By Edward Ferrin – Business & Economics Editor
People will remember times in the past when we have paid higher taxes but have received lower salaries, cuts to public services, and less in our pockets at the end of the week. Winter brings with it the realities of having to pay higher energy bills, higher food costs, and of course, the annual spend for the festive season at Christmas. After their election in 2010, and the 2008 Economic Crash, the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in London imposed measures to help ease the financial pressures across the United Kingdom. Their policy of austerity was criticised by many left-leaning opinions because of the “freezing” of public sector job salaries and the “cuts” to public services where those jobs were employed in the health service, schools, and the Civil Service.
Lately, Boris Johnson has fallen under the pressures of social care services in England and has taken the bold step to increase National Insurance contributions to help fund improvements to care home services for elderly patients. This has been a highly unpopular move with those who have felt the butt of austerity measures throughout the last decade. Here in Northern Ireland, the leaders of most of the major parties have hit out at the recent measures introduced by the Tories in Westminster. They are united in their opposition to the cut being made to the £20 “top-up” on Universal Credit payments. Opponents accuse the government of putting more claimants back into poverty rather than protecting working class families and children from poverty.
After the COVID-19 pandemic and record borrowing by the Exchequer, the Conservatives are now planning out how they can reduce the budget deficit built up over the past few months. Some commentators are now in agreement that one of the options being explored may well be a return to Austerity. Can the UK afford another stint of Austerity on the national economy? In the tenure of the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition, the government cancelled school building programs, reduced funding for local councils across England and Wales, as well as reducing financial support for devolved regions, and reduced spending on police, prisons, with increased VAT charges. In the aftermath of a global pandemic, we have recognised the high demand for these services, and will also find it much more difficult to scale back financial support to balance the budget at their expense. A recent study showed that for every £100 spent in 2010 on public services by the Brown Labour government, only £86 was being spent in 2020 under Boris and the Tories. In the aftermath of Brexit and the 2019 election, we were promised by the Conservatives that there would be no return to austerity. Having “u-turned” on his pledges on national insurance contributions and visas for those in the HGV business and care sector from the EU, we may expect Boris and his cabinet to begin changing their message on Austerity policies in the future.
Another huge problem facing the government is how they can avoid the widening of the gap between the richest and poorest in our society if inflation rockets throughout the winter season. As more workers are removed of the government furlough scheme and return to full-pay from their employers, there is a worry among the business sector that some may not survive this financial stress before Christmas. The government must mitigate these worries or risk registering more people on the dole queues in the lead up to the New Year. Currently in Northern Ireland, huge issues with inflation have already began to bite on the supermarket shelves and the high street stores. These issues have not least been put down to the problems arousing from the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed after the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. How can the Conservative government in London expect the most deprived regions of the UK make ends meet this Christmas? Students have felt the strain of the past few years increasingly as tuition fees have rocketed, accommodation has become more expensive. and the end of goal of obtaining a degree qualification comes with its bonus features of a debt of (at least) £15,000 in tuition fees, plus all the additional “extras” which must be paid from the three to four-year undergraduate course.
Young people today are less likely to achieve their dream of home ownership in their early adult life; instead many will have to settle for privately rented accommodation to live in their own home and achieve some form of social independence. Most of these issues have been the result of the tough austerity measures first introduced by David Cameron and George Osborne in 2010. Weighing up the Pros and Cons of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is most reckless of Boris Johnson to reimpose similar measures on the British people twice in 15 years. Those public services that have been cut due to austerity are at breaking point. The NHS is on its knees with COVID-19 ravaging the public, putting more people into hospital, and prolonging the wait times for patient access to critical treatment for Cancer and other serious illnesses.
School teachers have been on strike over pay alongside nurses and other healthcare staff before and during the pandemic, and no end of this tension with government seems in sight. The fact is that the Austerity measures introduced by the Tories in 2010 are still having a negative impact on public services. The fact remains that the NHS needs dramatic funding increases if it can combat the growing waiting lists, schools need more funding to provide students with the skills and qualifications we need for the future, and our emergency services must remain at the frontline of the Government’s policies to increase funding for more police officer recruitment and ambulance crews.
If Boris were to implement a return to Austerity, the little social progress the UK has made since it’s first arrival at Westminster might now be overshadowed by a second spate of Austerity under the Tories. For the young people who have to pay the bill for the aftermath of the pandemic, they must also now pay the bill for the running of overworked and underfunded public services. The prospect of owning your own home, own car, paying your bills, and raising a family now seen ever more distant with today’s younger generation than any time before!