Austerity in the UK: a hit at the vulnerable and those who are trying their best to support them

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There has been a huge focus on the extent that several disability cuts have had on the people of the UK, but many fail to realise that it is not just the disabled people that are feeling the harsh sting of austerity, but also those trying their best to support them.

George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is in charge of the UK’s budget. It is tradition that every year the chancellor arrives at Downing Street with a red briefcase, more commonly known as the budget box, to announce their budgetary plans. In 2016, this event occurred on 16th March. It is arguably one of the biggest political events of the year and is followed by many, including Debbie Smith, who lives on disability grants.

“I have managed to avoid depression and anxiety tablets for a long time but in the week of the budget, I rang my doctor and almost begged him to give me some medication as I wasn’t sleeping, eating and became more ill with flu and one of my regular serious chest infections.”

As a claimant of benefits, Debbie Smith’s panic, was justifiable. The Chancellor’s aim to take £13billion off the cost of welfare resulted in changes to pensions, unemployment benefits and disability welfare.

“When I first became aware that ESA was going to be cut by £30 per week, it terrified me. £30 a week is how much I spend on my weekly food shop. If I didn’t get Disability Living Allowance, I would not be able to pay off all my bills. Even Disability Living Allowance might be reduced when it changes to PIP”,  continued Smith from South Shields.

“Most of my bills are debts that built when I have been too ill to sort out my finances.  I’m sure many others are in the same position, a never-ending circle of debt from which we can’t escape.  I have to spend a lot on taxis, as when I am ill I can catch more when out and about near other people who may be ill due to my immune deficiency.”

Smith is one an estimated 640,000, disabled or severely ill people experiencing what many regard as the UK’s slow shift of identity from a welfare state to a more individualistic state. These figures do not include those affected by other changes to welfare, millions of stories untold.


There are two types of benefits that disabled people in the UK receive. The first is Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which is paid out based on the severity of a claimant’s disability. It works on point system based on how their disability affects their life. The more points a person has, the higher the payment from the government.

The second is Employment Support Allowance (ESA). This is a benefit for people who are unable to work due to illness or disability.  In April 2017, the government are intending to reduce the amount that new claimants can claim in a bid to get them back to work.

The government planned to half the points a person would get for having specially adapted aids and appliances, such as adapted cutlery and mobility scooters, which would reduce payment for certain people. The government predicted that they would save 4.4 billion pounds by 2020 using this system. Further studies by The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted that this would have seen 370,000 disabled people lose an average of £3,500 a year.

On 18th March, Ian Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions secretary, resigned from his post claiming an opposition to the cuts, taking to a political show on BBC to say that the conservative government were ‘balancing the books on the back of the disabled.’

His replacement Stephen Crabbe has announced that cuts to PIP will no longer take place. Yet reforms already made to the benefits are already having a detrimental affect to the lives of many disabled people across Britain. In 2015, statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) showed that from December 2011 to February 2014, 2,380 people died after their claim for ESA ended because a new work capability assessment found them fit for work. 

Sanial McCormick is a fundraiser from Bristol who created an official parliamentary online petition called Reverse the ESA Disability Benefit Cuts that received over 100,000 signatures in a week:

“I went to look for a petition because I lived on ESA and the proposed cuts were inexplicable you can’t do that to people. There wasn’t a petition so i made it. When I was on ESA if they had turned around to me and said we’re cutting £30 of your money, then I would have had to go to food banks every single week, which you’re not allowed to do, you can only do it once a month. They’ll only give you enough for a week I would have had absolutely nothing really.”

The Government responded to the petition, by email, to everyone that signed it saying,

‘The changes to ESA were proposed in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which has been debated in both Houses of Parliament. In particular, on 2nd March MPs debated and voted on House of Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. This included an amendment on Employment Support Allowance, which was rejected. On 7th March the bill cleared its final parliamentary stage and it is now waiting to be signed into law.’

Despite the fact that no further parliamentary action will take place with regard to McCormick’s petition, it is clear that it has struck a chord with those already affected,

“People now message me all the time with their issues, so it’s not about me anymore. Protesting and petitions don’t help, they just fall on blind eyes, they’re psychopaths, not just politicians, they just don’t care. We need to find a way to disrupt the government in a peaceful way, mass protests always have a risk of violence, we need a way to disrupt the entire government from wherever people are without a risk, but what can we do?” said McCormick.

The changes to disability benefits are a tangible example of how the UK is relying more on individualist mechanisms than ever before.  Cuts are affecting the vulnerable, and those who earn very little.  There needs to be more balance needs but is seemingly impossible.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), have campaigned ruthlessly for ‘justice and human rights for all people’ since 2010.  One founding member of the organization initiated a UN investigation into the UK government cuts. Such campaigns have seem them rise in notoriety, becoming a key voice since the announcement of the 2016 budget.

“The cuts to disability benefits are ideologically driven to save money and I honestly believe it has been meticulously planned as they realised that for many disabled people they wouldn’t be able to mobilise a fightback.It was easy pickings, but they genuinely believe they are balancing the books like any parent manages the finances,if you spent too much on shopping then you have to cut back elsewhere.” said Gail Ward, admin for DPAC, and contact for its North East & Cumbria regional group. Ward adds, “Without financial support from their social security benefits have lost independence to be able manage things such as care arrangements,meet their daily living expenses which has left them destitute and reliant on friends or family as they go through processes of challenging the reports which in many cases have been found lacking in factual information about the claimant”.

The UK is the most unequal country in the EU, measured by the Gini coefficient. The Gini coefficient provides an index to measure inequality, the scale is measured between 0, where everybody is equal, and 1, where all the country’s income is earned by a single person. In May 2015 a report by The Dublin Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions found that the UK has the worst Gini coefficient of any EU state, with a percentage of 0.404.

Over the last years, the use of food banks has dramatically increased. The Trussel Trust, a leading Food Bank charity in the UK found that 1.1 million people in the UK used food banks, from 2015-16. The statistics also showed that hunger was also most common in areas with high-disability and long term illness.

Another corresponding report by the All Party Parliamentary Group suggests that that more than half of the emergency food aid in the UK was supplied by independent organizations that were not included in these figures.

The consequence of these cuts put added pressure on the care system, as more and more people rely on foodbanks to survive, the other means of support become increasingly strained, as demand for care increases. Social workers are concerned about austerity measures, as it leaves some of the most vulnerable people in the UK exposed. Beyond that cuts in their own sector result in a more testing time for the professionals.

The struggles of those looking after the most vulnerable again shows the knock-on effect that austerity has. Cuts not are not only putting more stress on social workers, but it is also harming the relationships between social workers and social service users.

A report from the service user network Shaping Our Lives, a network for Service and Disabled People, has found that consequently it undermines the service they receive. The report went on to say that these tenuous relationships can lead to social workers making mistakes in recording and can even lead to perceived breaches of confidentiality.

Research by the Guardian alongside Affinity Workforce showed that an 92% percent of 1,420 social services staff that took part spoke about the effects of austerity with another 88% expressing concerns that social work is not as high on the political agenda as other public services. Facing huge pressure every day, 80% of respondents worked over time and 86% were not paid for doing so.

Out of all the countries in the UK. Welsh Social Workers were found to be the happiest. In early 2016, in response to The Guardian’s research, bosses of the Welsh Social Services expressed a need to prematurely warn their employees of the effects that the budget in March was going to have on their jobs,

“The cuts to funding has seen organizations work more efficiently as there’s a constant analysis on work models. I remember a manager saying to me a few years ago they were expected to deliver more with less money and presently, they’re expected to deliver even more with even less money. Overall the negatives of cuts definitely outweigh the positives. Putting more stress on social workers”, said Gavin Moorghen, Professional Officer for the British Association for Social Workers (BASW), the largest professional association for social work in the UK.

“On some level the cuts must have had an impact on BASW membership. A majority of people are joining almost to reclaim the profession, that social workers know the best way to deal with situations and just wanted to be taken seriously.”

“The fact of the matter is, the government need to look at austerity especially in wake of the Panama Papers, with off shore taxes that are legal. However it looks like a small rich, section of society are benefiting at the expense of the vulnerable. And puts an unfair strain on services and the people that run them.”

Cuts to funding to the disabled, unwell and those that help them have seen them all struggle in different ways. The shift to an individualist state seems to have concluded in the deaths of thousands. The uproar in retaliation to the 2016 budget has seen the government u-turn on some aspects, but not enough to proclaim themselves a caring society. It is left to the imaginations with how these people are going to cope.