A UNITED NATIONS report that argued that the British Government’s approach to social security was condemning the poorest to lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” has been rejected by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, as “nonsense”.
The report from the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, states: “As the British social contract slowly evaporates, Hobbes’s prediction risks becoming the new reality.” The social safety net has been “systematically and starkly eroded”, it concludes. “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.”
Professor Alston draws on measures used by the Social Metrics Commission (SMC), formed and led by the CEO of the Legatum Institute, Baroness Stroud, a former Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whose tenure coincided with many of the policies criticised in the report. The Commission has calculated that 14 million people live in poverty.
On Monday, Mr Hammond said: “I reject the idea that there are vast numbers of people facing dire poverty in this country. I don’t accept the UN rapporteur’s report at all. I think that’s a nonsense. Look around you; that’s not what we see in this country. . . Of course, there are people struggling with the cost of living. I understand that. But the point is that we are addressing these things through getting to the root causes.”
Among Professor Alston’s recommendations to the Government is the introduction of a “single, multi-dimensional measure of poverty” — something that it has pledged to do next year. Since 2010, ministers have criticised income-based measures of poverty, arguing that they fail to get to the root causes of poverty, and incentivise policies designed to lift those just below the poverty threshold to just above it.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 removed four child-poverty targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010, replacing them with statutory “life chances” indicators relating to the numbers living in workless households, and educational attainment.
Professor Alston does not cite the SMC’s finding that the poverty rate is relatively unchanged since the beginning of the millennium, but points to an estimate by the Institute for Financial Studies that 36.6 per cent of children will be living in relative poverty by 2021: an increase of seven per cent since 2015, owing in part to planned benefit cuts, including the two-child limit.
Data on households with below-average household income, published by the Department for Work and Pensions, suggests that the percentage in relative low income has generally risen since 2010, while the percentage for absolute low income households has fallen. Mr Alston argues that the latter figure is “mostly unhelpful”.
Austerity was “a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda”, he writes; neither a “booming” economy nor record low levels of unemployment have prevented a “social calamity”.
He accuses the Government of remaining “in a state of denial”: ministers in charge of Universal Credit are, he says, guilty of an “entirely dismissive” attitude. But he goes on to acknowledge the announcement of changes to the benefit (News, 18 January 2019), and plans to fund Citizens Advice to support applicants.
Several of the policies criticised in the report have been opposed by bishops, including the two-child benefit limit (News, 11 January 2013), benefit freeze (News, 22 August 2017), and elements of Universal Credit (News, 27 October 2017; Comment 23 November, 2018).
On Tuesday, the Child Poverty Action Group published recommendations for a “modest package of re-investment in children’s benefits”, to lift 700,000 children out of poverty by 2023.
Professor Alston’s report is based on more than 300 written submissions and an 11-day visit to the UK in November, including consultations in ten areas, including Clacton-on-Sea and Jaywick, in Essex.
The Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, plans to lodge a formal complaint with the UN. Last week, a DWP spokesperson described the report as a “barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here . . .
“We take tackling poverty extremely seriously which is why we spend £95 billion a year on welfare and maintain a state pension system that supports people into retirement.
“All the evidence shows that full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life, which is why our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into employment, and we introduced the National Living Wage, so people earn more in work.”