The policies pursued by the government over the last seven years are based on a threefold deception. First, that we are all somehow responsible for the global financial crisis. Second, that austerity is the only way to reduce the deficit. It is not: countries, like Iceland, that have maintained pre-crisis levels of public spending, have seen their economies recover far more quickly than those that imposed savage cuts.
Third, the trope that we are all in it together. In reality, austerity has disproportionately hit those who can least afford it, while the wealthiest have actually grown richer. Since 2008, real wages in the UK have fallen over 10%, while in Germany they have increased 14%. There are now five times as many families in Britain living in poverty as there were in the 1970s.
Women have experienced the largest drop in income since the crisis began, in terms of both earnings and cuts in social services, which disproportionately affect women, who are more likely to be carers.
Austerity’s violent impact can be measured in multiple ways. The downward trend in EU suicide rates went into reverse: one study found unemployment and financial strain were significant factors in rising suicide rates in the UK post-crash. There is similar evidence of austerity’s impact on mental and physical health.
Old people are dying sooner. Yet, as geographer Danny Dorling documents, when NHS England logged an unprecedented rise in mortality rates, it decided to stop circulating its reports.
People with disabilities have been shamelessly targeted. The Coalition imposed £21 bn cuts in working-age social security and the subsequent Tory government announced a further £12 bn reduction. The axing of the Disability Living Allowance meant that by 2016 up to 700 people a week were being forced to hand back their Motability scooters.
Meanwhile, the unfairness of the Work Capability Assessment, introduced by New Labour, was alarming: between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,650 claimants died soon after being found “fit for work”. Punitive sanctions, also initiated under New Labour, were routinely deployed, generating hardship and despair.
Workfare actually pre-dates New Labour, but is increasingly used as a condition for getting benefits. In a survey between 2011 and 2015, 18% of testimonies raised health and safety issues in workfare placements. One claimant reported being allowed only one ten-minute break in an eight hour shift. Physically demanding labour without appropriate equipment in bad outdoor conditions was routine.
The asylum system, which denies applicants the right to work while supplying the most meagre benefits, is glaringly inadequate. A Refugee Action survey found that half of asylum seekers surveyed could not buy enough food to feed their families. This deliberate pauperisation fuels social exclusion and creates a barrier to integration, making asylum seekers even more vulnerable.
A 2016 UN report found that children in poorer families were being disproportionately hit by government austerity. For the poorest 10% of families, food is now 20% less affordable than in 2003. The UK Faculty of Public Health says that increasing malnutrition and hunger now constitutes a “public health emergency”.
Austerity has dramatically increased fuel poverty, which now costs the NHS £3.6m a day - not to mention the impact on lost work and education. Cases have emerged where energy companies concealed from the authorities, when seeking a warrant to disconnect a power supply, the medical condition of their victims - in some cases leading to their death.
Meanwhile, rising debt hides the growing inequalities created by austerity. Payday lenders routinely empty the bank accounts of those who default on their loans, in one case driving an 18 year old to suicide. But the practice of such companies leaving people destitute was defended by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Government welfare reforms have seen social housing rent arrears double and evictions across the rented sector are up 50% over the last four years. In mass evictions, where property developers seek to socially cleanse an area, violence is routine. And once homeless, you are 13 times more likely to experience violence.
The drop in state regulation that has accompanied austerity underlines the fact that the policy is all about tilting things in favour of free market capitalism. The resources to carry out rigorous public health inspections and pursue prosecutions are disappearing. Health and safety and environmental regulations are under attack. Opposition to fracking, signalled to expand hugely in the Conservative Manifesto, has been met by systematic police violence.
The media loves a good crime story. This wide-ranging book demonstrates how, for many people, the unreported violence they endure is inflicted by government decisions that wreck everyday lives.