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Last year the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights heard evidence from delegates at UoB Law School. His final report is now published.

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22 May 2019

Philip Alston UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights taking evidence from delegates

On 6th November 2018, the University of Bristol Law School hosted a meeting with Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, and eight organisations. This was his only meeting focussing specifically on extreme poverty in rural areas in the UK. A short (21 pages) final report on his mission to the UK has now been published

Here is a summary of the report

"The Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, undertook a mission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 5 to 16 November 2018.

Although the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy, one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017. Policies of austerity introduced in 2010 continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences. Close to 40 per cent of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021. Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated.

The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings. The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos. A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda."

A few key paragraphs of the Overview are

"II. Overview 

3. The United Kingdom, the world’s fifth largest economy, is a leading centre of global finance, boasts a “fundamentally strong” economy and currently enjoys record low levels of unemployment. But despite such prosperity, one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty. Four million of those are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line3 and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, unable to afford basic essentials. Following drastic changes in government economic policy beginning in 2010, the two preceding decades of progress in tackling child and pensioner poverty have begun to unravel and poverty is again on the rise. Relative child poverty rates are expected to increase by 7 per cent between 2015 and 2021 and overall child poverty rates to reach close to 40 per cent. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain would not just be a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one.

4. But statistics alone cannot capture the full picture of poverty in the United Kingdom, much of it the direct result of government policies (unless otherwise indicated, “Government” in the present report refers to the United Kingdom Government). Official denials notwithstanding, it 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 – 24,000 between April and June of 2018 – have been dispatched to live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks;7 life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated, thus shutting out large numbers of low-income persons from the once-proud justice system. Government reforms have often denied benefits to people with severe disabilities and pushed them into unsuitable work, single mothers struggling to cope in very difficult circumstances have been left far worse off, care for those with mental illnesses has deteriorated dramatically, and teachers’ real salaries have been slashed. The number of emergency admissions to hospitals of homeless people (“of no fixed abode”) increased sevenfold between 2008–2009 and 2017–2018.9

5. In the past, the worst casualties of these “reforms” would have received at least minimal protection from the broader social safety net. But austerity policies have deliberately gutted local authorities and thereby effectively eliminated many social services, reduced policing services to skeletal proportions, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres, and sold off public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres. It is hardly surprising that civil society has reported unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation, prompting the Government to appoint a Minister for Suicide Prevention. The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.

8. The Special Rapporteur also witnessed tremendous resilience, strength and generosity, and heard stories of deeply compassionate work coaches, local officials and volunteers; neighbours supporting one another; councils seeking creative solutions; and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services. People across the United Kingdom made it clear that they want to work, and are taking hard, low-paying and insecure jobs in order to put food on the table. They want to contribute to their society and communities, support their families, live in safe, affordable housing and take control over their lives.

9. In the face of these problems, the Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial. While local authorities throughout England and Wales are outsourcing or abandoning services, and devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to “mitigate” or counteract the worst features of the Government’s policies, ministers insist that all is well and running according to plan. Despite some reluctant policy tweaks, there has been a deeply ingrained resistance to change. The good news is that many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to listen to people experiencing poverty, the voluntary sector and local authorities, acknowledge their grievances and implement the recommendations below."

The report’s conclusions and recommendations are:

95. The philosophy underpinning the British welfare system has changed radically since 2010. 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.

96. The United Kingdom Government should:

(a) Introduce a single, multidimensional measure of poverty;
(b) Systematically measure food security;
(c) Request the National Audit Office to assess the cumulative social impact of tax and spending decisions since 2010, especially on vulnerable groups, with a view to identifying what would be required to restore an effective social safety net;
(d) Reverse particularly regressive measures such as the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap and the reduction of the Housing Benefit, including for under-occupied social rented housing;
(e) Restore local government funding needed to provide critical social protection and tackle poverty at the community level, and take varying needs of communities and differing tax bases into account in the ongoing Fair Funding Review;
(f) Initiate an independent review of the efficacy of changes to welfare conditionality and sanctions introduced since 2012 by the Department of Work and Pensions;
(g) Train Department staff to use more constructive and less punitive approaches to encouraging compliance;
(h) Eliminate the five-week delay in receiving initial UC benefits;
(i) Ensure that the benefit truly works for individuals, including by facilitating alternative payment arrangements and reviewing the monthly assessment practices;
(j) Review and remedy the systematic disadvantage inflicted by current policies on women, as well as on children, persons with disabilities, older persons and ethnic minorities;
(k) Re-evaluate privatization policies to ensure that the approach adopted achieves the best outcomes for the citizenry rather than for the corporate sector; transport, especially in rural areas, should be considered an essential service and the Government should ensure that all areas are adequately and affordably served.

97. Brexit presents an opportunity to reimagine what the United Kingdom stands for. Legislative recognition of social rights should be a central part of that reimagining. And social inclusion, rather than increasing marginalization of the working poor and those unable to work, should be the guiding principle of social policy.

Read full report here


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