Issues that should be in Britain’s sights

With unprecedented government cuts, hard times lie ahead for millions affected by poverty, homelessness, disability, universal credit and the social care crisis

By Frances Ryan
16:37 January 3, 2018

As we go into 2018, Brexit is set to be the swamp-all news again for the next 12 months. But important as it is, at a time when unprecedented government cuts are taking hold we can’t take our eyes off what is happening elsewhere.

n Homelessness

There are few starker signs of a failing government than shop doorways lined with sleeping bags. As benefits are cut and rents soar, Britain has seen a staggering rise in homelessness: The number of rough sleepers in England alone has more than doubled since 2010. An estimated 128,000 children spent Christmas crammed in temporary accommodation — more than any time since the 2007-2008 financial crash — while 9,000 people are going through this week’s freezing temperatures sleeping in cars, trains, buses and tents .

Even having a job no longer guarantees you can keep a roof over your head, so the government must use 2018 to form a plan to build affordable homes and address benefit cuts. There is no time to waste: Every hour in England, five families become homeless .

n Social care

Almost 1.2 million older people in Britain, as well as another one million disabled people , are living without the social care they need for basics such as eating, dressing and washing. It’s horrific: Severely ill people forced to wait 14 hours to go to the toilet or wheelchair users who, with no assistant to help them cook, are now malnourished.

Next summer, the government is finally set to release a consultation green paper on how to tackle this mounting crisis. Instead of unfair sticking plasters like council tax increases, the government must be pressed on long-term funding: By the end of this financial year, £6 billion (Dh29.91 billion) will have been gutted from social care budgets since 2010.

n Universal credit

The rollout of universal credit (UC) has already created mass hardship, from increased food bank use to families being forced to “sell everything” to cope with the system’s delays. But 2018 will see a radical increase in areas transferring to UC — with millions of families eventually forced on to the chaotic system. The National Landlords Association has just warned this will see landlords increasingly refuse to rent homes to benefit claimants because of the way UC leads to rent arrears. And cash-strapped local councils are having to put aside emergency funds to help claimants.

To make matters worse, the government is considering introducing means testing for free school meals for families on universal credit — a move the Children’s Society warns could leave one million children hungry .

n Personal independence payments

The rollout of personal independence payments (PIPs) in recent years has been plagued by incorrectly removing disabled people’s benefits and even alleged dishonesty by assessors. For an insight into how inhumane this system is, last month, one local paper in Britain reported the case of an incontinent cancer survivor forced to “reuse baby nappies after being left penniless” after being turned down for PIP.

But as campaigners continue to press for reform, 2018 could be the year of change. Days before Christmas, the high court ruled the government’s refusal to provide higher disability benefits for 164,000 people with mental health problems to be “blatantly discriminatory”. Meanwhile, the current inquiry into the system has been “deluged” by responses from disabled people. To use the words of the inquiry’s chair, Frank Field, with enough pressure on the government, disability benefits will be “the next thing on the stocks for long-term reform”.

n Child poverty

In 2018, Britain will be on the cusp of a new era of child poverty. As universal credit, “two-child limit” tax credits and child benefit freezes set in, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts the next five years will see the number of children living in poverty soar to a staggering 5.2 million (or 37 per cent of all children). That’s the highest percentage since modern records began.

It’s grim enough that a wealthy 21st-century nation has children diagnosed with rickets because they haven’t got enough to eat. But unless something is done Britain will lose hard-fought for gains: The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that, as Conservative cuts set in, all the progress made over the past 20 years will be more than reversed. As Brexit distracts, this is no time to look away.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist.

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