Britain’s harsh austerity programme is not only suffocating economic growth, it is increasingly geared to ensuring the rich get richer while low-income families, the jobless and the elderly are being treated as collateral damage in the UK’s bid to clear debt.
It’s certainly true that the nation’s once overly generous welfare system needed overhauling because for decades it had been exploited by malingerers who had little incentive to find work because benefits — housing allowances, child allowances, disability allowances — were almost as great as a pay cheque minus tax and were easier to obtain than employment. No wonder foreigners once considered UK streets paved with gold and were clamouring to get in!
Sunday tabloids used to enrage high taxpaying, hardworking middle classes with stories of immigrant families living in desirable west London residences courtesy of the state, homes way out of their league. Most Britons were aware of able-bodied individuals ‘suffering chronic back pain’ (an ailment most doctors are obliged to accept at face value), who were spotted merrily digging the garden or participating in local football games.
All that is indisputable, but it’s one thing to block a system’s exploitable loopholes and quite another to leave citizens genuinely in need to fend for themselves.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has been merciless, adding grist to the mill of the old canard that the Conservative party is rooted in a dog-eat-dog mentality sans compassion for the less fortunate. I still remember the accusation ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk-snatcher’ following prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s curtailment of free milk in schools for the over sevens.
In retrospect, that unpopular decision pales in comparison to Cameron’s ruthlessness that leaves parents unable to feed their children, forces families in major cities to relocate to out-of-the-way, less expensive parts of the country — and renders unsuccessful job-seekers, arbitrarily deemed to lack sufficient determination to find one, without any income at all.
In London, homelessness has risen by 22 per cent which has placed a heavy burden on local councils with a legal responsibility to ensure that families with children aren’t living on the streets. With council housing and affordable rented accommodation in short supply, families are either being accommodated in small hotels/bed-and-breakfasts at enormous cost or they are being packed off to areas where there’s housing availability which entails uprooting people from their extended families, communities, friends and schools. It’s a situation mirrored in all of Britain’s major cities and one that will deplete authorities’ coffers in the long run, thus defeating the government’s cost cutting objectives.
Child poverty is also burgeoning with over three million children in Britain currently living below the poverty line. A report compiled from a ‘Save the Children’ investigation evidences that in poorer areas, 61 per cent of parents are being forced to cut back on food, 26 per cent skip meals altogether, 19 per cent can’t afford to buy their children new shoes while 80 per cent borrow just to survive. Likewise, the UK’s elderly are among the poorest in Europe.
An Age UK study found that one in seven older people stay in bed to keep warm or confine their lives to just one room in their homes because they are unable to afford fuel costs; in many cases due to insufficient pensions and/or minimal interest rates on savings unable to keep up with inflation.
Worse, next year age-related tax allowances are due to be axed. There are currently 2.5 million unemployed in Britain and only one in five university graduates (youth lucky enough to pay exorbitant fees) can look forward to a permanent job.
The UK’s economic forecast looks gloomy and it’s dropped a notch from its credit rating. But it’s still the world’s sixth largest economy, which should translate to a reasonable level of abundance for all. But instead of ensuring that wealth trickles down, Cameron and his stubbornly short-sighted chancellor George Osborne make certain the ‘haves’ have even more while ignoring the cries of the desperate, a policy that is not only immoral, but also comes with dire social implications impacting crime figures and public unrest.
Perhaps Osborne could be partially forgiven if austerity was seen to be working, but it isn’t. Even as he downgrades the UK’s growth forecasts time after time, he insists that cutbacks will remain in place for the next five years! Who can trust him when the country is on the brink of a triple-dip recession? He only has to look across the pond to the US which is also burdened by debt but has taken the opposite path and is reaping benefits with an economy growing faster than previously estimated.
Even if he suffers from myopia he’s not deaf, so one has to wonder why he refuses to heed the IMF’s chief economist Olivier Blanchard, who openly says Britain’s austerity plan is failing dismally and suggests the UK’s fiscal policy should be reassessed in terms of taxation and public spending.
Osborne’s solution is to cut taxes for those earning over £150,000 (Dh836,627) and a reduction in corporate taxes. I wouldn’t bet my home on the coalition’s re-election chances in 2015; a year that for the majority of Britons I would guess can’t come soon enough.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org