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Blog 13. How much more evidence do we need before government policy changes? Academic submissions to the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. 30th October 2018

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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

I’ve grouped the submissions roughly into the following categories:
• Austerity and welfare benefits
• Health inequalities, including children and young people
• Housing
• 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.

3. Housing
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 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.

Blog 12. Visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to the UK, November 2018

Ahead of his visit to the UK at the beginning of November, the office of the Special  Rapporteur (SR Professor Philip Dalston*), called for submissions, and many of these are now available on the website:

This is a mine of information for researchers and policy-makers. Some two dozen academics have made submissions (including myself) and I hope to write about these later. Other submissions come from half a dozen NHRIs (National Human Rights Institutions), a handful of public institutions and many more civil society organisations and individuals. I have read through some of these and here offer a few comments.

Inevitably and unsurprisingly, there are many overlaps in the submissions which highlight low incomes, diminishing benefits, difficulty in accessing benefits, problems with the labour market (unemployment, low wages, zero-hours contracts), housing and homelessness. Some submissions try to give voice to those experiencing such issues, such as that by Churches Against Poverty. Others like Joseph Rowntree Foundation present telling statistics and examine trends over time. Like a number of others, Rowntree notes that the UK government does not even collect statistics on extreme poverty (any more than it does on food poverty).

The Trussell Trust suggests that the Special Rapporteur should visit a food bank, preferably at least one in an urban and one in a rural area. Trussell also notes the problems with the new Universal Credit System, as well as the on-going issues with the imposition of sanctions for the ‘failure’ of claimants to comply with the complex demands of the benefits system. This submission also quotes the experiences of a number of their clients.

As much of my research has been carried out in Wales, I read both of the submissions from that region: one from the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee of the National Assembly and another from the Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group which focuses on the rights of the child. They make for depressing reading.

The first notes that one in five people in Wales currently lives in poverty and forecasts suggest that this figure is likely to rise in the short term. It strongly urges the SR to visit Wales: ‘the country with the highest levels of poverty in the UK’. The Committee which wrote the submission also criticises the Welsh government for its failure to have what it regards as a proper poverty strategy and in particular argues that those policies which currently do exist fail to set out a clear set of actions. Like other submissions, this one also suggests that more needs to be done to provide more evidence and greater monitoring.

The submission from the UNCRC Monitoring Group notes that the Welsh government does not have all the powers it needs to address issues of poverty, notably in terms of taxation and welfare benefits, although devolved powers in education, health, housing, transport and the public sector fall within its remit. All of these relate to issues of poverty but, without sufficient financial resources to tackle such problems, the Welsh government remains handicapped. Meanwhile, the same issues are of concern as in other submissions, notably welfare reform (move to Universal Credit), food poverty, debt, employment (or lack of it) and housing. The Monitoring Group is concerned about the likely increase in children living in poverty and the lack of targets or dates for its elimination. It notes that most of the programmes and services which currently address this issue come from EU funding, for which Wales is a net beneficiary, and that Brexit is likely to create further difficulties in this regard unless some new source of funding is secured.

Three submissions relate to Scotland, which has a more highly devolved government than Wales.

The Poverty and Inequality Commission has been offering advice to Scottish Ministers since 2017, but its work will end next year since a Statutory Commission will be established through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. This submission notes that in-work poverty is an increasing problem in Scotland and that poverty is more likely to be experienced by single parent households, people from non-white ethnic groups, and households containing a disabled person. In the course of its work, there has been an emphasis on listening to and amplifying the voices of those experiencing poverty and inequality themselves. This submission notes that more tax-raising and welfare powers have now been devolved to the Scottish government and suggests that the SR investigate the extent to which these levers are being used to maximum effect with regard to poverty.

The SNP Westminster Group submission focuses on child poverty and Universal Credit, noting that many of the premises on which this new welfare payment is based are ‘completely out of touch with the reality of most families on low-paid work.’ Furthermore, the two-child cap for child benefit means that larger families will be considerably worse off. As a result the Scottish government has had to spend on mitigating the effects of the welfare cuts – some £50m in 2017-8 on the bedroom tax alone, for example. The authors are scathing about the conditionality ‘baked’ into Universal Credit, noting that far from ‘incentivising entry into work’ it instead initiates and sustains a range of negative behaviours and outcomes, including ‘survival crime’.

The third of this trio of Scottish submissions comes from A Menu for Change about which I’ve written in past blogs. This is a three-year funded project managed by key anti-poverty organisations in Scotland which all share a deep concern about the rise in emergency food aid and want to find other ways of addressing this issue than yet more food banks. The authors note that food bank use grew by 17% in Scotland last year, a higher rate than elsewhere in the UK, and that this figure probably underestimates the numbers living in food poverty. Last month the Scottish government published its first national data on food insecurity and the SR is encouraged to take account of this latest information.

It remains to be seen what the SR will make of all of the information in these written submissions together with the findings of his one-week visit. At the end of last year, he visited the United States and his report is scathing – clearly human rights are being violated on a massive scale (see

Could the same be true of the UK?

*For more information on the SR please see


Blog 11: On judging and being judged

Judgemental: critical, censorious, condemnatory, deprecating, disparaging, disapproving

I recently had a conversation with an advice worker and voucher holder who sees many food bank clients. She raised the issue of judgementalism, noting that while her own organisation stresses to its workers that it is not their job to judge clients, this still happens. Furthermore, when she has dealings with local officials and council members, remarks about those in poverty (including food poverty) are often disparaging: ‘ many people really have no idea how the other half lives and are not sympathetic. After all, they too are members of the public and they pick up the pervasive attitudes’.

Today with the ongoing roll-out of Universal Credit, we also know that there is an even more hostile environment for claimants. The same is true of food banks and their clients. This attitude is encouraged by much of the UK press (see Wells and Caraher 2014).

Some of the most judgemental comments come from a surprising source. Here is Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and food campaigner in an interview for the Radio Times flagging up a new TV series on eating economically:

“I’m not judgmental, but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in [a previous series of his programme] Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”

It may not have occurred to Jamie that a ‘massive’ tv may provide the only source of entertainment in households which cannot afford anything else. He was roundly criticised in some of the media and by charities working in the field of poverty.

At an early stage of my research, I was talking to the Chair of Trustees at a London food bank and we got on to this topic. This is what he said: ‘We had a client who was struggling with her food parcels so I helped her carry them to her car. To my astonishment, she had a Mercedes. She must have read my expression because she said “This car is all have and I’m living in it because I had to leave my home.” Since that time, I’ve been extra careful not to rush to judgement.’

Food banks and other organisations working in the field of aid for food poverty are encouraged to be different and volunteers trained to refrain from passing judgement on the clients. Instead they are exhorted to be empathetic and in my research I found that many of them are indeed just that. When I undertook the volunteer training, it was impressed upon us that it was not part of our job to condemn, we were there to help by giving food parcels in return for vouchers which had been acquired from other agencies after people demonstrated that they were in real need.

Even so, it is difficult for volunteers not to pass judgement. I have heard comments such as:

  • they can’t budget
  • they spend too much on drink, drugs or cigarettes,
  • too many young women get pregnant and become single mothers
  • it’s all because of the breakdown of the modern family

Here’s one volunteer in a London food bank complaining that a few clients abuse the food bank system:

‘We had a family with 5 kids. They came twice, then I saw them at the Christmas fair spending money and felt quite cross… Some people are in need when they first come, but some come repeatedly. We have a guy on the ‘blacklist’ who has been 18 times, he’s not looking after himself, he doesn’t really try, but his doctor keeps giving him vouchers.’

The sub-text of comments like these are ‘I am managing, even with difficulty, so why can’t they?’ It’s often difficult for volunteers to be aware of the back stories of clients with problems of low and uncertain income leading to debt or even eviction, as well as mental or physical health difficulties. Such problems are becoming even more common for a variety of reasons, not least the roll-out of Universal Credit with its long delays and the lack of help available.

But other volunteers in food banks are more positive about clients: ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ was heard not infrequently, while the manager of one food bank told me: ‘Many of our clients come in off the poorest council estate in the area. Some of them do have issues with substance abuse. Since I live in the area myself and know many of them, quite honestly if I had their problems, I would be hitting the bottle too!’