For people at the sharp end, the poorest and those most dependent on public services, it sometimes feels as if the Coalition has spent the last four years steadily unpicking the very fabric of our society. For a long time this process has been under-reported by the media, but gradually the results are becoming impossible to ignore.
There can be few people more utterly dependent on the quality of a public service than prisoners. Exploding the myth that such services could ‘do more with less’, Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has warned that
‘Overcrowding and staff shortages in England’s jails are now so bad that they are directly fuelling a rise in the number of prisoners killing themselves.’
Outside prisons, perhaps cuts to local authority funding have the greatest impact on people’s lives, leaving them without adult social care and other essential services. But the consequences never become a national story because they are, by definition, local. Conveniently for the government, people blame Councils for these cuts, despite the fact that the Councils are at the mercy of government spending decisions. And as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported, local authority cuts have been targeted on the poorest areas.
With foodbank use rising inexorably, with more and more families finding themselves in problem debt, the Prime Minister came close this week to admitting that many families could have been adversely affected by some of his government’s measures. But his analysis of the problem ignored some inconvenient truths, and his proposed solution left some people astounded by its contradictions.
‘We know that one of the biggest strains in a relationship can come from problems with money.’
Few people would disagree. But then the Prime Minister said,
‘And the biggest cause of such problems is not having a job.’
It would be understandable if most people believed this, but one would expect the Prime Minister to know that this is not true. One of the most remarkable features of recent years has been the growth of in-work poverty
, so that now, more than half the people living in poverty are in households where at least one person has a job.
And it is now surely undeniable that welfare reform has hastened the downward spiral into poverty for many families. Even the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith, and not just supportive of government welfare policy but instrumental in writing much of it, has acknowledged this. In ‘Maxed Out’, a report issued in November 2013, the CSJ spoke of the alarming rise in debt which puts a ticking time bomb at the heart of many families.
Conceding that the under-occupancy penalty/bedroom tax had contributed to the problem of rent arrears, the CSJ concluded: “Unless proactive steps are taken, problem debt in the UK will continue to grow unabated. The current levels of debt are worrying because they not only have severe financial implications, but also more wide-ranging impacts on people's mental health, family stability, and ability to work. These are especially pronounced amongst low-income households and the vulnerable.”
Whilst Mr. Cameron did not actually go so far as to take responsibility for anything specific in his speech, he did say,
‘We can’t go on having government taking decisions like this which ignore the impact on the family. I said previously that I wanted to introduce a family test into government. Now that test is being formalised as part of the impact assessment for all domestic policies. Put simply that means every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.’
Again, the contrast with his previous pronouncements on such matters was stark. In a speech to the CBI in 2013 Mr. Cameron promised to get rid of ‘reams of bureaucratic nonsense’. He promised to cut back on judicial reviews, reduce government consultations, and continued,
‘We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff. So I can tell you today we are calling time on Equality Impact Assessments.’
When disabled people virtually begged for a cumulative impact assessment of how welfare reform and cuts were affecting them, they were treated with contempt by the government. The WOW petition secured a parliamentary debate on the issue, but still no such impact assessment was undertaken. The government said it was too difficult, despite the fact that several other organisations, like the Centre for Welfare reform, have been able to produce just such a report.
So, if the Prime Minister is suddenly persuaded of the value of impact assessments, this could be good news. If future policies are properly examined for their impact on families, particularly those in poverty, that would be excellent news. There is, however, one big stumbling block.
The impact of many policy decisions that have already been taken is yet to be felt. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has pointed out, for the poorest families, the worst is yet to come. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has forecastt that from 2013/14 we will see an increase in the number of households, both in work and out of work, experiencing poverty.
Despite Mr. Cameron’s new appreciation of the value of impact assessments, this means that many more families will be falling into debt. And as the Children’s Society has said, ‘Our work with families across the country tells us that significant debt can damage children’s health and happiness and do long-term harm to their lives. Children see, hear and feel what is going on around them. They feel debt’s sharp effects and are often left sad, confused and scared.’
For these families and these children, any future impact assessments will be too late.
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