British Prime Minister David Cameron’s liberal use of the budget-cutting scissors is just another step in Europe’s progressive dismantling of the welfare state. It is a process that has been speeding up in recent years, and the UK is by no means an exception.
After nearly two years of bitter controversy, David Cameron has once again brought out the scissors and, like a real-life Figaro, taken them to the British welfare state.
Cameron’s first package of reforms to the healthcare system, social security, legal aid and housing benefits for the most disadvantaged members of society, and his reduction of the 50% tax rate for top earners, are indicative of his conservative tendencies.
The tax break for the rich means that Britain’s wealthiest will gain at least the equivalent of an extra $150,000 per year.
Staying the course won’t be easy, however, especially if the Prime Minister intends to hold on to his job at Number 10 Downing Street following the 2015 elections, as support for the Conservative Party is dropping dramatically.
Added to this is the fact that more and more Brits are anxiously watching events as they unfold in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus, where demands for austerity from the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank have resulted in disastrous social consequences.
What is most curious about the whole thing is that this reduction in social spending, aimed at making economies more efficient and reducing swollen deficits, is only creating more unemployment and exacerbating the problem of deteriorating living conditions.
This vicious cycle seems to be approaching the UK, where the government is struggling to avoid a second consecutive quarter of zero growth, signalling the onset of a triple-dip recession.
If the country is indeed heading towards another recession, it would come despite the numerous cuts to education and social facilities already introduced during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s first two years in government.
Now, we have reached the most controversial stage in the coalition’s plan to introduce reforms that have already drawn criticism from the Labour opposition, at least four Anglican churches, non-governmental organisations, and the population in general, as expressed by the thousands who marched in the streets against the cuts.
Measures include the so-called bedroom tax, which will affect around 700,000 people in social housing, the majority of them disabled, and could ghettoise entire areas.
Social housing tenants with a spare room that the government considers superfluous to their family’s needs will be 14% worse off, while those with two empty rooms will be hit with a 24% cut in their housing benefits.
In many cases, disabled people use these “spare” rooms to accommodate the nurses or family members who must provide their constant care, meaning that the rooms are in fact occupied.
The recommendation from Minister for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith is that these people simply find a smaller home, an almost impossible feat given the state of the private housing market.
The Conservative-led government has also frozen the annual rise in benefits at just 1%, well below the current rate of inflation.
What is more, nearly one million people stand to lose their disability benefits as the State assesses whether or not they are fit for work.
As British newspaper The Guardian points out, there are three times as many overcrowded homes in the north of England as there are with a spare bedroom, while two thirds of those affected by the bedroom tax are disabled.
The paper goes on to explain how the new tax means low-paid workers will be made $800 a year worse off by their government, which is looking to make an annual saving of $500 million.
According to a study commissioned by the UN, in 2010 the UK ranked second, behind only Portugal, in a list of the widest wealth gaps in Europe, with the top 10% in Britain earning 273 times more than the bottom 10%.
Moreover, one in every five adults does not earn enough to cover their rent, food and heating bills, while 13 million live below the poverty line in a country with a population of just over 61 million.
According to housing and homelessness charity Shelter’s Campaign Director, Richard Orr, the majority of British families spend most of their salaries on rent payments.
In Liverpool alone, around 202,000 people will have to pay an extra £1,000 per year.
In one of the most controversial of the reforms to come into force on the 1st of April, cost-saving measures will even be applied to the health service, a move that has created divisions within Cameron’s own party.
In 240 constituencies, so-called medical councils made up of GPs, nurses and other members of practice staff will be expected to reconcile the National Health Service’s expenditure, despite little experience in such matters.
Decisions will be made in conjunction with other institutions, and councils will be able to solicit the services of both public and private bodies to handle patient care, a fact seen by many here as privatisation by the back door and an attack on universal healthcare, provided by the UK government since 1948.
Through these reforms, the government is hoping to reduce spending by £1.4 billion in 2014 and another £5 billion the following year.
All in it together
The semi-privatisation of a system in which most prescriptions in England and Wales, and all prescriptions in the devolved regions of Scotland and Northern Ireland, are free is radically changing its basic character.
The social safety net for Britain’s most deprived families has not escaped the Conservatives’ cuts either. Nearly six million families previously exempt from council tax will now be expected to contribute.
Responsibility for determining how council tax benefits are allocated has been shifted onto local authorities which have seen their budgets shrink by 10% in recent years, while a benefit cap of £26,000 is being imposed on needy families.
This measure aims to reduce government spending by a further £480 million.
The reforms do not bode well for the impartiality of the justice system either, with Cameron’s government reducing the number of households eligible for legal aid to those earning less than £32,000 per annum.
Legal aid has moreover been limited to divorce, child custody, immigration and employment cases. People on lower incomes will therefore now have to think twice before bringing their grievances before a court, with devastating consequences for equality before the law.
According to the Daily Telegraph, life is also being made harder for the unemployed, who will now only be allowed to claim their benefits in person.
Next September, a centre will be set up to analyse the justification for unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, there are at least one million unemployed young people.
All the while, the budget deficit is sitting at $1.8 billion for a second year running and the UK’s national debt could reach 87% of GDP by financial year 2016/2017.
(Translated by Fiona Marshall – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)