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Poverty is a political choice and ministers must choose to end it

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Since the global recession the UK has seemingly struggled economically, politically and culturally. One thing which has remained consistent during that period, however, is the government’s approach to austerity.

Maintaining fiscal restraint has been a recurring theme, until recently when prime minister Theresa May declared at Conservative party conference that austerity is over.

In the wake of the Budget which, to be fair, did provide councils with some extra short-term funding, an LGC Briefing warned why austerity was unlikely to be over for local government in the medium term. 

As Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson said: “Many public services are going to feel squeezed for some time to come. Cuts are not about to be reversed.

“If I were a prison governor, a local authority chief executive or a headteacher I would struggle to find much to celebrate. I would be preparing for more difficult years ahead.”

While the country’s deficit might be coming down, the general population’s personal debt is increasing. Stagnating wages, the rising cost of living and cuts to benefits have all combined to squeeze household incomes.

The number of people presenting as homeless and sleeping rough has been increasing year-on-year since 2010, while the Trussell Trust recently reported a 13% increase on foodbank use between April and September 2018 when compared to the same period last year.

Over the last year LGC has featured a number of warnings about austerity’s impact.

One study found links between economically challenged areas and reduced life expectancies. Blackburn with Darwen BC director of public health Dominic Harrison, who conducted a ‘rapid review’ of the data after it was collated by Public Health England, said: “Some of the answers as to why life expectancy is going backwards in these areas may raise very difficult questions, some of which will undoubtedly be political because they are to do with decreasing economies and the fair distribution of resources.”

Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Alison Michalska then warned in March that austerity had driven councils to make cuts to early help and preventative services which “will, in time, drive greater demand for social care activity”. Her successor as ADCS president Stuart Gallimore this week warned irreversible damage will be done to vulnerable children’s lives unless a sustainable funding solution for social care is found.

In April the Health Foundation’s director of strategy Jo Bibby wrote for LGC about why it was a “false economy” to just focus increasing funding on health and care service at the expense of others.

“Local government services must be adequately resourced across the country if we are to assure the future health of the nation,” she said.

In September research from the Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group revealed about 7.75 million people are now living in council areas with no access to local welfare assistance schemes which provide vital support to those in crisis.

Following a two-week visit to the UK, the United Nations’ extreme poverty and human rights rapporteur Professor Philip Alston noted how a fifth of the population (14 million people) is now living in poverty.

In his critical report Professor Alston bemoaned the government’s commitment to “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity measures which he said had inflicted “great misery” on some of the most vulnerable people in society.

In his damning conclusion Professor Alston said: “The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last Budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”

It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. The government, as Professor Alston said in his report, has “remained determinedly in a state of denial” about increasing poverty and austerity’s impact on society.

The chancellor needs to use next year’s spending review to truly bring an end of austerity for the whole public sector, not just the NHS, and fund vital local services so that society’s most vulnerable can receive the support they need and deserve. If they do not get it, it will only end up costing the country more in the long-run. That really is insane.

David Paine, acting news editor

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