The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has published his statement following his visit to the UK, and he hasn’t pulled his punches. He doesn’t say anything that has not been said before, but he can speak with an authority others can’t command. The trouble is that the UN has no powers to make the UK shift course. If they had, I have a feeling that that this sort of report wouldn’t be allowed to be written.
After setting out evidence of the appalling growth and extent of poverty in the UK, Professor Alston concludes that:
poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.
He writes about ‘the overall social safety net… being systematically dismantled’
And he observes that:
British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society.
I’m not sure what is especially ‘British’ about compassion, but the rest is spot on.
In a long critique of Universal Credit he notes that,
many aspects of the design and rollout of the programme have suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting.
And he speculates that DWP motivation for the built in delay in claimants receiving their first Universal Credit payment includes ‘wanting to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship’.
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.
But, as he has made clear, this disaster is being deliberately imposed.
Although there may be savings in the DWP budget, Alston is convinced that cuts and changes to social security have not been about saving money overall. ‘In the area of poverty-related policy’ he writes,
the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering… Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned.
In fact – and this is a point that is not made nearly enough – he observes that,
the reforms have almost certainly cost the country far more than their proponents will admit. The many billions advertised as having been extracted from the benefits system since 2010 have been offset by the additional resources required to fund emergency services by families and the community, by local government, by doctors and hospital accident and emergency centres, and even by the ever-shrinking and under-funded police force.
Alston describes the UK Government as remaining ‘determinedly in a state of denial’, with ministers insisting that ‘all is well and running according to plan’. Predictably, this state continues, and they deny the truth of the report. And from the Government perspective, the Brexit plan chaos would seem to have a small silver lining, as this had been a good week to bury other bad news. So don’t expect this report to bring any radical change. But we have seen another nail go into the benefit-cuts coffin – another small shift in public understanding and perception of what is happening – and it has become that little bit harder for any future government to backtrack on reversing the assault on the poor.
(There is an unfortunate error in the section of the report looking at Scotland where it claims that Glasgow City Council only turns round 3% of Welfare Fund Grants within 24 hours. A council spokesman told Saturday’s National that the correct figure is 91%.)
The picture shows Professor Alston talking to school children in Glasgow. It was taken by Bassam Khawaja and published in Third Force News