“Punitive, mean-spirited and often callous.” Those were the words used by Professor Philip Alston, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, to describe the government’s austerity polices.
Under austerity “great misery has been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalised, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping,” Professor Alston said.
It gets worse. Poverty in the UK is a political choice, he declared, and for every penny spent on “an unavoidable program of fiscal austerity needed to save the country from bankruptcy” millions more were needed to mitigate the harm caused by those policies.
He said: “The many billions advertised as having been extracted from the benefits system since 2010 have been offset by the additional resources required to fund emergency services by families and the community, by local government, by doctors and accident and emergency centres, and even by the ever-shrinking and under-funded police force.”
The government has, of course, “completely disagreed” with Alston’s analysis. Nonetheless, it is now seeking to undo some of the harm caused by its short-sighted policies. In October’s budget, it announced an extra £20.5 billion a year for the NHS for the next five years. Days later, it unveiled its new vision for the NHS, whereby the service shifts its focus from treating the acutely ill to keeping the nation healthy by providing everyone with the help, expertise and advice they need to stop them from falling ill in the first place.
But in order for this preventative strategy to work, it needs to be adequately resourced. The government will also need to return the £700 million it stripped from public health funding since 2014. This should be accompanied by a good supply of safe affordable housing, a welfare system that does not induce poor mental health in its claimants and jobs which pay a living way. Only then will this laudable strategy stand a chance of working.