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. (https://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?LangID=E&NewsID=23881)
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 The SR maintains that this is a political choice in which ‘British compassion for those apparently suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach’ (p. 3).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).
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.
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.