In the last blog, I wrote about some of the submissions from official and voluntary bodies sent to the SR who is due to arrive in the country in the next few days. This week’s task has been to go through the many submissions from academics , some 26 in all, from some two dozen different universities and a wide range of disciplines: social policy, sociology, social geography, law and medicine. You can find all on https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/UKVisitSubmissions.aspx
I’ve grouped the submissions roughly into the following categories:
• Austerity and welfare benefits
• Health inequalities, including children and young people
• Food insecurity
Obviously there’s no way I can possibly do justice to all, so here I have highlighted a few which I see as particularly pertinent to food poverty or insecurity. Reading through these submissions has reminded me how complex a topic this is and how people suffering from food poverty are also likely to have problems with employment, benefits, debt, housing and health, both physical and mental, all of which are referred to in these submissions.
1. Austerity and benefits
It seems appropriate to begin with austerity and welfare benefits on the day after the UK’s latest budget statement from the Chancellor, in which it has been announced that more money will be made available for Universal Credit, the government’s flagship scheme. As most of us will be aware, this is an attempt to roll all existing benefits into one in the name of ‘simplification’, and to ‘incentivise’ people to work. However, its roll-out has been dogged by delays and errors, while people migrating from the old to the new systems have to wait a minimum of 5 weeks, often much longer. It is also an essentially punitive regime with severe sanctions for any failure to comply. As Professor Adrian Sinfield (University of Edinburgh) notes:
‘The UK sanctions system therefore promotes extreme poverty. Its well-attested consequences include increased debt, worsened health, damaged family relationships, ‘survival crime’ and hunger’.
In a similar vein, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw (University of York) notes that in 2007 (before the crisis) public expenditure was 35.2% of GDP. Under the Labour government it rose to 40%. Now the aim is to reduce it to 34%, which is much below the European norm and on a par with Japan and US. At the same time, the reduction in deficit has been done by taking 80% from government spending and only 20% in increased taxes. He cites a number of other studies which have been done: ‘The conclusions are clear: the lowest income deciles have had the biggest losses; the poorest local authorities have suffered the biggest revenue losses; the cuts have hit the incomes of families with children most. Poor lone parents are the biggest losers…’ (p. 2.)
2. Health inequalities, including children
Given this by now eight-year period of extreme austerity, what have been the results? Among the academic submissions is one from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health which asked its members for their views. Most doctors thought things are getting worse for the young patients they see: ‘poverty contributes to the ill health of the children’ as does food insecurity, lack of housing and financial stress and worry, especially in the north of England. Yet the government has adopted regressive steps, with the abolition of the child poverty unit, the removal of the duty to report on four key targets for eradicating child poverty, and a two-child limit on family benefits.
The Royal College also points to a fall in happiness scores for 10-15 year olds, growing concern with child and adolescent mental health, a 68% increase in the number of girls admitted to hospital for self-harming and a rise in the Infant mortality rate which increased in 2015 and 2016 for the first time since 1985. Many of these factors can be attributed to poverty.
A third submission on this topic comes from Dr. Gill Main (University of Leeds School of Education) who argues that government antipoverty measures in the UK adopt a strongly individualistic approach which includes the harsh sanctions regime aiming to turn behaviour around. This uses tropes like ‘three generations of worklessness’ and other similar ones which blame those in poverty. She also notes that government measures of poverty use the household as the unit, ignoring the fact that resources may not be evenly divided within it. Using the household tout court also ignores the realities of complex households, including diverse outside stakeholders such as grandparents. The effects of poverty on children are extreme: deprivation, shame and stigma, even bullying, and lack of material necessities including food and clothing. Yet the voices of children are rarely heard.
Kate Hardy (Leeds) and Tom Gillespie (Manchester) write about the forced removal of residents to out of borough placements which often affects the most vulnerable, including the disabled, people with mental health needs and lone women with children. A borough can fulfil its duty of housing by the single offer of a rental in the private sector, which, if refused, results in ‘intentional homelessness’. Their study in a London borough found that over half of respondents had been offered housing in other London boroughs and a third even further afield, resulting in displacement, a situation which was reported on only this week in the national press (see https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/29/number-of-homeless-households-moved-out-of-london-soars). This can mean loss of employment, schools, friends and neighbours or else spending long and expensive hours commuting.
4. Food insecurity
All of the foregoing make it likely that individuals and families with the problems list above are likely also to suffer from food poverty, to which two submissions are devoted, although it is of course mentioned frequently by others.
Elisabeth Garratt (Nuffield College Oxford) begins her submission by noting the absence of government monitoring data on food insecurity. She then goes on to consider some aspects of food charity and redistribution organizations which are ‘problematic from a human rights point of view’: there is limitation of supply, rationing of assistance, and uncertain suitability of compatibility with religious, cultural and health preferences. Her own data (like that of many others) reveal that food banks are considered a last resort and seeking such assistance is associated with embarrassment and shame.
The other submission on food poverty is from a multidisciplinary team’s project ‘Life on the breadline’ (Universities of Coventry , Manchester and Canterbury Christchurch) whose research is on the role of religious organizations in providing assistance. Faith-based responses have increased in tandem with the partial withdrawal of the state and these are relatively well-placed to set up e.g. food banks because churches may have the only public building in area – an important form of religious capital. The theologies behind such initiatives are those of the common good and an ethic of service and social responsibility but recently there has also been more emphasis on campaigning and a greater willingness to challenge the government. This team also points to the increasing importance of faith players operating outside the area of food poverty, with involvement in debt counselling, housing and legal advice, and ‘networked political action to challenge social exclusion’. Like the writers of other submissions, this team points to the need for a cultural shift around blame, shame and the individualisation of poverty.
These submission provide a powerful body of evidence that things are not well in the UK for many of its citizens, indeed, with the cuts ongoing and the likelihood of Brexit, they may well get worse, particularly for the lower deciles. Yet the government, instead of using these data to change their policies, continues its course, with only small concessions to those pleading the case for changes in policies which could bring people out of poverty.