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Austerity budgets tend to victimise the most vulnerable

[14/06/2011 9:30] Radical austerity measures have been introduced in several European countries. Although governments have stated they will try to minimise the negative social impacts, it is already clear that there have been - and will be further – serious consequences for the most vulnerable groups: the very poor, persons with disabilities, the elderly and others in need of constant care.

Another pattern is that preventive support to families with problems and young persons in trouble has been reduced. Such budget cuts risk creating new and deeper social problems – which might well be costly in the future.

Private care in crisis

Privatisation is not the solution. Reports in the United Kingdom show that a high number of privatised care homes are in crisis because of reduced state support and unwise, loan-based investments. A recent survey by Financial Times demonstrated that the quality of services in these institutions had deteriorated to a worrying degree. Companies running the care homes have reduced services in order to remain solvent. The vulnerable people they are responsible for are the victims.

Support for people with learning disabilities is one of the crisis areas. Commercial providers are now at risk of going bust with consequences for about 100 000 people, according to research undertaken partly for the UK Department of Health.

A charity working for the homeless, Crisis, is warning that the reduced support for social housing might force people with disabilities out of their accommodation. More than 11 000 young persons are at risk as a consequence of the planned housing benefit cuts, according to the organisation.

The UK is not alone and similar problems can now be seen in several countries. What is positive in the UK is that the issues are not swept under the carpet, but debated. One point which has been made in that discussion is the paramount importance of inspections, oversight and evaluation.

Ombudsmen and human rights bodies are crucial

When in Ireland recently I learned that budget cuts had also targeted the complaints bodies and other structures set up to monitor human rights. It had been argued that these bodies also had to tighten their belts when so many other institutions had to scale down.

However, these human rights bodies are particularly important in crisis periods. They assist authorities in assessing the consequences of proposed policies and budget decisions. There is a need for a counter weight to a purely economic analysis to ensure that the social aspects, and the human rights of vulnerable individuals, will not be ignored.

Limiting the capacity of ombudsmen, equality bodies and human rights commissions – as well as key civil society groups – when they are most needed should therefore be avoided.

Short-sighted economy

In a longer perspective there is no contradiction between measures to ensure economic growth and stability and to protect and care for the most vulnerable. Austerity measures which exacerbate inequalities will only postpone problems and in some fields make it even more costly to resolve them at a later stage.

At stake are essential values of basic justice and social cohesion. Those already disadvantaged have no belts to tighten and must not be asked to make sacrifices for a crisis which was not of their doing.

Thomas Hammarberg