By Tomas Davidson
Ever more regularly I hear phrases like “austerity”, “rationalisation” and “deficit” bandied about in social parlance, a backdrop for pub conversations, the soundtrack to staff room lunch hours, but rarely do I pay it much attention. In fact, apart from some ill-informed lambasting of our financial system (normally after a few ales) I barely even think about it.
I can no longer disregard these terms as abstract notions, small-scale concerns that bubble around quietly in my subconscious but must recognise them for what they are; real threats to the lives and liberties of the most vulnerable in our society. I know this because I know what is going to happen to the Citizens Advice Bureau.
I was a volunteer and employee of the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in Manchester for 3 years. This is a service that supports 30,000 people every year, day in and day out. Over the course of my time there I was amazed by the commitment and compassion shown by its volunteers and staff and watched CAB help countless people perilously perched on the verge of disaster be pulled back from the brink through hard work and a seemingly bottomless wealth of knowledge. Benefit appeals, homelessness applications, unfair dismissal claims, debt advice, these are all the normal affairs and narrowly averted disasters that occur inside the CAB offices every single day.
The latest austerity measures, however, are set to toll the death knell for the Citizens Advice Bureau in Manchester. Manchester City Council are proposing cuts to advice services of 50-75%. This, on top of the removal of the majority of legal aid contracts, will be one wound too many for the charity.
If the proposals go ahead, the already stretched service will face total dissolution. The three remaining bureaus in Manchester will be forced to close, the city wide telephone advice service will go dead and the outreach services will stop. Redundancies will abound.
Apart from the tragedy of losing these skilled workers, whose many years of experience in the advice sector will be discarded and who may soon have a very personal need for the kind of advice they were trained to give, who will be the real victims of austerity? As always, it will be the most vulnerable and misrepresented who will pay the price. With the last bastion spent these people must now unravel the complex entanglement of the benefit system alone. They must advise themselves when their houses are to be repossessed or when bailiffs come knocking, lying about their statutory powers. Bills will pile up, appeals will go un-submitted and employees will be subjugated.
So what have I learnt about “austerity”, “rationalisation” and “deficit”? Extreme spending cuts are for the best right? The only way to drag the country out of a black hole of debt? Call me cynical but in a nation where household disposable income fell for everyone but the richest 5th of households this year, where the rates of tax continues to be slashed for the top 1%, where the proportion of GDP going to the state will be the lowest in western Europe by 2015 (lower than even the US); I have to question the mentality behind removing the provision of advice and dissolving a charity symbolic of our right to question the authority of the administration. A charity which attempts to champion social recourse.
In my opinion CAB are being shut down by jargon. Language is being used to tell a powerful political story that convinces us that spending cuts are a necessary evil, used to excuse social injustice, and to justify deprivation and despair. Shut down people’s means of expressing their dissatisfaction and you effectively silence them.
“Austerity”, “rationalisation” and “deficit” – it’s a gagging order.