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Blog 15. A good day to bury bad news? Reactions to the UN Special Rapporteur’s Report 1/12/18

The preliminary report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, appeared on November 16th. It has been the subject of my three previous blogs (numbers 13-15) and in this present one, I consider some of the responses.

a) The press conference – who was there?
On the day he presented his report (16th Nov. 2018), Philip Alston gave a press conference which has now been put up on Facebook:
During the first half, he spoke about his findings, in the second half there were questions from, inter alia, the Independent, Guardian, New Statesman, Sky news and Financial Times.

Running alongside this podcast are many comments from those watching. People said that they had only known about the SR’s report through social media, not through the usual TV channels or newspapers, and asked why the BBC appeared not to be present at the press conference. All were very supportive of the UN report, thanked Alston, and one even proposed him for PM! It was widely recognised that the government would either deny or ignore the report. There were a number of commentators who focused on particular issues, especially around the cuts in benefits for disabled people. Others were women in their fifties who have recently had their pension age raised at short notice and now find themselves in poverty. One said that she had been recommended to take an apprenticeship!

The publication of the report raised a Twitter storm:
• The first of these says: ‘This government has blood on their hands…thank you for your thorough and honest appraisal. Unfortunately this will not be shown on TV, it may get a passing mention but then it will be swept under the carpet.’
• Another adds ‘Let’s face it – this government are treating the furore around Mays Brexit ‘deal’ as a good day to bury bad news’ while a third asks why the BBC is not covering this report.

Here is a small sample of the remaining hundreds of tweets:
• Philip Alston, thank you for your honesty in reporting the terrible levels of poverty and the lack of concern and political will shown by the British Government. I am so thankful that there is an independent and non-biased organisation that can report the truth.
• This important investigation should be splashed over the media, sadly it won’t! Many believe what this Government and media feed them, they should read this.
• Thank you @Alston_UNSR for making your findings clear, transparent, unequivocal and hard hitting. It’s excruciating to read. Even though what’s happening is plain to see, we’ve carried on relatively regardless. Now it is up to us UK citizens to tackle our #willfulblindness
• I have chronic illness aggravated by medical errors that I can’t afford to take to court. I’m a lone parent and last week signed a no resuscitation order because when Universal Credit comes to my city, I would be better dead than fighting even for food for my son.
• Dear Professor Alston. Thank you so much for your careful report. I am a GP in Plymouth &see the misery the Tory cuts cause my patients every day. Sadly our new DWP minister, Amber Rudd, &all other Tory MPs have denied everything & belittled your qualifications.
• Now this is a subject that deserves to shut down the bridges of London and be shouted daily behind outdoor newscasters, Brexit is used as a smokescreen to hide the immense suffering of our fellow citizens

The government reaction: shoot the messenger
• The newly appointed Minister for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, described the language of the report as ‘extraordinarily political’ and its tone as ‘highly inappropriate’. An article in the New Statesman by Anoosh Chakelian points out that ‘when you only care about the messaging, you’ve lost the argument’.
• A DWP spokesperson was quoted in a number of reports as saying that it completely disagreed with Professor Alston’s analysis: “With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now 1million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010”.
• On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show there was a discussion of the UN report by a panel which included the junior Brexit Minister Kwasi Kwarteng who entirely dismissed the report, said he ‘didn’t know who this man is (Alston)’. When confronted on the programme with the case of a brain-damaged teenager about to lose her home because of Universal Credit he merely said ‘it was a sad story’ while maintaining that the economy was in fine shape.
• The junior Work and Pensions minister Justin Tomlinson told a committee of MPs that families suffering from poverty might take in lodgers to alleviate their problems.

The mass media coverage
The BBC news channels did of course cover the report but they also made it the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Moral Maze’, broadcast on 18th November, with a panel comprising Melanie Philips (columnist on The Times), Michael Portillo (former Tory cabinet minister), Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts – RSA), Giles Fraser (described as ‘priest and polemicist’). Their initial comments on the UN report were unsurprising:
• Melanie Philips: I don’t recognise this picture of UK. Exaggerates in a disgraceful way in order to make a political attack on this country which the UN has no business doing. Another reason why UN is a moral disgrace
• Giles Fraser: I have bags in the back of my study for those who come knocking at my door, increasing numbers in last 5-6 years. It is a picture I entirely recognise
• Michael Portillo. Britain does not have extreme poverty nor are the rights of poor people being violated. In a democracy with a raucous free press, we hardly need intervention from the UN
• Matthew Tennant: one of the indicators of the high levels of poverty comes from asking people what they consider to be essential. We do have a big issue of poverty and also lack of awareness so the UN has done us a service
In short, then, a ‘balanced’ set of views, with the report (and the UN) being stoutly defended by some of the witnesses called such as Helen Barnard, Deputy director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Natalie Samarasinghe, the UNA-UK’s Executive Director.

Alston’s report was also covered by most of the TV news channels, although some gave it more time than others. Channel Four had been following Alston during the 12 days he toured the UK, and it interviewed Alston on his preliminary report, as well as carrying a piece from its social affairs editor Jackie Long.

Most of the broadsheets (e.g. Times, Independent, Financial Times) also carried the story as did the Evening Standard, while the Guardian produced numerous reports before, during and after Alston’s visit and the publication of the report. The Telegraph highlighted the SR’s contention that the UK’s welfare system has a deep gender divide: “If you got a group of misogynists together in a room and said ‘how can we make a system that works for men but not women?’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s in place.” Alston noted the single household payments meant that women were not often able to control the family income, putting them at greater risk of domestic violence.

The Continental Telegraph on the other hand headlined its article with ‘The lie in the UN Rapporteur’s UK Poverty Report’ and dismissed it entirely.

The UN report was also covered by foreign-based news media. On November 21st, the New Yorker published a long article, while the Huffington Post focused on the Kwasi Kwarteng story. Al-Jazeera also carried the story in some detail and concluded by quoting Kartik Raj, a researcher for Human Rights Watch: “The government needs to sit up and pay attention to what he (Alston) has said at this crucial time, not hope that his recommendations get buried in the nonstop rolling news coverage of Brexit.” Raj was right of course, since coverage of Brexit is wall to wall but this is not the only reason.

Alas, there has been little follow-up, although coincidentally, a report which came out at almost the same time written by academics for the UK Equalities Commission (an all-party group) ( makes many of the same points. As of course have many previous reports by third sector organisations and academics, as I’ve pointed out before in earlier blogs. A number of newspapers noted that this was the fifth visit by a UN special rapporteur since the Tories came to power in 2010, and all of their reports had been ‘buried’.

Blog 14. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights delivers his end of tour report and it is damning

The UN Special Rapporteur (SR) Philip Alston toured the country for 12 days up to 15th November, and on 16th November issued his 24-page provisional report, based both on the submissions sent in earlier (see Blogs 12 and 13) and his interviews and meetings with people all over the UK. (
We will have to wait a while for his more detailed report.

Much of what this report contains some of us already knew, but it sums up, succinctly and incisively, the scale and depth of the problem of poverty in the UK, the fifth richest country in the world:
• Fourteen million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty
• Of these, 1.5 million are destitute
• Child poverty rates are rising and expected to rise further
• Demand for and on food banks is escalating

Yet the current government insists all is well and, as the SR maintains, there is a ‘total disconnect’ between what he heard from government ministers on the one hand and the considerable amount of evidence obtained both from the earlier submissions and from the people he heard on his tour on the other.

Alston notes that the government has made it plain that its aim is to change not only welfare policies but also the value system which underlay the welfare state in favour of greater individual responsibility for wellbeing and the limitation of government support. The SR maintains that this is a political choice in which ‘British compassion for those apparently suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach’ (p. 3).

What to many will be particularly startling in this report is his contention that the driving force behind the levels of poverty in the UK is not just austerity, supposedly a necessary economic measure, but rather ‘commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering… a revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum level of fairness and social justice’. The SR maintains that ‘Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned,’ (p. 2).

Why poverty?
a) Brexit
The SR discusses some of the reasons for this situation and begins with Brexit which, as he points out, has already made life harder for the poorest because of the rise in prices, caused in part by the fall in the value of the pound. It will continue to hit the poor disproportionately if the current benefit policies are not changed, and if, as seems likely, no substitute for the considerable amounts of money which the EU has been giving to the poorest regions is available.

b) Universal Credit
He then goes on to discuss further aspects of the current situation, beginning with the introduction of Universal Credit, a scheme which has attracted considerable criticism from many quarters, even Tory MPs, one of whom called it a ‘military-style command and control approach’ (p. 6):
• Delays in payment – at a minimum five weeks but usually much longer, and frequent errors in payments
• The ‘digital by default’ nature of the scheme which disadvantages those who are not computer literate or who do not have access online to the claims system: just over half of claimants find the application process ‘difficult’ and a similar number could not complete the claim without outside help from voluntary organisations or staff in hard-pressed libraries. Scarcely surprising then that one third of Universal Credit claims fail the application process
• The continuation of a punitive sanctions regime in which 6-8% of claimants are subject to sanctions, a third of which exceed three months. This has succeeded ‘in instilling a fear and loathing of the system in many claimants’ (p. 6)

c) The digital welfare state
He moves on to consider the government’s policy of creating a digital welfare state (p. 7) in the process of which, as the SR puts it ‘We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm.’ (p. 7)

Further automation within both central and local government is planned including automated fraud and error detection and prevention, ‘risk-based verification systems’ and the use of artificial intelligence – in short a system of total surveillance. What is most alarming about this process is its lack of transparency, as a result of which few people know much if anything about it.

d) Austerity
The problems of poverty do not only lie in the low levels of benefits and the difficulties in obtaining them but also in the whole programme of austerity and the numbers and amount of cuts in public spending. One such is to local authorities, which have seen virtually half of their funding between 2010-11 and 2017-18 cut in real terms, even as the demands for their services have increased dramatically. The SR points to the resulting closure of children’s centres and libraries, the disappearance of the Local Welfare Fund, and to the struggle LAs have to provide even the minimum of their statutory services.

Measurement of poverty
Paradoxically all of these cuts have actually resulted in the need for increased spending in such areas as Accident and Emergency sections of hospitals. The SR quotes the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s estimate that ‘poverty is costing the UK £78 billion per year in measures to reduce or alleviate poverty – not counting the cost of benefits (p. 15)’.

However, the government refuses to measure or monitor poverty in any detailed or consistent way. Yet, as the SR points out, ‘to address poverty systematically and effectively it is essential to know its extent and character’ (p. 15). The UK produces four different measures, thereby allowing the government to pick and choose which of its figures to highlight or ignore.

Work as the solution
The government’s stated policy is for employment to be the panacea for poverty yet low wages, insecure jobs and zero hours contracts leave 2.8 million people who are in work in acute poverty. The hardest hit by the current situation are women, children, people with disabilities, pensioners, asylum seekers and migrants and those experiencing rural poverty.

Given this bleak picture, it is scarcely surprising then that life expectancy rates are no longer rising (and are falling in some areas), that the contemplation of suicide was a common theme in his discussions with people in the UK, that loneliness is soaring, in short that the social contract which binds us together is breaking. He quotes the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes who in his book Leviathan (1651) said that life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ if there was no such social contract.