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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Government services are underfunded and overworked: This is the true cost of delaying Brexit

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

The Brexit vote took place nearly three and a half years ago and the UK was due to ‘leave’ the EU on the 29th March. Over six months later and hundreds of hours of parliamentary time later (the hour count hit 500 in April 2019 [1]), Parliament has failed to pass a withdrawal agreement. With the looming election, the future of Brexit is relatively unclear and the cost of this is becoming increasingly apparent to other parliamentary business. Thus, this article will present the argument that cohesion on the Brexit Deal needs to happen, for the sake of the social responsibilities of Parliament.

Before I begin, I feel it is only right to disclose, that as I was sixteen at the time of the referendum, I was not able to vote. However, I did support remain. Nevertheless, I respect the democratic process and believe that cohesion on a Brexit deal would be best for democracy in the UK.

Regardless of whether you support remain or leave, a common consensus amongst the country, appears to be that the debate regarding Brexit has gone on for too long and is having a detrimental impact on other issues that have been side-lined for over three years. Throughout this blog post, the focus will be on the social cost of Brexit dominating parliamentary time, which has had a devastating effect on the NHS and social housing. The NHS is at breaking point, while social housing is, quite frankly, unsafe.

Yes, these issues existed before Brexit, however, with Brexit dominating Parliamentary debates, dire situations are becoming more desperate.

Boris Johnson, in the Leave Campaign infamously promised that he would redirect the £350 million[2] we were allegedly sending to the EU each week to the NHS. Three years on, the indecision on Brexit has already cost the country £70 billion which equates to £440 million a week[3] and the NHS is yet to see a penny of the money promised. This cost is extortionate.

The bitter irony is that the NHS is in desperate need of money and the failure to provide this has cost lives.

Whilst the NHS needing money is not a new problem, the focus on Brexit has meant that other major issues have not been given either adequate funding or even the time to be debated in parliament.

It has recently been reported that waiting times in A&E are at an all-time high[4], almost always exceeding the four-hour target. This is highly problematic as people in A&E can deteriorate rapidly during prolonged waits, sometimes with catastrophic results.[5] This is problematic not only due to the fact that it jeopardises people’s health, recovery time and in extreme cases, such as in Redhill and Margate [6], causes death. The delay in treatment also means that people are seen in a worsened condition and therefore, the cost of treatment that hospitals have to provide increases, further overstretching the NHS.

Another key area of the NHS which is at breaking point is mental health services. The lack of discussion regarding mental health services in the UK for both adolescents and adults has come under fierce criticism over the past few years. A report released in 2018 by the TUC found that in 2018 [7] there was just one mental health doctor for 253 patients (the figure was 1 to every 186 patients in 2013), it also found that the number of mental health nurses had dropped from 1 to every 29 patients (2013) to 1 for every 39 patients (2018). The number of beds for mental health patients in England has also dropped by 13%, which is the equivalent to 3000 beds. These figures are horrendous and need improvement.

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt caused outrage when he tweeted:

“Watching my son play his first matches with Milford Pumas and have just been approached by another Dad about problems accessing CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services]…so much more to do on mental health really hope some of the extra NHS cash goes towards it.”[8]

People were quick to point that Hunt's own six years tenure (2012-2018) as Health Secretary saw catastrophic cuts to mental health services.

Again, the mental health crisis did exist prior to Brexit referendum, however, the figures have considerably worsened while debates regarding mental health have been put on the back burner. For example, it was reported that just 11 MP’s turned up for a debate on adolescent mental health in April 2019. The Leave Campaign's infamous comments about redirecting the (inaccurate) figure[9] of £350 million alleged to be sent to the EU each week to the NHS swayed people to vote Leave. Yet now it appears more than ever that this was empty propaganda which the government and parliament needs to rectify urgently.

Another policy area where politicians are failing society is social care. Perhaps the most shameful episode in our countries recent history is the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

Promises of change were made after the disaster, but sufficient action both in terms of rehousing those made homeless and preventing further tragedies from occurring has not been taken.

Following the disaster Theresa May promised that good quality temporary accommodation would be found for those displaced within three weeks and that all residents would be permanently rehoused within a year. Both of these promises failed to be met with many former residents being forced to live in hotels for months.[10] The government has also refused to identify which high rise buildings have the same type of cladding as the Grenfell tower, but the BBC reported in 2019 that even two years on, out of the 328 buildings with the dangerous ACM cladding, 221 are still awaiting for removal work to start.[11]

The Grenfell tragedy came a year after the Brexit referendum and less than a week after the 2017 election, whereby Theresa May lost her working majority in the House of Commons, which effectively killed her chances of getting Brexit done. This started a two-year long period (probably best described as limbo) where Brexit deadlines have been extended three times and Parliament has become so contentious that no actual progress seems to be made (Boris Johnson lost seven votes before he finally won his first vote as prime minister, nearly twice as many as Tony Blair lost during his ten years in office). Such contention and focus on Brexit has undoubtedly overshadowed the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy. A prime example being the fact that the report concerning the first part of the inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy was released a day before the October 31st Brexit deadline which dominated parliamentary debate at the time[12].

Grenfell is just one harrowing example of a wider social housing crisis. Homelessness, child poverty and the number of people reliant on food banks are extortionate. The Guardian reported in September 2019 that 130,000 families were being crammed into one-bedroom flats[13] due to the lack of suitable housing. 145,000 new social homes need to be built each year to satisfy demand, but in 2018 just 6,000 houses were built.

The lack of available social housing is a horrific example of our government abandoning the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the UK which has had devastating consequences both in terms of the Grenfell tragedy and the sharp rise in homelessness (165% increase since 2010) [14].

The fact that 4.5 million children are thought to be living in poverty in the UK [15] and this year there was a 19%[16] increase in the use of food banks also highlights this . Parliament needed to debate these issues at the time when they were debating Brexit. A remedy to this would be to properly allocate time to debate these issues.

Public services are at breaking point and are crying out for more funding and at the very least more opportunities for debate. With new elections due to take place on the 12th of December, all the major parties recognise this and have pledged to do so in their respective manifestos. However, in reality, these proposals are unlikely to materialise due to the unrealistic degrees of spending without solid proposals on affordability. Furthermore, Brexit is likely to dominate parliamentary debate even after the election, therefore, effective remedies to these catastrophic issues are unlikely to occur until after Brexit has happened.

The Leave Campaign won because people thought that Britain would be better without the EU and there is of course an argument to be had over the truth of this. But, it is clear that the length and lack of consensus of the negotiations are crippling our Parliament. One can only hope that the election produces a government that has a clear strategy to tackle the Brexit issue once and for all, so that our government can go back to serving its citizens where it has been sorely lacking over the past three years or the cost will be more lives.

Anna Noble (Politics)


[1] RTÉ. ‘Brexit in numbers: Parliament debates hit 500- hour mark.’ Tuesday 2nd April 2019.

[2] J. Lichfield. ‘Boris Johnson’s £350m claim is devious and bogus. Here’s why.’ The Guardian. 18th September 2017.

[3] A. Woodcock ‘Getting Brexit done? Its already cost the UK economy almost £70bn, new report says.’ The Independent. Tuesday 15th October 2019.

[4] BBC News 14th November 2019.

[5] D. Campbell and P. Duncan. ‘NHS memo reveals two paitents died after waiting for A&E care.’ The Guardian. 29th January. 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] TUC. ‘Breaking point: the crisis in the mental health funding.’ 19th October 2018.

[8]E. Snaith. ‘Jeremy Hunt embarrasses himself in post about mental health’ The Independent. 9th September 2019.

[9] n.(2)

[10] J.Tidy. ‘How Grenfell victims are still being let down one year on.’ Sky News. 14th June 2018.

[11] D. Wainwright. ‘Grenfell Tower: Hundreds of buildings still have ‘unsafe’ cladding.’ BBC News, 14th June 2019.

[12] R. Booth. ‘Grenfell Tower report to be released a day before Brexit deadline.’ The Guardian. 4th October 2019.

[13] J. Dudman. ‘Social housing crisis builds as government passes the buck.’ The Guardian. 25th September 2019.

[14] M. B. Oslen ‘There’s been a 165% increase in homelessness since the Tories took power.’ Metro. 31st Jan. 2019.

[15] P. Butler. ‘New study finds 4.5 million UK children living in poverty.’ The Guardian. 16th September 2018.

[16] S. Coughlan. ‘Food bank supplies help record numbers.’ BBC News. 25th April 2019.

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