Muted reaction to reform
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the last five years is the limited nature of the public’s response to what has been an extensive and deep programme of public spending cuts since 2010. Previous research has suggested that when government turns off the public spending tap the public reacts by showing increased support for more spending (Curtice, 2010; Wlezien, 1995). Moreover, analysis of British Social Attitudes and other data suggests that, overall, the
public mood has begun to move back towards the political left since 2010 (Bartle, 2015). However, on the key issue of the appropriate balance between taxation and public spending on health, education and social benefits, the most common position remains that taxes and spending should stay at the same level as they are now. Despite the cuts in public spending of the last five years, as many as 52% still take this view. There has been no more than a marginal shift in favour of more spending – from 32% in 2010 to 37% in 2014, still far below the proportion that was of that view in the late eighties and throughout the nineties.
The response to the Coalition’s policy programme appears equally muted when we look in more detail at the specific areas of welfare spending, the NHS and higher education, which are the subject of three of the papers in this year’s British Social Attitudes Report.
Reform of the benefits system has been central to the Coalition’s programme of public service reform and spending cuts. Changes have included: the abolition of the spare-room subsidy (referred to by critics as ‘the bedroom tax’) for those living in social housing; the introduction of a benefit cap that means that no one can receive more in benefits than the average household income (after tax); changes to the uprating of benefits that have effectively cut the real value of many benefits; and the introduction of measures to limit migrants’ access to benefits, including limiting the time that EU jobseekers can claim a number of benefits to three months.
British Social Attitudes has previously reported that public support for welfare spending has been in long-term decline (Clery, 2012). In 1989, 61% agreed that “Government should spend more money on welfare benefits”. By 2009, this figure was just 27%. But since then not only have benefits been cut, but for at least three years the country continued to experience the depressing effects of the financial crisis on economic growth – both considerations that might
have been expected to instigate an increase in support for welfare. Yet in 2014 support for more spending on welfare remained just 30%. So while the long-term decline in support for further welfare spending may have stopped, it has not reversed in response to either the tough
economic climate or tighter government policies on benefits.
That said, some benefits are clearly more popular than others – pensions remain the public’s top priority for additional government spending, in spite of the fact that the state pension has already been relatively protected during the last five years (via the government’s ‘triple lock’, which guarantees that it will rise by a minimum of 2.5%). However, although pensions remain a top priority, the proportion that think this has fallen from 78% in 2007 to 67% now. At the other end of the scale, just 13% mention unemployment benefits as their first or second priority for additional welfare spending. Although this was a little higher than the 7% who did so in 2007, it is clear that the public remains relatively unsympathetic to spending on benefits for those of
working age, including not least the unemployed. The predominant view (shared by 52% of the public) is still that benefits for the unemployed are “too high and discourage work”.
Meanwhile, the government’s flagship ‘benefit cap’ appears popular – 73% agree that “no household should receive more in benefits than the national average income”. Most also support time limits on benefits for migrant jobseekers from both within and outside the EU, although it is less clear whether or not they support the current three month limit on many benefits for EU jobseekers.
The health budget has been protected by the Coalition from explicit cuts. However, the NHS (in England at least) has undergone radical reform. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 instigated a new structure for commissioning NHS services that created a renewed focus on competition as a way of achieving improvements in quality and efficiency.
Despite the political rows that accompanied these reforms, satisfaction with the NHS remains relatively high – reversing an initial sharp fall early in the lifetime of the Coalition (Appleby and
Lee, 2012). As many as 65% now say they are satisfied “with the way in which the NHS runs nowadays”, almost identical to the 64% that were of that view in 2009, and actually up five percentage points from 2013 (60%). However, a closer look at these figures reveals that much of the increase in satisfaction between 2013 and 2014 occurred among Labour party supporters – a group that we might expect to be more critical of the consequences of the current government’s health policies. This suggests that the relatively high level of satisfaction recorded in 2014 may not necessarily be a straightforward vote of confidence in the performance of the NHS, but may also reflect a desire to express support for the NHS at a time
when the challenges it faces, not least in respect of waiting times in A&E departments, have been widely documented by the media. A more sober assessment of the NHS emerges from the finding that the proportion who believe that the standard of the NHS has got better in the last five years has fallen from 40% in 2010 to 26% in 2014. Even so, the high level of satisfaction recorded in 2014 – the second highest level recorded since we began monitoring satisfaction back in 1983 – suggests that at the very least the Coalition’s reforms have not been met with the kind of backlash in public opinion that the government’s critics might have hoped for.
Higher education finance has been a politically charged issue ever since Labour decided to introduce tuition fees in 1998. This political controversy intensified again in the wake of the Coalition’s decision in the autumn of 2010 to increase fees from just over £3,000 to a maximum of £9,000. However, in spite of the heated political debate (and the apparent impact of the decision on the Liberal Democrats’ electoral support in particular), public support for the principle of fees has remained relatively stable during the last decade. Around one in ten people in England feel that all students should pay fees, while around two thirds say that some should, figures that are little different from those that pertained in 2010 just before the new policy was announced. Even in Scotland, where upfront fees were scrapped in 2000 and all fees were subsequently abolished in 2008, around three quarters believe that at least some students should in fact pay towards their tuition costs. Meanwhile, support for another key plank
of the current package of student finance – requiring students to take out loans to cover their living costs rather than paying them a grant for that purpose – actually appears to have increased since 2010. Indeed, for the first time, the proportion who believe students should
be expected to take out loans (46%) now significantly outweighs the proportion who think they should not (37%).
In short, once again radical change seems to have been met with a limited response. However, there is one caveat. Despite the Coalition’s assurances that the new regime would not dissuade students from less well-off backgrounds from attending university (assurances that have some basis in the statistics on entry into higher education) no fewer than 57% believe that a young person from a well-off background would be more likely than someone from a less
well-off background to take up an offer of a university place. Here, at least, is one battle in the court of public opinion that the Coalition seems not to have won.
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