“The impact on the human rights of the most vulnerable in the UK will be immense.”
Professor Philip Alston has been on a visit to the UK. It’s not been for pleasure but for work as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He has toured all parts of the UK: Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland and England and spoken to politicians and those directly affected by the UK Government’s austerity policies. He was shocked at what he found and his report clearly communicates this.
In the UK , the 5th largest economy in the world, “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.”
On the welfare (austerity) policies put in place first by a Labour Government, built upon by the Tory/Liberal Democrat Coalition and accelerated by the Tory Government he states:
“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives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. “
Professor Alston takes no view on Brexit, Leave or Remain, but is concerned with its impact on the most vulnerable in our society.
“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. “
And he suggests that this could lead to civil unrest as divisions in society deepen.
“According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, if the government does not adequately uprate benefits to account for inflation after Brexit, up to 900,000 more people could fall into poverty. This would strain a social support system that has been gutted in recent years.”
“If the European Charter of Fundamental Rights becomes no longer applicable in the UK, the level of human rights protections enjoyed by the population will be significantly diminished. The UK should not roll back EU-derived human rights protections on workplace regulation and inequality.“
Professor Alston refers extensively in his report to Universal Credit – the benefits system now rolling out across the UK having been piloted in several areas, including Inverness where people were reliant on foodbanks for basic living needs as payments were delayed.
Having examined its effects Professor Alston renames it Universal Discredit.
What should have been a simpler system with multiple benefits rolled into one, says Professor Alston, became a way for the Department for Work and Pensions to be 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.”
From his many conversations with people and investigating the effects of UC Professor Alston hits out at the delays in the payment system which for some claimants can be up to 12 weeks and the subsequent debt and hardship people are reduced to.
“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. Instead, recipients are immediately plunged into further debt and inevitably struggle mightily to survive.”
Sanctions can be applied with UC to claimants which are described in the report as often ‘draconian’ , harsh and arbitrary’ ” as well as the devastating effects that resulted from being completely shut out of the benefits system for weeks or months at a time.”
And for those claimants with a disability an ‘ Inquiry undertaken by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found “evidence of grave and systematic violation of the rights of persons with disabilities,” ‘
Professor Alston acknowledges the work being done by some local authorities and voluntary bodies to mitigate the effects of UC and of the Scottish Government who have called for it to be halted. The Scottish Government has also introduced some flexibility into the system with an increased frequency of payments, despite UC being a reserved issue to the UK Government.
As the report continues it becomes even more damning about a welfare system once the pride of Britain now being dismantled as it goes digital.
“We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm. In its place, a digital welfare state is emerging. The impact on the human rights of the most vulnerable in the UK will be immense.”
UC claimants have to go online to apply and in poorer households there are not the facilities to do this. Claimants are also pre-supposed to have the IT skills to apply online.
- 47% of those on low income use broadband internet at home
- 42% of those who are unemployed do online banking
- 43% of those on low income do online banking.
- 21% of the UK population do not have five basic digital skills
- 16% of the population is not able to fill out an online application form.
Professor Alston refers to this as a digital barrier for claimants obstructing their ability to make a claim. To get over the digital barrier, public libraries and voluntary organisations try to help people. A third of new claims however never reach the end of the process and no one knows how many people who should be claiming simply do not because of the digital barrier.
The online system often gets it wrong , but in the first instance it is assumed to be correct by the DWP which means that people have to wait weeks before the error is corrected and they receive what they are due.
The report criticises the UK Government for its freeze on benefits and for policies like the 2 child benefit cap. It hits out at the Chancellor’s decision to help the better off with a change to income tax levels instead of lifting the freeze on benefits.
Local authorities in England , with budgets savagely cut by the UK Government have passed it on by cutting services by 19%. In England many local authorities have closed or severely reduced their local welfare funds where people most in need can go for emergency help. Cuts to other services have a knock on effect to those already vulnerable.
“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. £1 in every £5 spent on public services is making up for the way that poverty has damaged people’s lives.”
Professor Alston’s report is scathing of the UK Government, deaf to the dire implications of the effects of poverty on so many in our society.
“Many of the people I heard from ended up struggling to overcome financial hardship because of a surprise health condition, a divorce, or a child’s disability.
“More and more working people are trapped in poverty by a rising tide of low pay, debt, and high living costs, and a majority of the UK population will use some form of benefits over an 18-year period.
“In other words, a majority of the British people have a personal stake in the welfare system functioning effectively.”
The welfare system is there as a safety net for when any one of us needs it. Professor Alston describes a complete disconnect between the UK Government, which thinks the system is working well, and the actual evidence being presented to him by people.
“People I spoke with told me they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children.”
“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.
“Many families are living paycheck to paycheck. And 2.5 million people in the UK survive with incomes no more than 10% above the poverty line. They are thus just one crisis away from of falling into poverty through no fault of their own.”
This leads people to despair, to self harm and for some they become suicidal.
The austerity measures introduced when Labour bailed out the bankers and continued in successive governments by Liberal Democrats and Tories has resulted in those who are the most vulnerable being the ones to bear the burden of those policies.
“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.”
Women, children, people with a disability, pensioners, asylum seekers, migrants and those of us who live in rural areas are in the hardest hit groups.
The report highlights the different approaches within the nations that make up the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have continued to help people requiring emergency welfare funds in contrast to England with closures or reductions to these lifeline payments.
“Poverty is a political choice” states Professor Alston, “the next generation’s prospects are already being grievously undermined by the systematic dismantling of social protection policies since 2010.”
Professor Alston wants to see the UK Government introduce a single measure of poverty and to assess the impact of the austerity driven ideology that is dismantling the UK’s welfare safety net. To do this the UK Government should reverse the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and the reduction of the housing benefit for under-occupied social rented housing. The DWP should have an independent review of the effects of Universal Credit and the delay in payments. For those living in rural areas public transport should be viewed as an essential service and not left to private operators concentrating on profitable routes.
This was a damning report from the UN’s Special Rapporteur of a wealthy UK where the distribution of that wealth is so unequal that 14 million people are living in poverty. The latest figures from the Trussell Trust was yet more evidence for this with a rise of 40% in people using the Foodbank in Orkney. Fertile islands, rich in natural resources and a skilled population but Orkney is a low wage economy with many on zero hours contracts. As Professor Alston pointed out, we are all only one pay cheque away from needing the safety net of our welfare system.
You can read the full report here: Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
Reporter: Fiona Grahame