Admittedly, I'm not exactly on top of all the news at the moment. So when the big cuts were announced I neither managed to look in depth at the emergency budget nor in depth at the recently announced budget (though it's still on my to do list). It was a bit of a surreal experience, this maternity leave bubble. Everybody talking about cuts, and all that I feel of it was debates on the radio. Of course I knew that the voluntary sector would be hit hard, but how exactly, and when, seemed a bit more elusive.
Now however, I've experienced cuts even in my little bubble, and without particularly looking out for them. I'm not surprised but still very disappointed. Services for Refugees and Asylum Seekers were first to go - the housing contract Glasgow City Council held wasn't renewed, so rather a lot of support services are on the way out. This is hitting refugees hard - as well as everyone working in the sector. The cuts affect support for the most vulnerable, support for English language tuition and thus affects integration.
In another area, I tried to apply to volunteer as a breastfeeding peer supporter. However, the programme is stalled because the NHS has withdrawn their training element from the programme. So there you have a service which is actually all big societyish with volunteers doing the work, but the necessary training to enable them to do a good job has been cut. Again, it hits the vulnerable in our society, but also society as a whole because low breastfeeding rates are linked with poorer health in later life, increased risk of obesity and general health inequalities. It's short sighted and will in fact incur a delayed cost.
I have strong views on the suggested privatisation of forests and libraries. Again, I think it's the wrong approach. And the list goes on of course.
This is not to say that I'm all opposed to cuts, or opposed to all cuts. Muddling Along Mummy stirred up a bit of a debate on those who seem to think unrealistically that we can just not have any cuts at all.
However, I think we need to start with the right vision and not cut where it's quick and easy, but which will incur additional costs in the future.
So how about we look at what is costing the country money?
1. Crime. Crime is expensive because of the justice system, more so than the actual damage (though that counts too), and it also costs our society morally (in the sense that people feel insecure and don't use public spaces - a real detrimental effect on communities). Prison doesn't get rid of crime. I'm not suggesting that prison is wrong, just that it doesn't actually do anything to remediate the problem, however is important to show there are consequences to wrong behaviour.
2. Addictions. And I include tobacco and alcohol in this - alcohol in particular costs us an awful lot of money. The damage caused by people who are drunk, the violence caused by drink both outside and in the home, the consequences addictions have on the children of addicts.
3. Poor health that is caused by lifestyle choices. Most of us know what is good and bad to eat, yet bad food is cheap and convenient and it takes knowledge, real effort and conviction to make healthy choices.
All of these are linked to inequalities though it's a chicken and egg situation. Social inequality causes higher crime rates, poorer health and addictions, which in turn cause social inequalities. It's a vicious circle and I don't pretend there are any easy solutions out there because if they were, we'd have made appropriate choices.
There are two factors though which I strongly believe will make a sustainable positive difference to alleviate the malaises of our society. One is to aim to make our society more equal because it has been demonstrated that societies are happier and have less violence, crime, addictions and health problems if the gap between rich and poor is not as wide as it is in the UK (the widest in Europe, and it even beats the U.S. which surprised me).
Secondly it's about the early years and good and responsible parenting, as well as a recognition by all parents that they are the people who will set up their children for life. Hence it's absolutely essential to support parents to do a good job. I'm not talking about pushy parents here, just about parenting that respects the child, that gives the child love and attention, and ambitions. Education will then add to this foundation, but education cannot bridge the attainment gap caused by growing up in poverty and deprivation; in fact school has been shown to increases the attainment gap. I'm not suggesting that poverty has to lead to low attainment at school, just that children growing up in poverty are more likely to be low achievers at schools, that there is a very real link, for many reasons. Some to do with the parents, some to do with the environment and lack of facilities. It's complex as all of these issues.
With these two principles in mind, it may become clearer why libraries, breast feeding support (breast feeding is a health indicator of deprivation - some areas of Glasgow have breast feeding rates of only 8% at the 6 week check-up) and children's centres (in England, we don't have Sure Start centres in Scotland) in my view are cuts that are very wrong. I would go further and propose a whole reassessment of value of professions. Because, if a child care worker earns less than a car mechanic, does that not show that we value cars more than children?
I do want to propose alternatives though. There is a lot of waste of money, resources in all walks of the working life. Business trips, special VIP treats etc to me are spitting people in the face who are unemployed and struggle to make ends meet. Most larger organisations have an inflated management structure - and managers are paid more than the actual front line staff. I also very much believe in a progressive tax system (ours is regressive at the moment due to the effect of VAT). While I realise that there are too few high earners and thus taxing them more doesn't change the world, it would contribute and make our society more equal.
On top of that, waste is also in physical resources. How much paper is wasted, how much stuff produced that we don't need? How about taking this age of austerity as an opportunity to reduce and reassess what is needed from what is not? If everybody cut out their waste of resources in their professional and personal lives, surely it would be a revolution of sorts?
What we cannot do is talk big words of big society and then withdraw the necessary support for this. If I, as a volunteer, want to provide a service (that really should be provided by a statutory body in the first place) it is simply stupid to withdraw the funding needed to provide a few hours of training.
Oh yes, and bring on fuel duty. If it can be cut, the deficit can't be all that bad. Fuel is not going to become any cheaper any time soon unless we build a few more nuclear power stations. Better get used to the real cost of fuel and prepare sooner rather than later that we have to rethink our worship of the car.