In 2010, the Big Society initiative was initiated to devolve authority to the lowest level and foster group participation and social regeneration. The programme was based on the principles of devolution of power, justice for all, community engagement and social renewal. What followed the Big Society was a devastating spending cut which seemingly went against the principles of the Big Society. The Coalition government attempted to cut its spending in order to reduce its budget deficit. Chancellor George Osborne came up with various austerity measures to cut on government spending including cuts on benefits. Most welfare benefits were restricted to an increase of one percent annually.
The benefit cuts and austerity measures led to various problems to the poor members of the society. More and more societies are now turning to food aid to meet their food needs. The cost of food and fuel are now rising as the poor are unable to meet their heating and food requirements. Children are becoming hungrier, living in poorer conditions, and lacking their basic needs as parents cut on various commodities to afford food and fuel. Poor people are also living in cold rooms because they are unable to pay for their heating bills. They are paying more rent while others are forced to remain homeless because their house allowances have been cut. The gap between the rich and the poor is also widening as the tax of the rich is reduced while at the same time the benefits of the poor are cut. These measures are against the purpose of the Big Society because the concerns and freedom of the big society are suppressed rather than empowering them.
The Big Society idea was developed in 2010 through the Conservative manifesto in order to devolve power to the lowest level and encourage community engagement and social renewal (Coote, 2010). This programme was intended to reframe the role of the society and arouse a new entrepreneurial spirit. It included plans to establish a Big Society Bank and a national citizen service. One of the priorities of this programme was to give communities more power through devolution and encourage people to play active role in their communities through volunteerism. Through the programme, power was transferred from the central to local government. The programme also supported cooperatives, mutuals, social enterprises and charities. Functions that used to be undertaken by the government using taxes have been transferred to the civil society and exercised through self-help, charity, mutual aid, local enterprise, philanthropy and big business.
Some commentators and local citizens have welcomed the programme warmly, accepting the vision of local control and action and more participation by the public and community-based organisations. However, some people find the programme burdensome. Coone (2010) suggests that the programme may not benefit the poorest and most marginalised citizens.
Since the start of the Big Society programme, certain policies have also been initiated. One of them is the Benefit Cuts and austerity. Along with the Big Society came big cuts in government spending. Coone (2010) argues that the government spending cuts prevent the ideals of the Big Society being realised plausibly. Holt (2013) also claims that spending cuts have caused devastating effects on the Big Society and left voluntary sector and local communities in great turmoil.
Benefit Cuts and The Big Society
Nearly four years after the Big Society and austerity policies were implemented; UK’s coalition government is pursuing benefit cuts. In January, George Osborne provided austerity strategy of cutting welfare benefits by $19 billion (O’Toole, 2014). Critics say that this move is a attempt to set the tone for the 2015 elections. The programme has sparked a great debate between the Conservative party whose members support the benefits cut and opponents who consider welfare benefits as crucial to the low wage economy.
In 2010 when the Big Society programme started, spending cuts and austerity measures were also initiated. The spending review introduced total cuts of £80 billion. Of this, £18 billion was slashed from welfare benefits. 27% of the cuts would also come from the council budgets. Only £470 million over four years were set aside to benefit the Big Society. This was to be followed by new year-to-year benefit cuts and austerity measures with new targets and propositions by the coalition government.
Beginning April 1 2013, austerity measures took a more a painful twist for social benefit beneficiaries as the spending cuts by Chancellor George Osborne introduced benefit cuts. UK’s coalition government started to implement the austerity measures following the Big Society programme. With the cuts, the local authorities would be responsible for their own system. One of the policies implemented through the benefit cuts is the Bedroom tax which involves housing benefit cuts. This leaves 660,000 house residents on the working age council to lose an average of £ 14 a week or be compelled to move out (Moss and Glaze, 2013). Benefit increases were also limited to one percent despite the inflation rate of 2.8%. This affected such benefits as: sick pay, maternity pay, maternity allowance, jobseeker’s allowance and income support.
The benefit-cut policy of Osborne is a debt strategy that seeks to balance the accounts of the government by eliminating the UK deficit by 2018. Following the austerity measures that come along with the Major Society, the primary priority is to cut government expenditure. Chancellor George Osborne argues that the country is still borrowing too much despite the fact that the country’s deficit has declined by a third since 2010. He indicates that in the first two years of the new administration, another $41.21 billion in savings are expected as a result (Monaghan, 2014). From this amount, Osborne suggests that $19.78 should come from the social security code (benefits). Industry players seem to support the strategy, suggesting that it is a good strategy for economic recovery. However, commentators oppose it by arguing that vulnerable groups are highly likely to suffer disproportionately.
Effects of the Benefit Cuts
While the Big Society programme was intended to empower the society, the benefit cuts and austerity measures that came along with it are causing devastating effects on the local citizens who previously enjoyed the benefits (Monaghan, 2014). Commentators, civil societies and local communities are opposing the benefit cuts sharply. They argue on the basis of a wide range of problems that would impact on the Big Society as a result of such austerity measures. Commentators have also criticised the austerity measures sharply. Anti-poverty campaigners and opposing sides of the ruling government have also expressed their anger on the propositions of benefit cuts from Chancellor George Osborne.
The escalation in welfare and the cost-of-living problem is one of the main negative consequences of benefit cuts. Chris Mould, president of the Trussell Trust, claims that one out of five persons actually employed in England may not have enough to meet on a daily basis (O’Toole, 2014). Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, claims that cutting subsidies is tantamount to bullying the working poor who depend strongly on welfare. He characterised the move as impractical, premature and unreasonable. Shadow opposition Labor Party chancellor Ed Balls backed trade unions who complain that Britain’s gain from layoffs and austerities has forced the country’s economic growth to stall. In budget expense decreases, the cost of living problem is inevitable; and much greater as it is implemented on social programmes. As inflation eats on the value of money, and fuel and food prices soar unprecedentedly, wages for working people has stagnated due to benefit cuts.
The high cost of life is expected to contribute to households being unable to buy food. Trussel Trust, an organisation that manages the largest food bank network in the UK, estimates that the nation will face greater dependency on food handouts. The chairman of the trust, Chris Mould, predicts that the amount of citizens suffering food insecurity in 2014 would be one million. In 2013, the food bank network of the Trussel Trust assisted 561,000 persons by supplying them with food assistance (O’Toole, 2014). Austerity policies have contributed to increasing food insecurity, and the Trussel Trust estimates that the amount of disposable income spending on food would increase to 25% by 2017. Health professionals wrote to the British Medical Journal arguing why food insecurity should be viewed in the UK as an epidemic for public health (Stenger, 2012).
Profit cuts raise the degree of suffering and adversely impact youth. Further decreases in social programmes are forcing 13 million people live below the poverty line to face further difficulties. Children are the ones most affected among the sick. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) aims to raise the amount of children residing in poverty from the existing 2.3 million to 3.4 million by 2020 (O’Toole, 2014). Profit reduction and restructuring policies are also triggering an increase in poverty levels and food scarcity.
Limiting social benefits to one percent and freezing of children benefits have sunk 200,000 children into poverty, and 600,000 more children will fall into the poverty trap by 2015 due to the coalition’s benefit cuts (Moss and Glaze, 2013). Due to the benefit cuts, people cut back on essentials of food and fuel. This causes great miseries such as long queues at food banks, cold rooms, homelessness, inability to pay rent, hunger among children, and broken families. Increased poverty and hunger among British children will in turn expose children into risks such as poor performance at school, unemployment in future, and chronic childhood diseases (Clemence, 2011). Children go without food and live in cold homes because their parents cannot afford to pay for food and heating bills.
The benefit cuts also cause income inequality and unfair distribution of wealth to the public. Poor families are likely to be left behind through the benefit cuts. Their living standards will also be reversed as they attempt to adapt to the impact of changing policy decisions on welfare benefits. Figures of the Labour Party indicate that average families will be £891 worse off as a result of the benefit cuts. While poor people suffer from the impacts of the welfare benefits cut, the rich will be £100,000 better off because top tax rate has been cut from 50p to 45p (Moss and Glaze, 2013). This is accompanied with rise in prices of commodities and unemployment among the poor.
There are also positive effects of benefit cuts and austerity measures. Industry groups support the benefits cuts, arguing that the programme will lead to economic recovery (O’Toole, 2014). However, given the unjust and unfair effects, benefit cuts is indeed against the principle of Big Society. The programme was intended to provide social justice, enough capacity for all, co-production, accountability, and sustainable environment. Benefit cuts go against these principles and cause more poverty among the poor, unequal employment opportunities, hunger among the poor, poor living standards among the poor, rising costs of food and fuel in the Big Society, and increasing poverty among children. Such miseries are against the intentions of the Big Society which was supposed to provide power to the society, rather than causing miseries to them. Therefore, benefit cuts and austerity measures are not needed in the Big Society.
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