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: www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/UKVisitSubmissions.aspx
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 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/15/extreme-poverty-america-un-special-monitor-report).
Could the same be true of the UK?
*For more information on the SR please see https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/poverty/pages/srextremepovertyindex.aspx