By Dr George Venturini
On 16 November 2018, delivering his report in London on a visit of twelve days to the United Kingdom, Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – and incidentally an Australian – had this to say:
“The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, it contains many areas of immense wealth, its capital is a leading centre of global finance, its entrepreneurs are innovative and agile, and despite the current political turmoil, it has a system of government that rightly remains the envy of much of the world.
It thus 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 food banks 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.
And local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies. Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centres have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres have been sold off. While the labour and housing markets provide the crucial backdrop, the focus of this report is on the contribution made by social security and related policies.
The results? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. [Emphasis added]
Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, (Social Metrics Commission, ‘A new measure of poverty for the UK,’ September 2018; and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. [Emphasis added] (Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Glen Bramley, et al., ‘Destitution in the UK 2018,’ June 7, 2018).
The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. [Emphasis added] (Institute for Fiscal Studies, “Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2017-18 to 2021-22,” ifs.org.uk, November 2, 2017).
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, all rolled into one. [Emphasis added]
But the full picture of low-income well-being in the UK cannot be captured by statistics alone. Its manifestations are clear for all to see. The country’s most respected charitable groups, its leading think tanks, its parliamentary committees, independent authorities like the National Audit Office, and many others, have all drawn attention to the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well off in this country.
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. Even while devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to devise ways to ‘mitigate’, or in other words counteract, at least the worst features of the Government’s benefits policy, Ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan. [Emphasis added] Some tweaks to basic policy have reluctantly been made, but there has been a determined resistance to change in response to the many problems which so many people at all levels have brought to my attention. The good news is that many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations below.
In my travels across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland I met with people living in poverty, whether old, young, disabled, in work or not. I talked with civil society, front line workers, work coaches, and officials from local, devolved, and UK governments; and visited community organizations, social housing, a Jobcentre, a food bank, an advice center, a library, and a primary school. I also met a range of Ministers in the central government and in Wales, as well as with the First Minister in Scotland. I spoke at length with politicians from all of the major political parties.
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.
I have also seen tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbours supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services. I also heard stories of deeply compassionate work coaches and of a regional JobCenter director who had transformed the ethos in the relevant offices.
Although the provision of social security to those in need is a public service and a vital anchor to prevent people being pulled into poverty, the policies put in place since 2010 are usually discussed under the rubric of austerity. But this framing leads the inquiry in the wrong direction. 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. Successive governments have brought revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it. Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned. In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also 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.
Most of the political debate around social well-being in the UK has focused only on the goals sought to be achieved. These goals are in many respects admirable, even though some have been controversial. They include a commitment to place employment at the heart of anti-poverty policy, a quest for greater efficiency and cost savings, a determination to simplify an excessively complicated and unwieldy benefits system, a desire to increase the uptake of benefits by those entitled, removing the ‘welfare cliff’ that deterred beneficiaries from seeking work, and a desire to provide more skills training.
But Universal Credit and the other far-reaching changes to the role of government in supporting people in distress are almost always ‘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. 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.
Leaving the economics of change to one side, it is the underlying values and the ethos shaping the design and implementation of specific measures that have generated the greatest problems. The government has made no secret of its determination to change the value system to focus more on individual responsibility, to place major limits on government support, and to pursue a single-minded, and some have claimed simple-minded, focus on getting people into employment at all costs. Many aspects of this program are legitimate matters for political contestation, but it is the mentality that has informed many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. 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. I provide various examples later in this statement.” (OHCHR | ‘Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom’, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, London, 16 November 2018).
In the remainder of the damning report, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur condemned the British government’s “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous” treatment of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable.
The special Rapporteur said that policies and drastic cuts to social support were entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world, adding that Brexit was exacerbating the problem.
“The United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union poses particular risks for people in poverty, but the government appears to be treating this as an afterthought.”
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The Report goes on to document a series of findings which combine to present a withering assessment of Britain’s approach to its poorest citizens, detailing a predicted 7 per cent rise in child poverty, a 60 per cent increase in homelessness since 2010 and exponential growth in the number of food banks.
“During my visit I have spoken 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,” Professor Alston said. And he added:
“I’ve also met 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 benefits, against their doctor’s orders.” [Emphasis added]
The Rapporteur said that successive governments had overseen a systematic dismantling of the social safety net, suggesting that the introduction of universal credit and significant reductions to support had undermined the capacity of benefits to relieve poverty.
“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach,” he said.
“As a ‘digital by default’ benefit, universal credit has created an online barrier between people with poor digital literacy and their legal entitlements. And the ‘test and learn’ approach to the rollout treats claimants like guinea pigs and can wreak havoc in real peoples’ lives.”
Delivering the Report, Professor Alston said that “not nearly enough” was being done to address the challenges and described a “state of denial by ministers” regarding the state of poverty in the United Kingdom.
He added: “[Ministers] have an overriding set of objectives to cut the welfare system, cut what they see as dependences. I cannot believe that they are as happy with the system as they told me they were.”
Referencing reforms to the benefit system, the U.N. Rapporteur said that universal credit was a “sudden tonne of bricks approach” which is “utterly inconsistent with the essential underpinnings of not just human rights, but the whole British sense of community and the values of justice and fairness.”
Professor Alston added: “The system epitomised by universal credit, but not limited to that, is in fact driven by the desire to get across a simple set of messages: the state does not have your back any longer. You are on your own. … The government’s place is not to be assisting people who think they can’t make it on their own. The government’s place is an absolute last emergency order, and what goes along with that is a sense that we should make the system as unwelcoming as possible.
The command and control approach reflected in universal credit is that sanctions should be harsh, immediate and painful – and yet all of the evidence that I’ve seen indicate that sanctions are usually counter-productive, that they create fear and loathing among claimants and they impose immense hardship.”
When asked about the kind of future the United Kingdom faces, Professor Alston said: “Britain is heading towards an alienated society where you have pretty dramatic differences between the upper classes and the lower classes … “The era of connectivity, social media and so on make it much less sustainable to have these two dramatically different societies – of people living the high life but people on the other hand not able to afford a tin of baked beans.”
Describing the state of affairs for poor groups on a local level, Professor Alston said that local authorities, which he said performed a “vital role” in providing a social safety net, had been “gutted” by a series of government policies. He added: “The public land that is being sold off, the libraries that are being closed down, the youth services that are being sized down. Soon, there will be nowhere for them to go. … They will find themselves living in an increasingly hostile society because community roots are being broken. There is real reason for concern.” [Emphasis added]
When asked by The Independent to what extent the government’s immigration policies contributed to poverty, Professor Alston condemned the treatment of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom and urged ministers to consider giving people seeking asylum the right to work.
“Expecting asylum seekers to survive without any access to government services on £37 a week is unrealistic and very punitive. Enabling those people to seek work is a minor concession that should be contemplated,” he said.
Responding to the findings, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood urged the government to listen to the people being pushed into poverty by its policies. “Universal credit is failing miserably, leaving families in debt, rent arrears and at risk of becoming homeless. Three million children are growing up in poverty despite living in a working household,” she added.
“Labour will stop the roll out of universal credit, end the benefit freeze and transform the social security system so that it supports people instead of punishing them.” (M.Bulman, ‘UN condemns UK government’s ‘mean-spirited and callous approach’ to poorest,’ independent.co.uk, 16 November 2018).
Two weeks after the Windsor Inc., the Special Broadcasting Service returned to the subject of ‘The Royals’ in a documentary which had a less gossipy, much more serious purpose: to document the story behind the connection and support that Hitler and his régime enjoyed among the British élite: 10 November 2018 at 8:30 pm: ‘The Royals, British Aristocracy and the Nazis.’
“When does misguided and hazardous appeasement become criminal collaboration with the enemy?”
The S.B.S. documentary from Oxford TV on Edward VIII, The Nazi King unwittingly raises the question.
It chiefly portrays recently declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation files as revealing that the king of the British Empire, Edward VIII, and his lover Mrs. Wallace Simpson were not only pro-Nazi, but also maintained contact with Hitler’s Germany throughout the war, allegedly giving away secrets to the enemy, and wanting to return to Britain after a Nazi victory as leader.
That Edward was a love-struck fool who acted dangerously and deeply embarrassed and troubled the British Government, there is no doubt. But was is a traitor? Hard to say conclusively.
Continued Saturday – Terminal adolescents (part 7)
Previous instalment – Terminal adolescents (part 5)
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at George.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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