Day 11 of the TUC’s Austerity Uncovered bus tour in Reading, Berkshire, when the sun shone brightly on the TUC.
Reading is Berkshire’s top shopping location and with the TUC’s campaign bus parked up on Broad Street West bright and early, we were expecting to get a sense from shoppers as to whether the economy is really on the up, or whether the impact of recession and austerity is all pervasive and enduring. So, surrounded by ‘A list’ shops, the TUC’s team of volunteers prepared to meet and talk to passers-by, searching for more first-hand evidence of the impact of austerity, squeezed pay, job insecurity and the impact of public sector cuts – whilst being open-minded to the Chancellor’s claim that the ‘economy is out of intensive care’.
Reading is regarded by some as the kind of place that is on the up so we expected to find some people who would tell us that austerity had passed them by. Sure enough, the lack of jobs was less of an issue than on previous bus days – with the notable exception of young people, and I’ll come back to them – but the struggle to cope with the rising cost of living was a concern that was mentioned more frequently than the lack of jobs. In early June TUC research found that the real value of hourly wages in South East England fell by 7.3 per cent between 2007 and 2012 and speaking to people in Reading affirmed this trend. In those very same ‘A list’ shops there are legions of workers earning the national minimum wage, whilst utility bills rise rapidly, whilst train fares rise 3 per cent faster than inflation each year and whilst trips to the local supermarket have become so much more expensive. Meanwhile, public sector workers told us that they have endured year after year of pay freezes so their standard of living has eroded terribly. All of this means that prudent people have had to budget carefully so there has been less money spent in the local economy. Austerity economics breeds more austerity!
Once again we met a lot of people who had been shocked to have their disability benefits cut or who were angry at the outcome of their Work Capability Assessment. Few of these people who were stunned to have passed their ‘Fit for Work’ test felt that they had much hope of finding work in such a competitive labour market, especially when so many people are chasing each ‘lower skilled job’, and when people with higher skills are taking low skilled jobs, as a ‘stop-gap’. People with health problems returning to work after a long-absence need bespoke help and support from the NHS, from their local authority’s adult social care team and from voluntary sector organisations. But NHS spending is under immense pressure from increasing need and the cost of wasteful and unwanted restructuring, meanwhile Reading Borough Council’s spending has been savagely cut and grant funding for local voluntary sector and community organisations squeezed. A humane government, with a conscience, would be doing its best to support vulnerable people seeking to return to work. Instead, they’re being impoverished and stigmatised as benefit-scroungers.
At lunchtime a group of us went over to meet workers at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. It was clear that these people were proud of what they do, proud of the services they help provide and proud of the NHS. They thought that the government’s promises about protecting the NHS were a sham because even if health funding does increase by Cost Price Inflation this would not compensate for the fact that inflation in the health sector is higher than inflation generally. Nor would it compensate for the increase in population or fund the increase in demand on services as the proportion of older people in the population increases. These health professionals were angry at the billions of pounds spent on unwanted re-organisation of the NHS – money that could have been spent on front-line services. And they were angry at the real-terms cuts to their pay and pensions, feeling the cost of living squeeze as others we’d talked to, but maybe even worse, as they felt that the government has ‘punished’ them for being public sector workers. NHS workers were also concerned about rising workloads, partly caused by staff losses. But when I asked if rising workloads and stress had had an impact of patient care, I received a firm “no”. NHS workers are committed to their jobs and told me they will always put patients first, regardless of the pressures on NHS staff, and “this is why so many NHS workers work through their lunch breaks”. There aren’t many occupations where staff have such a strong passion towards their job. Ministers should cherish that public service ethos, not test it by demonising public sector workers and attacking their working conditions.
Towards the end of the day we met representatives from Reading Council’s Youth Cabinet. They shared their concerns about the cost of further and higher education and the lack of job prospects with us. Reading has a relatively healthy employment rate but we met far too many young people who couldn’t find work, including recent graduates who’d racked up plenty of debt, but now felt they had no hope of even starting to pay it off, and had taken low skilled jobs. As skilled workers had been forced into what were once thought of as low skilled jobs, so it has become almost impossible for very young workers to find work that was once typically available, such as Saturday jobs. So even in those ‘A list’ retail stores the consequences of recession and austerity has cascaded downwards and, in some ways, is concentrated on those least able to compete in the labour market - the very young and those with long-term health needs – seeking to return to work.
For some, Reading is an affluent town; a good place to live, work and shop. In the town centre there are fewer boarded up shops and more people working than in many of the towns and cities we’ve visited with our bus, but that does not mean that Reading has been immune to the impact of recession, austerity economics, years of squeezed pay and the consequences of cuts in public services. We found evidence that in those same ‘A list’ shops, cafes, hotels and restaurants there are shop assistants, bar workers and cleaners earning the national minimum wage, possibly on zero hours contracts. In public services there are workers who effectively have not had a pay rise for years and who know that their standard of living will continue to erode, year on year. In Reading’s schools and colleges there are thousands of young people for whom the world has become a hugely more expensive, tougher and pressurised place. And even in Reading there are local communities ranked in the 10-20 per cent most deprived in England. For people living in those communities life was tough before the recession, it got worse during the recession and the big challenge for local and central government, is that when an economic recovery occurs, it does not leave the most vulnerable behind. In that case, a return to ‘business as usual’ will be a recipe for enduring poverty for many and social rupture for all. A better way is possible; see http://www.tuc.org.uk/the_tuc/campaign.cfm
Laurie Heselden is Policy and Campaigns Officer for the TUC’s South East and Eastern England region.