Coming to terms with austerity?

People are less likely to say they've been affected by government spending cuts now than in 2012, according to a new study from Ipsos MORI.

Coming to terms with austerity?

People are less likely to say they’ve been affected by government spending cuts now than in 2012, according to a new study from Ipsos MORI.

One in four (23%) say they and their family have been affected at least a fair amount by spending cuts, compared with 33% in 2012. Those who feel they have been little affected have grown from 59% to 73%. In addition, worry about the impact of spending cuts in the future has also fallen, from 61% in 2012 to 46% now.

However, that does not mean that Britons have no concerns about the government’s policies for public services. Four in ten (43%) think that public services have got worse over the last five years, and a majority (56%) do not think government has the right policies to improve public services – in stark contrast to the more positive reception given to the government’s economic policies. Having said that, neither of these figures have got significantly worse for the government over the last few years, despite all the cuts that public services have had to contend with since then.

There is a mixed picture when it comes to views of individual public services, notably for the jewel in the crown of public services, the NHS, where public concern reaches record levels. Today’s results reveal the highest ever number of people expecting health services will get worse since 2002, registering over half of the public for the first time (55%). Alongside this are indications that people feel GP surgeries are getting worse- some 38% think GP services have declined over the past two years, compared with 28% reporting this in 2013, and there has been a similar fall among users. People are also seeing more decline in hospitals (35% think they have got worse, up from 30%) and care for the elderly (36%, up from 22%), than they were two years ago.

The findings also uncover changing public attitudes towards a range of other public services:

  • Education and skills - Large sections of the public do not have direct experience of schools and colleges, but among those who do, 31% think they have declined in the last five years, up from 22% two years ago. On balance they are still more positive than negative, but this does not apply to those with family experience of universities, 36% of whom think they are getting worse, compared with 28% who think they are getting better. The population as a whole is also pessimistic about the prospects for young people - 45% say opportunities for young people will get worse over the coming years, although young people themselves are more optimistic – but there is a cautious increase in optimism over workforce skills, more so than at the time of the financial crash in 2008.
  • Local services – Despite bearing the brunt of many spending cuts, only a minority think local services such as street cleaning, recycling, libraries, leisure centres and bus services have got worse – although there is a small drift downwards since 2013. Concern about road maintenance is very high, with 57% saying this has got worse – although this is a ten point improvement since the same question was asked in 2013.
  • Police services – Official statistics show that reported crime continues to fall, but in spite of this the last two years have seen an increase in public perceptions that police services have got worse (39% compared with 28% in 2013). At the same time, concern about the future quality of policing is at its highest level since 2002, with 35% expecting it to get worse (although a sizeable section of the public thinks there will be no change (46%)).
  • Welfare – Even though people are less likely to say they are experiencing the impact of the cuts themselves, concern about the effect of cuts to social welfare and benefits appears to be growing. Some 48% say the cuts have gone too far (31% disagree – down from 37% in 2013), and even though on balance people think they have been necessary, they are less likely to say this than in 2013 (47% think reductions in social welfare benefits have been necessary, compared with 59% in 2013). In particular, while people in managerial and professional jobs (social classes AB) do still agree cuts to welfare have been necessary (53%), their support has fallen significantly since 2013 (down from 65%).

Other survey findings suggest that people’s expectations may be changing. People estimate, on average, that 28% of the government’s planned cuts have been implemented so far. This is lower than estimated in 2013 (40%), even though of course public spending has fallen in the intervening years – suggesting the public are possibly being persuaded that austerity is going to continue in the longer-term.

Additionally, people are often very wrong on the nature and scale of spending changes for individual services. People underestimate, for example, how much spending on housing, policing and transport has decreased over the past five years. The average guess for housing is a real terms fall of 5% since 2009/10, when in fact spending on local authority and social housing development has fallen by 49%; on policing the average guess is a fall of 9% compared with an actual fall of 20%; and people think there has been no change in spending on transport, when actually spending has fallen by 19%. On the other hand, Britons significantly underestimate how much spending on pensions has increased. They presume spending on pensions has slightly fallen in real terms (a 2% cut is the average guess) – when in fact it has increased by 13%. They also think there has been a slight fall in health spending (an average guess of a 3% cut since 2009/10), when actually health spending has increased by 4%.

Bobby Duffy, MD of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said

“The government’s arguments about the need for austerity do now seem to have taken a firm hold with the majority of the public, as people appear to be adjusting their expectations, and – for many services – don’t seem to be noticing a significant direct impact on service quality. It also suggests good work has been done by those working in public services to maintain public satisfaction despite the cuts. So the Chancellor will take a good deal of confidence into the Comprehensive Spending Review – although one area where the government needs to tread very carefully is health services. Fear for the future of the NHS is at the highest level we’ve measured, and the risks are very real for the government if they are seen to damage one of the UK’s most treasured institutions.”
Technical note Data are taken from two surveys. Ipsos MORI interviewed 1,001 British adults between 8 – 11 August 2015, and 1,006 British adults between 11 -13 September 2015. Interviewing was carried out by telephone, and data are weighted to the profile of the population. Trend data are taken from previous Ipsos MORI surveys and the BBC’s Bailout Anniversary poll in 2013. Spending figures are taken from trends in spending by function/sub-function according to the Classification of Functions of Government, published by HMT in Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses 2015 (using the GDP deflator to give real change).

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