

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Image source: Peter Damian/WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0

 

Instead, the government has blamed the problems of poverty on the poor themselves, the life styles of individual families and their parenting practice.  Thus the rolling back the state could continue and the state’s responsibilities to provide an adequate safety net be abandoned.

But, suddenly, this dominant discourse seems to be unravelling. In the general election, the Labour Party, campaigning on a clear anti-austerity agenda (in contrast with the 2015 election), far outperformed expectations, upturning conventional thinking on what is politically possible.  Last week, the High Court ruled that the government’s benefit’s cap is unlawful, illegally discriminating against single parents with young children. Delivering his verdict, High Court judge Mr Justice Collins said the benefit cap was causing ‘real damage’ to lone parent families, noting that ‘poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five’.

And Grenfell Tower has unleashed a wave of anger at the way in which the poorest have been treated.  The voices of the poorest have started to be heard.

But this should not be mistaken for the end of austerity. For all of the government’s sudden talk of a change in direction, all the planned cuts to benefits are still going ahead. The predictions of a sharp rise in the numbers of children in poverty remain in place.

To reverse austerity will need not just a change in direction, but a complete reversal. And even with that, it will take years to overcome the vast damage already done.  It will need a real commitment to the transfer of income and wealth from the rich to the poor. It will require a sustained challenge to the neoliberal ideology that has dominated for the last thirty years.

But, if there is a long way to go, the first cracks are appearing.

 

Joanna Mack is an honorary senior research fellow at the Open University and contributory author in the ‘Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on ‘Child Maltreatment and Child Mortality’.

Undoing Social Protection

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

It’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded.” Environmental Health Officer, Merseyside

 

Making Regulation Better

 

In 2004, Sir Phillip Hampton was appointed by Chancellor Gordon Brown to oversee a review of 63 major regulatory bodies as well as 468 local authorities. His subsequent report proved to be a watershed in the trajectory of business regulation and enforcement across Britain.  The report formally established a concept of ‘better regulation’ which entailed, notably, a policy shift away from formal law enforcement.

 

The effects of this initiative have been staggering. Between 2003/04 and 2014/15:

 

  • Food hygiene and food standards inspections fell by 15% and 35% respectively, while there were 35% fewer food prosecutions.

 

  • In relation to occupational health and safety, inspections by both the national regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, and local health and safety inspectors, fell by 69%; national prosecutions fell by 35%, whilst local prosecutions fell by 60%.

 

  • Local Environmental Health Officers enforcing pollution control law undertook 55% fewer ‘Part B’ inspection visits and issued 30% fewer enforcement notices.

 

The trends in enforcement are staggering in that they all point in the same direction – enforcement across these three areas is in rapid decline. But if these clearly are effects of ‘Better Regulation’, they are also effects of austerity policies.

 

Better Regulation and the Local State

 

In order to assess what this combination of the politics of better regulation overlain by austerity have meant on the ground, I interviewed 35 local authority front-line inspectors  across 5 local authority areas in Merseyside (Knowsley, Liverpool, Wirral, St Helens, and Sefton) during 2014 and 2015, as a way of examining the state of their enforcement capacities across food, pollution control and occupational health and safety.

 

In the context of business regulation and enforcement, Local Authorities are a particularly appropriate site of analysis – in the three spheres of social protection at issue here, the vast bulk of enforcement occurs at this level. Meanwhile, this is also the place where funding for regulation and enforcement has been reduced the most. Thus, from 2009/2010, local government funding from Westminster came under pressure. Indeed, of all the cuts to Government departments between 2010-2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been impacted most of all.  Moreover, analyses of the distribution and impacts of these cuts indicate overwhelmingly that they impact most heavily upon poorer Local Authorities. As one calculation in 2014 put it, “Councils covering the 10 most deprived areas of England – measured  according to the index of multiple deprivation – are losing £782 on average per household, while authorities covering the richest areas are losing just £48 on average. Hart district council in Hampshire, the least deprived local authority, is losing £28 per household, while in Liverpool District B, the most deprived area, the figure is £807”.

 

Perhaps the clearest finding in my interviews across five Local Authorities was that each experienced significant reductions in staffing, notably in the latter part of the period under scrutiny.  In every Local Authority, the numbers of front-line inspectors had fallen significantly between April 2010-April 2015. Overall, total numbers across the three functions fell by over 52% – from 90.65 FTEs to 47.78 FTEs. The declines were across all functions and Authorities, with health and safety inspectors falling most starkly; indeed, in two authorities, Liverpool and Sefton, by 2015 there were no dedicated health and safety inspectors, while at the same date there were no pollution control inspectors in Knowsley.

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Sonae UK’s controversial chipboard plant in Knowsley. Image courtesy of Dave Jacques.

 

Inspectors were in no doubt what these cuts in staffing meant. As one told me, “It’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded”. That view was mirrored almost exactly by another who told me: “We’re at the point where there is no flesh left, this is starting to get dangerous, a danger to public health”.

 

With fewer staff, it is hardly surprising that the inspectors I interviewed raised the issues of a long-term decline in inspection; a long term decline in the use of formal enforcement tools, and a decreasing use of prosecution. Time and time again, inspectors told me of increasing obstacles to the ability to prosecute. These obstacles included: a lack of staff time; fear of losing cases; lack of support from Legal Services departments to prosecute; and an increased political risk (“flak”) in prosecuting. Moreover, these types of responses are indicative of a political context for regulatory enforcement where the idea of regulation is under attack, and are a powerful illustration of how discourses and policies at national level can translate into barriers to enforcement at local levels.

 

While all of the local authorities had seen reductions in staff, this did not just mean a loss of overall resource, but the loss of a particular kind of resource, that is, expertise and experience: redundancies did not only mean that staff were not replaced but a loss of specialist expertise, alongside pressures for regulators to become generalists. As one  inspector put it, “it’s the experienced staff who have gone, so we have lost numbers and expertise”.  In fact, the shift from regulators being specialists to generalists was one consistent theme across the interviews, referred to by numerous respondents and in every authority: “People have had to become generalists”; “most of them are just thankful they’ve still got a job”.

 

The End of Social Protection?

 

Taken together, the trends set out above may mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection. What began as a neo-liberal policy turn to ‘better regulation’ then become turbo-charged under conditions of austerity, where the state claims that it cannot afford to enforce law, and where business must be left to generate recovery. The subsequent institutionalisation of non-enforcement of law sends a green light to business that its routine, systematic, widespread social violence is to be tolerated, allowing private business to externalise the costs of its activities onto workers, consumers, communities, the environment. It further diminishes the quality and longevity of lives of those with the least choice about where they live, what they do for a living or where they buy foodstuffs. And it adds a further dimension to our understanding of the multi-dimensional violence of austerity – even if the story documented in this article is one which attracts little or no political attention.  In short, we are witnessing in the UK the transformation of a system of regulation – a system of social protectionwhich has existed since the 1830s. And, despite its political framing, this is not a story about rules, regulations, nor red tape, nor about the demands of austerity. It is a story about social inequality and avoidable business-generated, state facilitated violence: that is, social murder.

 

Steve Tombs is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where he writes on Undoing social protection. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press:

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER

Austerity’s impact on rough sleeping and violence

Daniel McCulloch, The Open University

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Image source: Osvaldo Gago/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

 

‘Rough sleeping’ or ‘street homelessness’ is often regarding as the most visible manifestation of poverty. Since the onset of austerity in 2010, the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough in England has increased year-on-year, with the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough in 2016 more than double the 2010 figure. There is strong evidence linking this increase to welfare reform, a cornerstone of the UK Government’s austerity measures.

People who sleep rough are up to 13 times more likely than the general population to experience violence. This violence takes physical, sexual, and verbal forms – with a recent Crisis report showing continuing high prevalence of violence in the lives of people sleeping rough. However, this isn’t the only way in which violence is felt by people sleeping rough, as these individuals also feel the full force of the state’s structural violence, in the form of suffering poorer health outcomes than the housed population, as well as suffering emotional and psychological trauma through statutory requirements to negotiate demeaning and excessively bureaucratic processes in order to gain access to basic services.

People who sleep rough use numerous strategies to deal with the violence they face, such as carrying a weapon for self-protection or sleeping in industrial bins to shelter – but both of these can lead to other, sometimes fatal, outcomes. One strategy often employed by those sleeping rough is to make use of local homelessness services. These services don’t always offer the perfect answer to the difficulties faced whilst homeless, but can provide basic amenities such as food, drink, washing facilities and social support. As such, they can be a vital, if sometimes imperfect, resource for homeless people.

 

However, austerity is exacerbating the violence faced by people sleeping rough, with wide-ranging impacts. These impacts are felt in various ways by people who are sleeping rough, with these individuals facing increased difficulties in moving out of homelessness, and some turning to harmful behaviours such as alcohol and drug use to deal with the effects of measures such as welfare reform. Cuts to services within and outside of the homelessness sector have exacerbated the difficulties faced by rough sleepers, with many vital support services finding it increasingly difficult to support individuals. Many of these services have seen reduced government funding and are increasingly stretched, facing little option but to ration their provision. Consequently, some individuals whose needs are too acute to be met by general services, but not severe enough to be met specialist services, are falling between the cracks in provision.

Recent proclamations by the UK Government of ‘investment’ in homelessness services do little to stem to impact of these cuts, instead masking the impact such cuts have had. In 2016, the Conservative Government announced a £115 million ‘investment’ into homelessness services, committing to delivering 2000 more bed spaces. However, this figure is less than half of the bed spaces lost in such services since 2010. The Government has also administered funding for specific types of provision, whilst reducing general levels of funding for homelessness services. Such a move allows the Government to exert greater control over which types of services receive funding. Thus, services faced increased pressure to conform to Government expectations in order to receive state funding, making it increasingly difficult for service providers to be critical of Government policy.

Thus, the Government’s austerity measures simultaneously serve to punish those sleeping rough, whilst allowing the Government to exert increasing control over the homelessness sector. Meanwhile, those on the streets feel the full force of this austerity programme, with the violence of austerity felt in the increased number of people subject to violence whilst sleeping rough; the violent impact of austerity measures such as welfare reform; and the removal of core funding streams from services who support those sleeping rough.

 

Daniel McCulloch is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where he writes on Austerity’s impact on rough sleeping and violence. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press:

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER

Government austerity demands that we die within our means

Victoria Cooper, The Open University

David Whyte, University of Liverpool

 

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Image source: Lee Davy/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

As we move towards the general election, we are paralyzed by what is probably the biggest single issue affecting ordinary people in the country: austerity. We are unable to fully understand both the economic madness of austerity and the true scale of the human cost and death toll that ‘fiscal discipline’ has unleashed.

Since coming into power as Prime Minister, Theresa May has made a strategic decision not to use the word ‘austerity’. Instead she has adopted a more palatable language in a vain attempt to distance herself from the Cameron governments before her: “you call it austerity; I call it living within our means.”

The experience of countless thousands of people is precisely the opposite: people are actively prevented from living within their means and are cut off from their most basic entitlement to: housing, food, health care, social care and general protection from hardship. And people are dying as a result of these austerity effects. In February, Jeremy Corbyn made precisely this point when he observed the conclusions of one report that 30,000 people were dying unnecessarily every year because of the cuts to NHS and to local authority social care budgets.

But this is really only the tip of the iceberg. The scale of disruption felt by people at the sharp end of these benefit reforms is enormous.  Countless thousands of others have died prematurely following work capability assessments: approximately 10,000 according the government’s own figures. People are dying as a result of benefit sanction which has fatal impacts on existing health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Austerity is about dismantling social protection. The crisis we face in social care is precipitated by cuts to local authority funding.  In the first 5 years of austerity, local authority budgets were cut by 40%, amounting to an estimated £18bn in care provision.

A decade of cuts, when added up, also means that some key agencies that protect us, such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency will have been decimated by up to 60% of funding cuts. Scaling back on an already paltry funding in these critical areas of regulation will lead to a rise in pollution related illness and disease and will fail to ensure people are safe at work.

The economic folly is that austerity will cost society more in the long term.  Local authorities are, for example, housing people in very expensive temporary accommodation because the government has disinvested in social housing.  The crisis in homelessness has paradoxically led to a £400 million rise in benefit payments.   The future costs of disinvesting in young people will be seismic.

Ending austerity would mean restoring our system of social protection and restoring the spending power of local authorities.  It would mean, as all the political parties except the Conservatives recognise, taxing the rich, not punishing the poor in order to pay for a problem that has its roots in a global financial system that enriched the elite. It would also mean recognizing that the best way to prevent the worsening violence of austerity and to rebuild the economy is to re-invest in public sector jobs.

In our book published this week, we bring together 31 leading authors to challenge this violent agenda. The book provides a comprehensive guide to the social violence that has been unleashed by austerity and shows, unequivocally, that austerity is not about ‘living within our means’ like some kind of fantasy household budget in Hampstead.  Austerity is designed to punish already disenfranchised populations, in targeted and violent ways.

Both the economic madness and the vicious cruelty of austerity have been almost written out of this election.   Come June, the next elected government has to produce a viable alternative strategy to austerity if it wants to reduce the death toll and properly protect its people.  No matter how the politics of Brexit or the politics of devolution and independence play out in the future, austerity is the key political issues that will shape the lives and deaths of the British people.

The Violence of Austerity, edited by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, is published by Pluto Press.

 

This post was originally published by Open Democracy.

 

Over the next four weeks we will  publish a series of blogs by HERC authors included the new book ‘The Violence of Austerity.’  Vicky Canning, Dan McCulloch, Steve Tombs and Joanna Mack will each describe in detail how austerity is having profoundly violent impacts.  The book is available to buy from Pluto Press

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER