UN Report on Extreme Poverty In The UK - A Damning Indictment


Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, visited the UK just before Christmas.

His report is shocking, and damning of the poverty suffered by those at the bottom of society in the eight years since the Tories came into power.

The response from the Tories ? They dismissed it out of hand.

This was echoed in the newly arrived Secretary of State for Work and PensionsAmber Rudd’s who's bare-faced repudiation of the UN findings included describing the report as “political”.

The report is here, and here are some of the most relevant quotations.



Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights


The full report in PDF is 24 pages of close type, and this is an interim report. This is a selection of comments.


Introduction
It seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the Government to appoint a Minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation.
The results? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.
Various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%.  For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.
But through it all, one actor has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is.  The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial. Ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan.
In the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering.
Great misery has been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping.
[Austerity has been] 'sold’ as being part of an unavoidable program of fiscal ‘austerity’, needed to save the country from bankruptcy, in fact, however, the reforms have almost certainly cost the country far more than their proponents will admit.
British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instil 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.

Brexit
I take no position on its merits or on the optimal terms for undertaking it, but ... if current policies towards low income working people and others living in poverty are maintained in the face of these developments, the poor will be substantially less well off than they already are.  This could well lead to significant public discontent, further division and even instability.
Given the vast number of policies, programs and spending priorities that will need to be addressed over the next few years, and the major changes that will inevitably accompany them, it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society who will be least able to cope and will take the biggest hit.
In my meetings with the government, it was clear to me that the impact of Brexit on people in poverty is an afterthought.
Almost all studies have shown that the UK economy will be worse off because of Brexit, with consequences for inflation, real wages, and consumer prices.
If the European Charter of Fundamental Rights becomes no longer applicable in the UK, the level of human rights protections enjoyed by the population will be significantly diminished.

Universal Credit
No single program embodies the combination of the benefits reforms and the promotion of austerity programs more than Universal Credit.It is fast falling into Universal Discredit.
Consolidating six different benefits into one makes good sense, in principle.  But 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.
There are far too many instances in which Universal Credit is being implemented in ways that negatively impact many claimants’ mental health, finances, and work prospects.
When asked about these problems, Government ministers were almost entirely dismissive, blaming political opponents for wanting to sabotage their work, or suggesting that the media didn’t really understand the system.
The Universal Credit system is designed with a five week delay. Research suggests that this “waiting period” actually often takes up to 12 weeks, The rationales offered for the delay are entirely illusory, and the motivation strikes me as a combination of cost-saving, enhanced cashflows, and wanting to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship.
The government says it is taking an experimental “test and learn” approach to Universal Credit, but there seems to be an unacknowledged risk that this approach could treat vulnerable people like guinea pigs and wreak havoc in real peoples’ lives.
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.

A Digital Welfare State
The 2017 Government Transformation Strategy was presented as “the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world.” Government services become ‘digital by default.’ We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm.

Universal Credit as a Digital by Default Service
The UK government made Universal Credit the first major government service that is ‘digital by default.’ One wonders why some of the most vulnerable and those with poor digital literacy had to go first in what amounts to a nationwide digital experiment.
According to a 2017 Citizens Advice survey, 52% of its clients in ‘full service’ Universal Credit areas found the online application process difficult. According to DWP’s own survey from June 2018, only 54% of all claimants were able to apply online independently, without assistance.
The reality is that digital assistance has been outsourced to public libraries and civil society organizations. Public libraries are on the frontline of helping the digitally excluded and digitally illiterate who wish to claim their right to Universal Credit.

Automated Benefits
With automation comes error at scale. Various experts and civil society organizations pointed to problems with the data feed, including through wrong or late information transmitted by employers to HMRC. According to DWP, a team of 50 civil servants work full-time on dealing with the 2% of the millions of monthly transactions that are incorrect. The default position of DWP is to give the automated system the benefit of the doubt.

The Dismantling of the Broader Social Safety Net
This section focuses specifically on the effects of the benefit freeze and cap, the reduction of legal aid, the reduced funding of local authorities, and resulting cuts in other specific services.
Benefit Reductions and Limits
Poor households typically spend a higher proportion of their income on consumer goods than wealthy households and already often struggle to put food on the table after bills are paid. Despite this, the Government froze benefit rates in 2016, thus enabling continuing inflation to systematically reduce the value of the benefits. Poor families have thus had to do more with less as the prices of goods has gone up and the value of their income has declined.
This year, when the Chancellor could have used the windfall he received from the Office for Budget Responsibility to end the benefit freeze a year earlier than planned, he instead chose to change income tax thresholds in a way that will help those better off and will do nothing to move the needle on poverty.
Legal Aid
These have overwhelmingly affected the poor and people with disabilities, many of whom cannot otherwise afford to challenge benefit denials or reductions and are thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act gutted the scope of cases that are handled, ratcheted up the level of means-tested eligibility criteria, and substituted telephonic for many previously face-to-face advice services.
Local Authorities’ Cuts
In 2010, the Government pledged to radically reform public services by cutting funding to local authorities in England. This has had tremendous implications for local authorities, which are obligated to balance their books and whose revenue raising powers are limited.
As a result, they have transferred a greater share of service costs to users who are often the least able to pay. They have cut spending on services by 19% and focused their spending on statutorily mandatory adult social care and child protection services.
More than 500 children’s centers closed between 2010 and 2018, and between 2010 and 2016 more than 340 libraries closed and 8,000 library jobs were lost. Anyone can rely on public services like the library, but they are of particular significance to those living in poverty who may need to access a computer or a safe community space.
Local governments are even struggling with the basic services they are statutorily obligated to provide.
As a result there are concerns that hundreds of vulnerable children are at greater risk of harm due to rapidly deteriorating frontline child protection services.
Cuts In Other Services
Cuts are being made without either measuring or accounting for their broader impact, such as increasing the need for crisis support and mental health services. And cuts that pare back the government’s ability to tackle poverty don’t even make economic sense. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that poverty is costing the UK £78 billion per year in measures to reduce or alleviate poverty - not counting the cost of benefits.
The voluntary sector has done an admirable job of picking up the slack for those government functions that have been cut or de facto outsourced. But that work is not an adequate substitute for the government’s obligations.

Measuring and Monitoring Poverty
More and more working people are trapped in poverty by a rising tide of low pay, debt, and high living costs.
To address poverty systematically and effectively it is essential to know its extent and character.  Yet the United Kingdom does not have an official measure of poverty. It produces four different measures of people who live on “below average income.” This allows it to pick and choose which numbers to use and to claim that “absolute poverty” is falling.
Seen in context, however, other measures show that progress in reducing poverty has flat lined, child poverty is rising, and poverty is projected to rise in the coming years.
The government told me that there are 3.3 million more people in work than in 2010, that so called “absolute poverty” is falling, and that the social support system is working. But there is a striking and almost complete disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from many people directly, across the country.
Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry. They are thus just one crisis away from of falling into poverty through no fault of their own.
Cuts to social support, preventative services, and local councils mean that when people need help, there are fewer resources to support them, causing them to rely on charities and crisis services.
I also heard story after story from people who considered and even attempted suicide, and spoke with multiple organizations that have instituted suicide prevention training for frontline staff in recent years.
These aren’t just anecdotes. They are reflected in the numbers. In England, homelessness is up 60% since 2010, rough sleeping is up 134%. There are 1.2 million people on the social housing waiting list, but less than 6,000 homes were built last year. Food bank use is up almost four-fold since 2012, and there are now about 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis.
Not only does the government not measure food poverty, but a Minister dismissed the significance of foodbank use as being only occasional and noted that foodbanks exist in many other western countries.

Employment as the Cure-All for Poverty
The government says work is the solution to poverty and points to record employment rates as evidence that the country is going in the right direction. But being in employment does not magically overcome poverty. In-work poverty is increasingly common and almost 60% of those in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works.
Low wages, insecure jobs, and zero hour contracts mean that even at record unemployment there are still 14 million people in poverty.
Jobs aren’t even a guarantee against people needing food banks. The Trussell Trust told me that one in six people referred to their food banks is in work. One pastor said “The majority of people using our food bank are in work…. Nurses and teachers are accessing food banks.”


The Hardest Hit
The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities. The changes to taxes and benefits since 2010 have been highly regressive, and the policies have taken the highest toll on those least able to bear it.
According to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, while the bottom 20% of earners will have lost on average 10% of their income by 2021/22 as a result of these changes, top earners have actually come out ahead.
Women
Women are particularly affected by poverty. Reductions in social care services translate to an increased burden on primary caregivers who are disproportionately women. Changes to the support for single parents also disproportionately affect women, who make up about 90% of single parents, and as of August of this year, two-thirds of Universal Credit recipients who had their benefits capped were single parents.
Children
Many of the recent changes to social support in the UK have a disparate impact on children, including the deeply problematic two child policy, the outrageous rape exception, and the benefits cap. The Equality and Human Rights Commission forecasts that another 1.5 million more children will fall into poverty between 2010 and 2021/22 as a result of the changes to benefits and taxes, a 10% increase from 31% to 41%.
According to the Social Metrics Commission, almost a third of children in the UK live in poverty.
After years of progress, child poverty is rising again, and expected to continue increasing sharply in the coming years.
Because of changes to benefits and taxes, the Equality and Human Rights Commission projects the poverty rate for children in single parent households to jump to a shocking 62% by 2021/22.
People with Disabilities
Nearly half of those in poverty, 6.9 million people, are from families in which someone has a disability. People with disabilities are more likely to be in poverty, and are more likely to be unemployed, in insecure employment, or economically inactive.
They have also been some of the hardest hit from austerity measures.
As a result of changes to benefits and taxes since 2010, some families with disabilities are projected to lose £11,000 on average by 2021/22, more than 30% of their annual net income.
Pensioners
Despite the protections offered by the triple lock, pensioner poverty has begun to rise after decades of decline.
Women born in the 1950s have been particularly impacted by an abrupt and poorly phased in change in the state pension age from 60 to 66.
Asylum Seekers and Migrants
Destitution is built into the asylum system. Asylum seekers are banned from working and limited to a derisory level of support that guarantees they will live in poverty. The government promotes work as the solution to poverty, yet refuses to allow this particular group to work.
For those who have no recourse to public funds as a result of their immigration status, the situation can be particularly difficult; such individuals face an increased risk of exploitation and enjoy restricted access to educational opportunities.
Rural Poverty
Despite the idyllic traditional image of the English countryside, poverty in rural areas is particularly harsh. 
Without adequate access to transportation, people can’t get to work even when they are able to get a job.
And with the government’s new dependence on digital-by-default benefits applications, lack of broadband internet or access to libraries are particularly painful. Government officials assured me that anyone can walk off the street and get support to make an online claim for benefits, but that’s simply not the case for people living outside major cities.

Devolved Administrations
Scotland and Northern Ireland each report spending about £125 million per year to protect people from the worst impacts of austerity. And unlike England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have continued to provide access to welfare funds for emergency hardships.
But mitigation comes at a price and is not sustainable. The Scottish government has urged the UK to put an end to the benefit freeze and the two child limit on certain benefits, and told me that they have reached the limit of what they can afford to mitigate, because every pound spent on off-setting cuts means taking away from other vital services.
Northern Ireland’s mitigation package runs out in 2020.
Scotland
Scotland has recently put in place schemes for addressing poverty, including its Fairer Scotland Action Plan and Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan. It has also used newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system guided by the principles of dignity and social security as a human right, and co-designed on the basis of evidence. The system eschews sanctions entirely and, in contrast to Universal Credit, is decidedly not digital by default. Rather, the stated goal it to make benefits equally accessible however people want to access them.
Wales
Wales faces the highest relative poverty rate in the United Kingdom, with almost one in four people living in relative income poverty. Like the rest of the United Kingdom, employment has not proven to be an automatic route out of poverty in Wales. In-work poverty has grown over the last decade, despite considerable improvement in the employment rate.
Twenty-five percent of  jobs pay below the minimum wage, and low-paid, part-time or insecure jobs are often disproportionately taken up by women,
In the absence of devolved power over social security benefits, the Welsh Government’s capacity to directly mitigate the reduction in benefits is limited, thereby shifting the burden to low-income households. There is a wide consensus among stakeholders that the benefit changes are one of the structural causes behind the increase in poverty, rough sleeping, and homelessness in Wales.
Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, the lack of a government forecloses the possibility of any major efforts to tackle poverty and results in an accountability vacuum. Like Scotland, Northern Ireland has taken steps to mitigate some of the worst effects of austerity measures, and is taking a different and seemingly more humane approach to certain aspects of Universal Credit. But a £500 million mitigation package is set to run out in 2020, and its expiration could have dire consequences for people living in poverty.

Conclusion
The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion 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.
The compassion and mutual concern that has long been part of the British tradition has been outsourced.
In its fiscal analyses, the Treasury and the Government constantly repeat the refrain that fiscal policy must “avoid burdening the next generation.” The message is that the debt burden must be paid off now. The problem is that the next generation’s prospects are already being grievously undermined by the systematic dismantling of social protection policies since 2010.
The negotiations surrounding Brexit present an opportunity to take stock of the current situation and reimagine what this country should represent and how it protects its people.

Recommendations
The UK should introduce a single measure of poverty and measure food security.
The government should initiate an expert assessment of the cumulative impact of tax and spending decisions since 2010 and prioritize the reversal of particularly regressive measures, including the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and the reduction of the housing benefit for under-occupied social rented housing.
The Department of Work and Pensions should conduct an independent review of the effectiveness of reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions introduced since 2012, and should immediately instruct its staff to explore more constructive and less punitive approaches to encouraging compliance.
The five week delay in receiving benefits under Universal Credit should be eliminated, separate payments should be made to different household members, and weekly or fortnightly payments should be facilitated.
Transport, especially in rural areas, should be considered an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity, and the government should regulate the sector to the extent necessary to ensure that people living in rural areas are adequately served. Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.
As the country moves toward Brexit, the Government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens.



So .. how happy are you now that you voted Tories?
Remember, you were warned by everybody.
And you chose this anyway.

You. Chose. This.



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