End Austerity Now - why I won't stop whinging about cuts

By Virginia Moffatt
June 20, 2015

Today (20th June 2015) will see the first national anti-austerity demonstration since David Cameron was re-elected. Judging by the response of some commentators to protests the day after the election, I expect there’ll be some who’ll again suggest demonstrators are ‘whinging’ because their ‘side’ lost.

Such commentary is not just anti-democratic, it shows a profound lack of understanding for why so many of us are angry. I can’t be marching today but I know those who are will be there because they are concerned at the impact austerity is having on their communities – the lost libraries, the attacks on further education, the demonisation of people on benefits.

It’s nearly a year since I left Oxfordshire Social and Community Services because after four years of austerity, I couldn’t bear to be part of the system any more. When I first arrived in Oxfordshire in 2006, I was struck by the thoughtfulness and openness of my managers. Even in those days we had to be careful with budgets, and the vast majority of discussions were focused on how best to make the money stretch as far as possible to support people’s needs. It was a good culture to work in, I felt valued, my opinions and experience (and that of my wonderful colleagues) was recognised and listened to. I felt supported and enabled to do my job.

Austerity killed that. Over the last four years of my time in Oxfordshire, I watched the easy-going friendly culture of my department become distorted by budget pressures. The team I belonged to, which had built up years of knowledge about how to remain person-centred in a world of dwindling finances, was split up, reducing our ability to do our jobs. Managers I admired left, unable to work in a poisonous atmosphere where their voices were drowned out. My days became filled with encounters with people who knew nothing about my area of expertise (services for people with learning disabilities) and weren’t willing to listen to what I had to say. It was put up or shut up, and I wasn’t prepared to live with it anymore.

Since I’ve gone, I’ve watched things get worse in Oxfordshire. Learning disability services are grappling with 10 per cent cuts, just at the time when the Independent Living Fund (ILF) is closing. While the Department of Work and Pensions has said time and time again, that this won’t matter because the money will be transferred to Local Authorities, experience tells me otherwise. When health money once invested in learning disability hospitals was transferred to local authorities, the ring-fence lasted a few years and then was abolished. Housing money (once known as the Supporting People programme) followed the same pattern. As did the crisis loans funding transferred from the DWP to local authorities, which Oxfordshire (in one of many actions I opposed) abandoned last year. So forgive me, if I don’t quite believe that ILF money has any chance of being protected in current circumstances.

In addition, ILF has enabled many disabled people to live independently without recourse to social care services (and in Oxfordshire it supplemented packages). The idea that it can be transferred into budget cutting authorities without people suffering a severe deterioration in their support would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.

And things are about to get a whole lot worse. The forthcoming emergency budget is allegedly planning a further £12 billion welfare cuts, and further cuts to local authorities already struggling to meet social care needs. People are already not receiving enough support – if further cuts happen, life is going to become even bleaker.

Two days ago, my friend and former boss, Steven Rose, was awarded the 2015 Platinum Medal of the European Society for Person Centered Healthcare (ESPCH) for developing personalised services for people with learning disabilities in Southwark. It was a radical important piece of work that ensured the people supported by Choice Support had a say in designing services that met their needs better, and were more efficient. The programme cut costs by 30 per cent, because it developed the use of assistive technologies, better use of housing, informal supports and more targeted support hours.

I’m delighted Steven and Choice Support won this prize, which is a well deserved recognition of his dedication and commitment to people with learning disabilities for forty years (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21810). But I also know that, having had a similar approach in Oxfordshire, once these avenues have been exhausted, further cuts can only come at the expense of good quality services. And that in other parts of the country where cuts have been even more brutal, people with learning disabilities are already suffering.

No wonder Brian Rix, former Chair of Mencap and many others wrote this week of their fears of the erosion of rights for people with learning disabilities.

Of course, people with learning disabilities are just one group who have been affected badly by austerity. The list includes people who are sick and disabled have mental health issues, are homeless, those with addictions, children, students, those in work poverty and many more. Which is why I'm pleased so many 'sore losers' are in London today. And why I am proud to consider myself one of them. Together we will keep on whinging as loudly as possible until the principle of austerity is eliminated from our society permanently.

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© Virginia Moffatt

Virginia Moffatt is the Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

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