“[T]he full picture of poverty in the United Kingdom, much of it the direct result of government policies… is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes. There has been a shocking increase in the number of food banks and major increases in homelessness and rough sleeping; a growing number of homeless families…” – Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on poverty in the UK (22 May 2019)
“I reject the idea that there are vast numbers of people facing dire poverty in this country. I don’t accept the UN rapporteur’s report at all. I think that’s a nonsense. Look around you, that’s not what we see in this country.” Philip Hammond, Newsnight (2 June 2019).
Professor Philip Alston, the United Nation’s more senior representative with the responsibility for examining countries extreme poverty, presented his findings about the UK to the UN Human Rights Council last week.
His report followed an almost two-week trip around the country last November, holding consultations in ten cities including London, Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, and Belfast. It is also based on the testimony and interview with groups and individuals he met (including Jobcentre staff, food-bank volunteers, government representatives, and politicians from all major parties). In addition, his team received almost 300 submissions from our various national human rights institutions, NGOs, groups and individuals.
“In the past two weeks I have talked with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future, young people who feel gangs are the only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities who are being told they need to go back to work or lose support, against their doctor’s orders.”
His report represents one of the most comprehensive (yet concise, at only 21 pages) accounts of the effect of almost a decade of austerity, welfare “reform”, and the subsequent human misery that these twin approaches created.
Much of the findings will not be news its readers. Indeed, he states that the effects of austerity and welfare reform are “obvious to anyone who opens their eyes”.
As a result of “drastic changes in government economic policy beginning in 2010”, he noted increased homelessness and rough sleeping, child poverty, and food banks, and a more general “sense of deep despair”. These measures have a disproportionate impact on those least able to carry them.
The country has also witnessed a massive disinvestment from public services resulting in a record number of closures. For example, more than 500 children’s centres and 340 libraries closed between 2010-2018 and 2010-2016 respectively.
Overall nearly 14 million, or 1 in 5, people in the UK are living in poverty, with 1.5 million of these experiencing destitution (meaning they are “unable to afford basic essentials”). Close to 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021.
The report also gives a significant amount of focus to Universal Credit, as “No single program embodies the combination of the benefits reforms and the promotion of austerity programs.”
Alston notes that all too often it “is being implemented in ways that negatively impact many claimants’ mental health, finances, and work prospects”, with key problems include the “draconian sanctions” regime and the long delays in receiving support.
He noted that sanctions, even for minor infringements, have “devastating effects that resulted from being completely shut out of the benefits system for weeks or months at a time… As the system grows older, some penalties will soon be measured in years… [already] 31% of sanctions were for a period exceeding three months, and one in eight were over six months.”
He said the long waiting period “pushes many who may already be in crisis into debt, rent arrears, and serious hardship, requiring them to sacrifice food or heat.” And that the rationales to justify delays are “entirely illusory” – and that the real motivation is more about keeping costs down and “wanting to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship.”
He concludes that “The basic message, delivered in the language of managerial efficiency and automation, is that almost any alternative will be more tolerable than seeking to obtain government benefits. This is a very far cry from any notion of a social contract, Beveridge model or otherwise, let alone of social human rights.”
As the changes are being being rolled out to more areas, the increasingly overburdened charity sector has “have expended significant expense and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system.”
“As I spoke with local authorities and the voluntary sector about their preparations for the future rollout of Universal Credit, I was struck by how much their mobilization resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic.”
Alston highlighted how the welfare changes were originally sold as cure for poverty, yet even when large-scale poverty persisted (“about 60% of people in poverty are in families where someone works”), the government pursued its agenda, making at most only minor tweaks.
“Instead, [the UK government] doubled down on a parallel agenda to reduce benefits by every means available, including constant reductions in benefit levels, ever-more-demanding conditions, harsher penalties, depersonalization, stigmatization, and virtually eliminating the option of using the legal system to vindicate rights.”
Mitigation and Northern Ireland
Alston’s team received almost 300 submissions, including a dozen from Northern Ireland, from human rights groups, universities, government officials and others.
A number of organisations, including the NIHRC, pointed out that “There are a number of contributory factors to poverty levels which are unique to NI, including a history of conflict, which has itself contributed to higher levels of persons with disabilities, a significant gap in educational attainment among richer and poorer children and more people with no qualifications and fewer people with higher-level qualifications than elsewhere in the UK.”
Groups in NI raised issues including the more than 90,000 children in Northern Ireland are living in poverty; rates of long term unemployment being more than twice those of the UK as a whole; Catholic household applicants for social housing experiencing the longest waiting times; health inequalities experienced by Travellers; the homes of minority ethnic people and migrant groups and LGBT people being be vulnerable to racial attacks; the restrictions on abortion rights; and the disparity in rates of ill mental health and lack of funding.
The Belfast-based Participation and Practice of Rights group noted that “The full impact of austerity measures — including public spending cuts of £1.5billion by 2020, with 20,000 public sector job cuts forecast — have still to be felt, but given NI’s disproportionately large public sector is likely to be severe.”
Groups also highlighted how the region is particularly vulnerable to Brexit due to the land border and reliance on EU funding.
Alston said his trip to Belfast left him struck by the physical segregation between communities, as well as “persistent inequalities along religious lines”, noting the ongoing issue of “government was not building sufficient social housing in predominantly Catholic areas”, longest waiting times are for Catholics, and that a “startling 69% of those long-term unemployed are Catholic, compared with 31% Protestant as of 2016.”
Alston notes how Northern Ireland, along with the the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales, have tried to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity. They’ve provided access to welfare funds for emergency hardships, despite experiencing significant reductions in block grant funding and constitutional limits on their ability to raise revenue.
Yet he says that mitigation is not sustainable, highlighting that Northern Ireland’s mitigation package runs out in 2020 – a “cliff edge scenario.”
He adds that “it is outrageous that devolved administrations need to spend resources to shield people from government policies.”
He said devolved administrations “were preparing for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic. They have expended significant money and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system.”
Alston notes that the lack of devolved assembly here limits attempts to mitigate. However, other devolved assemblies – despite some important efforts – are also being overwhelmed by brunt of London’s policies – so it is not certain that a functioning assembly would make a a big enough difference.
Additionally, as some have argued, when the Assembly was running, it did acquiesce to Welfare Reform. Others have said they had little choice in the matter. But if that is true, then it just underlines the point about what difference would a functioning Assembly in 2019 mean?
After the report came out, the UK refuted his claims, saying the report is “barely believable”, that it is impossible to reach his conclusions after such a short trip, and Philip Hammond has described the findings as “nonsense.”
Alston has hit back at what he called “a total denial of a set of uncontested facts” by the government, and attempts to discredit his work. (The UK government and press have a history of discrediting the UN personnel delivering critical reports. The Daily Mail described Raquel Rolnik, who delivered a critical report about housing rights in the UK, as a Marxist practitioner of witchcraft).
At the human rights council meeting last week in Geneva, the UK representative did not take the chance to defend itself, merely point itself to it’s previously submitted written statement.
The only mention of Northern Ireland was in reference to the ongoing religious inequality in housing allocation, which was blamed on “the legacy of the conflict” and “individual preferences”.
Alston was joined at the UN sessions by young children from a school in Glasgow’s East End, in one of the poorest parts of Britain. When asked about the UK government’s dismal of the UN investigation, one of the children said people just need to keep up the fight: “They should listen. We will keep on… until they do something about it.”
Luke Butterly is a writer focusing on the politics of immigration in Ireland and Britain. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Guardian. He can be found on Twitter @lukejbutterly