As the winter nights draw in, many people will be worrying about whether they can afford to pay their gas and electricity bills. By the end of this year, an estimated 5.7 million households will be living in fuel poverty – spending more than 10 percent of their income on energy. And a recent report in the Independent newspaper warned that Britain is returning to Victorian levels of poverty, with 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line. With the savage cuts to public services due after the next general election regardless of which party wins, we can expect that figure to jump even higher. Providing decent jobs, homes and healthcare are three basic ways to alleviate poverty – yet none of them appear to be a priority for politicians. Instead we are told that cuts are “necessary” to get us out of the recession. As the BBC puts it, “with a deficit edging towards £200 billion, does any party have any real choices?” The assumption is that “we’re all in it together”, so everyone should pay to bail out the economy, whatever it may cost. But this assumption is seriously flawed.
The economic crisis was not caused by public sector workers, migrants or “excesses” in public spending. Nor was it caused by private sector workers or lone parents claiming benefits. Yet they are all being told they should bear the brunt of the recession. Pay rises are to be capped at 1 percent in the public sector and a million jobs are expected to be lost there – while unemployment continues to rise. The planned cuts will affect the public services we all use every day, from bus routes to school class sizes and hospital waiting times. The benefits system is one of those areas of public spending considered “excessive” and so benefits are set to be slashed. Yet unemployed people only get £64.30 per week, and that’s if they are over 25 – the under 25s receive just £50.95. The government also plans a fraud “crackdown”, saying that £900 million has been lost this year. Yet this number pales in comparison to the £10.5 billion of benefits that people are entitled to but don’t claim.
Migrants are another popular scapegoat for the right wing media. But it is a complete lie to say that they “come over here” to “sponge” our benefits system. Asylum seekers are segregated from others claiming benefits and dealt with by the UK Border Agency, not social services. They receive much less in benefits than other people. A single person aged 18 or over, excluding lone parents, gets just £35.13 a week. Many Eastern European migrants are also deliberately denied access to the benefits system here. Yet 1.5 million British people work in other European Union countries, where they do not face the harsh regulatory system that eastern European migrants do in Britain. And while councils close down nurseries, the government’s “back to work” approach to benefits is placing a double burden on women, who continue to be the primary carers for children. The part-time workforce, where job security and working conditions are worse, is mostly made up of women. Many of us don’t have the “option” of full-time work, but are not recognised as workers if we stay at home. Meanwhile, at the Royal Bank of Scotland – a bank owned by us – top bosses kicked up a fuss and threatened to leave if they were denied their bonuses. And so did many MPs when they were asked to pay back all the dirty cash they pocketed from their expenses. The poor may have debts – but they are symptoms, not the causes, of the crisis.