The effects of austerity are not evenly spread, as people living in poverty are hit the hardest. Social workers are acutely aware of these effects, given the part poverty plays in the lives of so many of the people we see across children’s and adults’ services.
Being disabled in Britain in 2017 increases your chances of living in poverty and the UK’s treatment of disabled people has been criticised by the United Nations on human rights grounds. In recent evidence to the works and pensions committee, one experienced social worker shared many cases showing how extremely sick and vulnerable people are routinely denied access to employment and support allowance and personal independence payments (Pips).
We heard a similar account from the manager of a mental health day centre we visited during our walk, who had never before witnessed such need. Seeing people being taken off Pip and other benefits meant the centre was ringing up the Department for Work and Pensions every day as, the manager said, “you can’t start improving people’s mental health if they’ve got real poverty in their lives”.
Cuts in local authority services mean social workers are not able to access services they know the people they are working with need. A worker in a learning disabilities team described being caught between individuals asking for more support – “and, indeed, they need it” – and his council’s local panel asking him to explore how funding can be reduced.
Similarly, the loss of children’s centres and other family support services has meant social workers often have nowhere to turn to in their efforts to mitigate the effects of increasing child poverty. This in turn reinforces an individualised approach to child protection, focusing on the actions of parents and neglecting the social factors involved.
One result of this, we heard from a children’s team manager, is that “staff are in tears every day trying to deal on the one hand with structural issues of poverty and on the other hand being audited and performance managed to death”.
There was therefore an urgent need, and a real opportunity, to tackle these issues that are blighting the lives of so many in the autumn budget. It was an opportunity missed.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies was clear in its response that the age of austerity was anything but over following the budget. Spending on public services, other than health, is set to fall by 7% over the next five years, while the £300m allocated for universal credit must be set next to the £12bn to be cut from working age benefits.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, did not even mention social care and its funding crisis has been simply allowed to continue. Food bank use will keep on rising, as will the numbers sleeping rough in our major cities and the number of children living in temporary accommodation.
Not only is the government failing to make changes that will reverse austerity and its effects, it is making new plans that will reduce services even further. Shortly before the budget, it proposed to remove women’s refuges from the welfare system, putting the lives of vulnerable women and children at risk.
It is clear that austerity is continuing as before, with a future that looks dire for so many of our citizens, and truly desperate for some. We therefore need to both continue and expand our campaigning efforts.
The British Association of Social Workers published its Manifesto for Social Workduring the general election campaign, its number one priority being to call for an end to austerity. Our campaigning on this will not cease until we see the investment in public services that is so desperately needed.
Our next step builds on the Boot Out Austerity walk, by encouraging and facilitating the spread of campaigning by social workers – side by side with service users and carers – right across the UK. We have created a campaign action pack, which can help social workers around the country take local actions.
We’re launching the pack on Thursday 30 November at an event at the University of Salford, in the area where Walter Greenwood set Love on the Dole. It’s terrible to think that the social problems depicted in this 1933 novel have returned. We have a duty to act now and demand the socially just society we should have in the UK in the 21st century.