At the beginning of 2017 it is clear that one issue will define the next 12 months of politics and probably a long time after that. Brexit: possibly the biggest and most complex undertaking in the history of this country. Certainly it is biggest task of government since the founding of the welfare state. It is important that we properly scrutinise the negotiations so that the government does not remove all protections for environmental and workers’ rights in their dash to take us out of the EU.
However, there are many other important issues that we must not lose sight of. While we are having a national conversation about Brexit, we have forgotten the rising level of poverty in Britain. Poverty has increased since the Tories came to power in 2010 and we cannot allow this new Tory government to wash its hands of its responsibility to the least fortunate in society. The left needs to fight to get tackling poverty higher up the agenda.
Most startling is the increase in child poverty. In the last year child poverty has risen by 200,000 children according to the latest official statistics. Frances Ryan wrote in the Guardian that: “this is the first increase in child poverty (when housing costs are included) since 2011-12." Rising child poverty is a damaging, and largely overlooked, indictment of our society.
Benefit cuts and low wage growth are behind the 3.9 million children now living in poverty. Two thirds of these children have family members in work, who are struggling to provide for their dependents because of low wages and the systematic cuts to the benefits that are a lifeline to those underemployed or in low paying jobs. The bedroom tax and other welfare reforms have hit the poorest the hardest. Cuts to housing benefit and working tax credit do not incentivise work as they are mainly claimed by those in work. They simply punish the poor for being poor. This was a political decision made by the previous Tory government. The welfare cuts of Iain Duncan Smith are directly to blame for rising child poverty. The government can do something about child poverty but it is choosing not to.
Homelessness has risen since David Cameron became Prime Minister. In 2015 in England 3,569 people slept rough on any one night according to official figures. 8,096 people slept rough in London during the 2015/16 financial year, a 6% rise on the previous year, and more than double the figure in 2009/10.
Homelessness is not just people sleeping on the streets. It is many people without a home living on friends or relatives’ sofas; it is many people with homes that are not fit for human habitation; it is many people in precarious housing situations. In the 2015/16 financial year in England, 114,790 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance - an 11 per cent increase on 2010/11. 57,750 households were accepted as homeless, a six per cent rise on 2014/15. All of these increases have occurred since the Tories came to power and since they started their program of welfare cuts. Research has shown that benefit cuts have led to an increase in homelessness.
Cameron's austerity program - enthusiastically supported by Theresa May - has taken a huge toll on the poorest members of society. We must not forget this. We must also not forget that the government has the power to do something about this tragedy and that it can help not hurt the least fortunate, it only lacks of the will to do so.
Just because Chancellor Philip Hammond has relaxed the deficit reduction goals does not mean he is spending more on welfare or being more generous to the poor. Hammond’s only consideration is making more money available to subsidised companies that threaten to leave the UK over Brexit. Hammond is most likely planning further cuts to public spending. Welfare, social care and other services the poorest rely on will be at the top of his list.
Remember that all this is a political choice. Leaving the single marketing to reduce immigration and thus encouraging business to leave the UK is a political choice. Bowing to pressure from large companies eager for subsidies and willing to strong-arm the government is also a political choice. So is cutting welfare or other services that the poorest members of society rely on. None of this is necessary.
Under the new government homelessness, child poverty and many other aspects of poverty will get worse. We cannot allow the Tories to get away with this. They have made child poverty and homelessness worse and they have the power to do something about it. They cannot claim to be decent, compassionate people whilst facilitating the impoverishment of huge numbers of their fellow human beings.
Another recession is still likely. The world economy has barely recovered from the last financial crisis and some areas of Britain have seen no improvement since 2008. Now we see the beginning of a fresh banking crisis brewing and Brexit makes a recession in Britain more likely. Child poverty and homelessness will get worse in a recession. Welfare and programs for the poor will be more important if the economy shrinks and they need to be expanded not cut. Under this new Tory government we are heading for harsher cuts and a worse economic climate, which will be directly the Tories’ and their Brexit policies’ fault. We cannot ignore this. We cannot allow them to get away with this.
Not only are we ignoring poverty and inequality because of Brexit, the government are likely to actively make these things worse because of Brexit. We must keep the government under pressure so that they do not throw our futures, environmental protection and workers’ rights under the bus to placate the howls of rage about immigration. We must also keep fighting for better welfare and more relief from poverty. The government created these problems and the government can solve them. We need to make it impossible to ignore these facts.