Children's clothing is hung out to dry on a residential development in Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Osborne's welfare cap is a poverty-producing policy

The UK is far more reliant than other European countries on social security spending to reduce child poverty.

Yesterday the good news for poorer families, today the bad: what the government gives with one hand, it will now take away with the other. Although the news cycle paid them little attention in the childcare melee, low income parents did well from yesterday’s announcement. In the future, they will receive support with 85 per cent of their childcare costs, increasing their work incentives and reducing their costs. But there was a sting in the tail: as the government’s statement made clear, the funds for this change must come out of the existing DWP budget, "in line with the principles of the welfare cap".

The government likes to use high-blown language to gloss the cap, the mechanism through which the Chancellor has today placed a permanent lid on the social security spend. In the Treasury’s view, this strategy is full of virtues – it ensures fiscal probity, improves transparency, and brings us into line with international best practice. But the truth is quite different: the cap is a poverty-producing policy that could set us on course for some of the highest child poverty rates in Europe.

It’s worth looking at the poverty data to understand the full implications of the policy. This shows just what a bad place we start from in the UK with respect to child poverty, with the second highest rates in Europe before tax and transfers are taken into account. Unquestionably, social security has to do a lot more heavy lifting here than it does in other comparable countries.

But this should lead us to an obvious conclusion: that we need to do more about the underlying structural determinants of poverty such as low pay, precarious work, high housing costs and childcare support if we want to reduce the significance of social security as a poverty reduction policy. Instead, simply rationing social security as the Chancellor has done through the "welfare cap" potentially exposes millions more children to the risk of poverty in the UK. But the figures also tell us something else important: that even in those countries with the most propitious starting points, social security remains an essential part of the poverty reduction toolkit.

Yet the coalition has cut almost a fifth from the working age social security budget over the course of this parliament, and it is families with children who have borne the brunt of this retrenchment. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies "nowcasts" that an additional 300,000 children live in poverty compared to 2010, and a further 150,000 will be impoverished by the end of the parliament. And the primary reason for these increases? Cuts, cuts and yet more cuts.

The cap locks in these cuts for perpetuity and denudes future spending decisions of any ambition. Want to improve work incentives through changes to Universal redit? Sure – but you have to cut elsewhere. Want to ensure people with disabilities can participate fully in society? Yes – but another group will take a hit. Think it’s a good idea to end child poverty? Why not - but others will be impoverished in the process.

The cap closes the system, pitting the needs of the most vulnerable against each other in an endless zero-sum game. Osborne may talk about the race to the top for the country today, but for the poorest, the race to the bottom begins now.

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

Getty
Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.