Austerity Christmas: Why are the most vulnerable footing the bill for the country’s debts?

In addition to the revelry and merry making, Christmas is a time for reflecting on the past year. Director Alison Shaw looks back on the political play of 2014 and throws out some tough questions well worth ruminating on over the turkey and the cake this holiday season.

Policy Press - 018 resizeWhilst we publish work at Policy Press that challenges social problems, our team, like most of our readers and community, will be spending time this Christmas in comfort with families and friends (for which I am extremely grateful). I am conscious however that there are an enormous number of people who face a Christmas of poverty, distress and loneliness.

I can’t help but think, at this time of giving gifts and consuming an abundance of food, what about those people who cannot do this for their children and family, who are suffering from yet more cuts to their income and the services that support them? How do you actually live when your benefits have been sanctioned and you have no money for a month or three – nothing – zero. How about this for Christmas cheer:

“It’s Christmas Day. You don’t do any jobsearch, because it’s Christmas Day. So you get sanctioned. For not looking to see if anyone has advertised a new job on Christmas Day.” (Source: Poverty Alliance)

It is positively Dickensian. And not in the warm, comforting glow of A Christmas Carol.

The surprised look on the childrens faces when Father Christmas tells them he has fogotton the presents Credit: TheirHistory

1930s: The surprised look on the childrens’ faces when Father Christmas tells them he has forgotten the presents. Photo credit: TheirHistory

Reflecting on 2014, we have seen tough public spending cuts in the UK with promises of substantially more taking us back to 1930s level of public spending. What pains me is the severe hardship some of our most vulnerable citizens are in. There is constant talk from all the main parties of reducing the deficit, a seeming consensus, but what surprises me is the lack of animated public debate about this assumption. Surely the political decisions as to where the cuts happen, how much money needs to be saved and over what period needs questioning when the poor and vulnerable are seemingly bearing the biggest burden.

historic picture

I briefly looked at the historic picture to gain a longer view. According to the ONS September 2014 data General Government net borrowing (‘deficit’) was 5.9% of GDP in 2013/14 and gross debt was 87.8% of GDP. I think our debt has ranged from over 200% of GDP during World War II to as low as 25% in 1992, with the period from the 1920s to the mid 60s seeing debts of at least 100%, and often much higher, which seems to suggest we can live for long periods with a debt that is higher than the current one.

“..it makes me question whether the mantra that we have to cut the deficit is in fact a political position…”

I guess the key issue is the cost of servicing the debt, and again a longer view helps put the current situation in context: post World War II we paid about 4% of GDP in interest and by the 2000s it had dropped to 2%. The cost is now expected to be around 3%. So it makes me question whether the mantra that we have to cut the deficit is in fact a political position being taken around the size of government and public spending and not based on a necessity, as we are led to believe.

So, the point of all this is to really question why we are pulling back from helping those most in need? I admit to being incredulous that when we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world over 900,000 UK citizens had to be fed by The Trussel Trust food banks in 2013-14 because they could not eat without it. How did we get here?

I’m grateful that there is a growing body of accessible data on the subject of government spending and that we’ve been able to contribute to this over the past couple of months, enabling people to take a closer look at the numbers through publishing books such as Good times, bad times and Why we can’t afford the rich. Getting that kind of research out into the public domain is to my mind essential and it is only by increasing awareness of the cold hard facts, of encouraging people to interrogate the numbers with ever greater attention to detail, that we’re really going to be able to call our politicians to account. This of course is going to be something that will become ever more important as we run into the General Election in the UK next year.

Robin in the snow, Martin Mere. Photo credit: Gidzy

Robin in the snow, Martin Mere. Photo credit: Gidzy

Thanks to the tremendous support we’ve received this year from our authors and editors, customers and readers, retailers and suppliers. Policy Press has had a fabulous year publishing some really ground-breaking and influential work. As we all step back and take a few days’ break I hope that there will be time for reflection, as well as time to recharge batteries, ready to fling ourselves back into the fray in the New Year and keep on keeping on to get us to a better, fairer and more just society.

And now, stepping down from the soap box for 2014, I’d just like to wish you all a truly wonderful Christmas and New Year from everyone at Policy Press.

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