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May 29, 2019

Who to believe?

As the ever-growing list of runners and riders shuffle into line for the race to become our next Prime Minister, I listened to one of the favourites putting his particular spin on the many ‘good things’ that have been happening while the country has been distracted by Brexit – buoyant economy, more people in jobs than ever before etc. While listening to that, I was reading the findings of the UN’s special rapporteur Professor Philip Alston, who has just published his final report into poverty in the UK. One of them is either delusional or telling bare-faced lies.

Anoosh Chakelian, New Statesman

The government has violated its human rights obligations, concludes the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty in his final report.

It’s official. The UN’s special rapporteur Philip Alston who investigated poverty in the UK last November has found the government in breach of its human rights obligations.

Delivering his final report on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK, he concludes: “Given the significant resources available in the country, the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have caused so much pain and misery, amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the United Kingdom’s human rights obligations.”

Here are the key conclusions, from the report, and Philip Alston’s own comments on his findings:

Government-led misery

The UK Government’s policies have led to the systematic immiseration of millions across Great Britain.

Child poverty

Close to 40 per cent of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021.

Following drastic changes in government economic policy beginning in 2010, the two preceding decades of progress in tackling child and pensioner poverty have begun to unravel and poverty is again on the rise.

Relative child poverty rates are expected to increase by 7 per cent between 2015 and 2021 and overall child poverty rates to reach close to 40 per cent. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain would not just be a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one.


Although the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy, one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, four million of those are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017, unable to afford basic essentials. And 2.5 million people survive with incomes no more than 10 per cent above the poverty line – just one crisis away from falling into poverty.

Given the significant resources available in the country, the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have caused so much pain and misery, amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the United Kingdom’s human rights obligations.

The “austerity experiment” continues…

Policies of austerity introduced in 2010 continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences.

For all the talk that austerity is over, massive disinvestment in the social safety net continues unabated.



…it has resulted in:

• 14 million people living in poverty,

• Record levels of hunger and homelessness,

• Falling life expectancy for some groups,

• Ever fewer community services,

• Greatly reduced policing,

• Access to the courts for lower-income groups has been dramatically rolled back by cuts to legal aid.

…and it’s ideological…

The imposition of austerity was an ideological project designed to radically reshape the relationship between the Government and the citizenry. UK standards of well-being have descended precipitately in a remarkably short period of time, as a result of deliberate policy choices made when many other options were available.

A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.

…and doesn’t even make economic sense

Far-reaching changes to the role of Government in supporting people in distress are almost always “sold” as part of an unavoidable fiscal “austerity” programme needed to save the country from bankruptcy. In fact, the reforms have almost certainly cost far more than their proponents will admit. The many billions extracted from the benefits system since 2010 have been offset by additional resources required, by local government, by doctors and hospital accident and emergency centres, and even by the ever-shrinking, overworked and underfunded police force to fund the increasing need for emergency services.

The welfare state has fallen away

The Government’s ‘work not welfare’ mantra conveys the message that individuals and families can seek charity but that the State will no longer provide the basic social safety net to which all political parties had been committed since 1945.

The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.

In fact, we’ve rewound from 1945 back to Dickens…

It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens, rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity in an age of deep and rapid transformation brought about by automation, zero-hour contracts and rapidly growing inequality.

…via Thomas Hobbes

As Thomas Hobbes observed long ago, such an approach condemns the least well off to lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. As the British social contract slowly evaporates, Hobbes’ prediction risks becoming the new reality.

The recent changes are not good enough

I welcome the moves to adopt a uniform poverty measure, to systematically survey food insecurity, and to further delay the rollout of Universal Credit. That programme will be improved by plans to provide more time to repay advances, to reduce debt payment limits, and to reduce extreme penalties. But, for all the talk that austerity is over, massive disinvestment in the social safety net continues unabated.

It is difficult to see recent changes as more than window dressing to minimise political fallout. The situation demands a new vision that embodies British compassion and places social rights and economic security front and centre.

Some Universal Credit reforms have been positive – but not enough to turn the tide

The 2018 budget introduced several changes to the Government’s flagship benefits programme, Universal Credit (UC), including a welcome increase in work allowances, as a consequence of which an estimated 2.4 million households will be better off in 2019, and some 200,000 people will rise out of poverty. And the introduction of a minimum wage has helped reduce low pay.

But these developments have not stemmed the overall direction of the tide.

Loneliness is worsening

Austerity policies have deliberately gutted local authorities and thereby effectively eliminated many social services, reduced policing services to skeletal proportions, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres, and sold off public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres. It is hardly surprising that civil society has reported unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation, prompting the Government to appoint a Minister for Suicide Prevention.

Solutions lie in resurrecting public spending and less harsh welfare measures

The Government should restore local government funding to ensure crucial social protection can help people escape poverty, reverse particularly regressive measures such as the benefits cap and two-child limit, and audit the impact of tax and spending decisions on different groups.

The Department for Work & Pensions’ response is predictable. The secretary of state Amber Rudd is trying to curry some PR by lodging a formal complaint with the UN about it. And a spokesperson points out that the UN’s own data shows that the UK is “one of the happiest places in the world to live” (it came 15th actually), and that Alston’s report “paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty” and is a “barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here”.

True, Alston only conducted his investigation from 5 to 16 November 2018. But as his report says itself, even if you put statistics aside, the extent of poverty in Britain “is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes”. And that’s why government responses will never ring true until it actually engages with the problem and starts afresh.