‘We are all in this together’, said the chancellor George Osborne yesterday as he laid out his Autumn Statement plans to put Britain back into the black by cutting public spending as a percentage of GDP to the kind of low levels not seen since the 1930s.
According to the Treasury spending watchdog the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), the plans also presume that a further one million jobs in the public sector will be lost by 2020, a further squeeze on public sector pay and a further freeze on tax credits. The chief of the Institute of Fiscal Studies said that Britain faced five years of ‘gruesome’ spending cuts as the government attempts to balance the books, with some departments facing cuts of 50 per cent. Guardian commentator Aditya Chakrabortty said ‘the austerity plans look like they’ve dropped out of la-la land’. He says that by the end of the next parliament, according to the OBR, the British state will be smaller than it was before the introduction of the welfare state.
I headed to the food bank last night to meet some of those who are all in this together with the chancellor. I spoke to a young couple I recognised from more than a year ago, who came in with their two very young children. My previous interview with John and Marie (not their real names) is here. Back then, they told me that they were arguing with each other so much that their child – a little girl who was then 15 months old and small for her age – had come to the attention of local authority child protection staff. They were worried that she was becoming emotionally damaged by her parents’ angry exchanges.
Marie, 31, is from the Philippines and a year ago she had already incurred hundreds of pounds in fees in trying to become a UK citizen. She’s not allowed to work because of her immigration status. John was trying to pay the fees out of his employment and support allowance (ESA). By autumn 2013 he had started to receive ESA following a 16 month delay. He says he thinks the delay was due to ‘ a complete mix-up, lost documents and misinformation’. While his ESA was delayed he said he had received no benefits at all. Fast forward to last night, and their situation has not improved, to the extent that they are now once again having to get vouchers for this Trussell Trust food bank from their social worker. It was their second visit within a few weeks.
Their problems are compounding. They were pushing two prams – one of them broken – tonight, as Marie gave birth to a baby boy six months ago. Their daughter – still small for her age – is now two and a half. Last year they had to use the food bank on four occasions. John, 23, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in December 2013 and is now on income-related ESA of £144 a a fortnight. They said they had been receiving child benefit and child tax credits intermittently during the past year, and have just sent off a fresh claim for child benefit. They’ve also called Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) regarding the CTC. In the meantime, they’ve just received a letter from HMRC telling them they owe more than £1,000 in overpayments on CTC and child benefit. They’ve been told that the overpayments relate to two tax years. They have no idea how they would repay this money, if it is indeed owed. John says they are ‘blaming us for their mistakes’. The social worker, he says, is ‘telling us to sort it out’. More than six months ago he applied for Personal Independence Payment – a benefit which helps with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or disability – but like thousands of others he is still waiting for a work capability assessment and has heard nothing. ‘I’ve been told there is a backlog.’ Marie is still not a UK citizen.
The couple have been housed in Greenwich by Lambeth Council, and they seem to be falling between the cracks in services to vulnerable people who are being moved out of their ‘home’ boroughs to be re-housed. ‘The complicating thing is who do we speak to?’ says John. ‘Every time we ask Lambeth Council if they can re-house us permanently they say we’ll be lucky if we get permanent housing within seven years.’ Their priority payments from the little money they have coming in are heating, food and nappies and travelling to appointments. They cannot make ends meet, and they are additionally stressed and worried by the HMRC development.
I’m very concerned about the long-term situation for both the adults and children in this family. They are facing a perfect storm of issues, including Marie’s immigration status. The children could potentially gain a lot from some early support. But the Autumn Statement does not offer any prospect of a lifeline for this family. How can an imploding public sector, with its demoralised workforce, offer them hope or targeted help? Their financial outlook, particularly in the light of the HMRC demand, is dire. John’s ASD diagnosis adds to the difficulties this family face trying to unravel a complex web of problems. I ask them to ensure they talk to their social worker again for help with benefits and the HMRC issue, but I also provide them with details of Greenwich Council’s Welfare Rights Service, the local Citizens Advice helpline, and the National Autistic Society Helpline.