In October 2010 David Cameron set out his vision for the future at the Conservative Party Conference, explaining how the Government was going to tackle the deficit caused by the banking crisis. His speech promised cuts, balanced by fairness. First it was claimed that the costs of Austerity would be borne most heavily by the richest, for "those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load". Second, the most disadvantaged would be protected from the worst impact of Austerity:
"Yes, fairness means giving money to help the poorest in society. People who are sick, who are vulnerable, the elderly - I want you to know we will always look after you. That's the sign of a civilised society and it's what I believe."
In reality the Government's Austerity policy was about as unfair as could possibly be imagined, precisely the opposite of Cameron's declared intentions. David Cameron is clearly either a liar or a fool who did not even understand the impact of his own policies.
It is the poorest who have borne the heaviest burden. When the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculated the overall impact of the Coalition's tax and benefit changes they found it was the poorest 10% of households (more than 6 million people) who had lost the biggest share of their income. The poorest 10% lost 9% of their income; more than twice the burden on the richest 10%.
In fact, the richest half of the population has not seen any significant reduction in their income from Austerity. Many of the richer half of the population even saw their incomes increase because of tax and benefit changes, particularly those near the middle of the income curve - the swing voters. What is more the IFS data doesn't include the enormous subsidy to the better off that is created by lowering interest rates. Interest rate policy creates an average subsidy of £4,000 per year to the richest 10%.
Even more extreme is the way in which so called 'welfare reforms' and cuts in local services have targeted disadvantaged groups. It is the groups that Cameron claimed he would protect that he targeted for cuts: disabled and older people. For example the Centre for Welfare Reform calculated that the cuts for people with the most significant disabilities were six times greater than cuts faced by an average person.
Part of the reason for the severity of this unfairness was that the biggest cuts were imposed on local government, which provides social care services for disabled and older people. By 2014 social care had been cut 29%, with half a million people fewer receiving social care than in 2009.
This is to only scratch the surface of the unfairness and enforced misery created by Austerity. Yet, while these policies are far more vicious than anything created by the much vilified Mrs Thatcher, Cameron has escaped any criticism or scrutiny by the media. In fact, during the Coalition period, the then leadership of the Labour Party seemed to believe that there would be no political advantage in criticising Austerity. Many Labour MPs did not even vote against damaging welfare policies.
Until recently criticism of government policy has largely been left to civil society and faith leaders. But now the most authoritative criticism of Austerity has been published by the United Nations. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights exists to review whether countries are respecting their obligations under the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Reviewing the UK the Committee states:
"The Committee is seriously concerned about the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups. The Committee is concerned that the State party has not undertaken a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of such measures on the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, in a way that is recognised by civil society and national independent monitoring mechanisms."
This is only one issue, and the UN Committee goes on to outline an array of severe failings by the UK Government. The UK Government has ignored our human rights, weakened our legal rights and targeted disadvantaged groups for cuts. The UN is also very concerned at the treatment of women, asylum seekers and people from minority ethnic communities.
The timing of this report could not have been worse. It is buried amidst the turmoil of Brexit, Cameron's resignation and Labour' civil war. But for those challenging Austerity the opportunity created by the UN's report must not be lost. We must use the next few weeks to call on our political leaders to:
- Validate the United Nation's criticism of the Government's human rights record
Today we have a new Prime Minister who has declared that she has a "a vision of a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us." If this is not to be another exercise in empty rhetoric then perhaps our new leader might be persuaded to protect, rather than undermine, the human rights of UK citizens.