UN’s Alston condemns UK Government for using poverty to create Dickensian ‘workhouse Britain’

Poverty in the UK (Demo)

A UN poverty expert has accused the Government of using austerity and welfare reform to redesign British society into something akin to a Dickensian workhouse.

In his final report, released today, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, offered a scathing and highly critical indictment of Conservative policy since the party returned to government office in 2010.

Austerity cuts have increased levels of poverty, while welfare reform has served to exacerbate the problem, according to Alston’s report. Even so, ministers are in denial about the impact of their policies.

Blind they may be to the impact, nonetheless, Alston suggests they knew more or less what they were doing – engaging in a far-reaching political project.

“[I]n the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence suggests that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering – a dramatic restructuring of the relationship between people and the State,” the report notes.

The report went on: “British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping, and elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society.

“It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work & Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens, rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity in an age of deep and rapid transformation brought about by automation, zero-hour contracts and rapidly growing inequality.”

Alston’s findings paint a grim picture – Dickensian indeed: 14 million people in the UK, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, unable to afford basic essentials.

Furthermore, after years of progress, poverty is rising again, with child poverty predicted to rise 7% percent between 2015 and 2021, and overall child poverty close to 40%. Meanwhile, homelessness is up 60% since 2010, and food banks are rapidly multiplying.

“In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one,” Alston said.

Such findings themselves merit little surprise; plenty of reports have documented the grim litany of poverty’s advance over the years. Whether published by thinktanks, charities, parliamentary committees and more, they’ve offered plenty of damning evidence for the negative impacts of Government policies on austerity and welfare, even if they have tended to avoid quite the accusatory tone employed by Alston’s report.

Indeed, when Alston published his interim report in November last year, work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd initially refused to engage on the matters raised: declaring herself “disappointed” by its “political nature”.

Alston spent 12 days touring the country last year, publishing his interim report in November 2018. He travelled to nine cities in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. During this time, he met with people affected by poverty, civil society, front line workers, and officials from a range of political parties in local, devolved and UK Governments.

“Government policies have inflicted great misery unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalised, and on millions of children who are locked into a cycle of poverty from which many will have great difficulty escaping,” Alston said last year.

Alston welcomed some of the concessions the Government has made since he published his interim report; even so the special rapporteur nevertheless called for minister to do more to reverse much of the austerity cuts. Funding should be restored to local authorities, for instance, while he also calls for the Government to scrap the overall benefit cap and end the five-week delay claimants must endure before receiving their first Universal Credit payment. Moreover, Alston called for a root-and-branch change in Government thinking.

“The philosophy underpinning the British welfare system has changed radically since 2010,” he noted in the report. “The initial rationales for reform were to reduce overall expenditures and to promote employment as the principal ‘cure’ for poverty. But when large-scale poverty persisted despite a booming economy and very high levels of employment, the Government chose not to adjust course.

“Instead, it 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.

“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 Thomas Hobbes observed long ago, such an approach condemns the least well off to lives that are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. As the British social contract slowly evaporates, Hobbes’ prediction risks becoming the new reality.”

The Labour Party was quick to pick up on the report. Responding, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Margaret Greenwood, said: “This report is a shocking indictment of the brutal cuts to social security introduced by Conservative-led governments since 2010 and the deeply flawed, punitive system that they have created.

“The evidence it sets out should be a source of shame to this Government, from people being driven into debt due to the wait for Universal Credit, through to those at risk of destitution because of the draconian sanctions regime.

“The sharp increase in food bank use tells us that the social security system has lost its way and is failing to protect people from poverty.

“The Government attacked the initial report in November as being ‘political’ and brushed it aside. It must now end this state of denial, listen to the evidence and take urgent action to tackle the profound injustices in our society.”

Read the report HERE.


Main Image: UN special rapporteur Philip Alston visits a foodbank in Newcastle during his 12-day visit in 2018. Copyright Bassam Khawaja.



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