TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Nov18/03)
26 November 2018
Third World Network

UK government policies inflicting great misery on the poor
Published in SUNS #8801 dated 22 November 2018

Geneva, 21 Nov (Kanaga Raja) - The policies of the government of the United Kingdom have unnecessarily inflicted great misery on the working poor, single mothers, people with disabilities, and millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty, a United Nations human rights expert has said.

In an end-of mission statement following a 12-day visit to the country, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Mr Philip Alston, said that the experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice.

Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so, he said.

Resources were available to the UK Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made instead to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.

The compassion and mutual concern that has long been part of the British tradition has been outsourced.

At the same time, many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centers, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined.

"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 marginalized, and on millions of children who are locked into a cycle of poverty from which many will have great difficulty escaping," said Mr Alston.

"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," he added.

According to the Special Rapporteur, 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 centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off.

Mr Alston said the result is that 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.

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%.

"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," said Mr Alston.

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 rights expert said 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 the 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."

"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, an d people with disabilities who are being told they need to go back to work or lose support, against their doctor's orders," said the Special Rapporteur.

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," said Mr Alston.

Most of the political debate around social well-being in the UK has focused only on the goals sought to be achieved.

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, said the rights expert.

"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."


Mr Alston pointed out that his report comes at a critical moment in the debate over Brexit.

"I take no position on its merits or on the optimal terms for undertaking it, but anyone concerned with poverty in the UK has reason to be very deeply concerned. Whatever happens in the period ahead, we know that deep uncertainty will persist for a long time, that economic growth rates are likely to take a strong hit, and that tax revenues will fall significantly," he said.

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.

There are many concerns linked to Brexit. Given the vast number of policies, programs and spending priorities that will need to be addressed over the next few years, and the major changes that will inevitably accompany them, it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society who will be least able to cope and will take the biggest hit.

The IMF has suggested that a no-deal Brexit could cost the UK economy somewhere between 5% and 8% of GDP, representing a loss of thousands of pounds per household.

"In my meetings with the government, it was clear to me that the impact of Brexit on people in poverty is an afterthought, to be dealt with through manipulations of fiscal policy after the event, if at all," said Mr Alston.

But Brexit will have serious consequences in this domain and the challenges need to be dealt with head on.

A lack of clarity is preventing families at risk of poverty from planning for its impact. People feel their homes, jobs, and communities are at risk.

"Ironically, it was these very fears and insecurity that contributed significantly to the Brexit vote," said Mr Alston.

The fall in the value of the pound has already increased the cost of living for people in poverty by 400 pounds per year, and researchers have estimated that the UK economy is already 2-2.5% smaller than it would otherwise have been.

Almost all studies have shown that the UK economy will be worse off because of Brexit, with consequences for inflation, real wages, and consumer prices.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, if the government does not adequately up-rate benefits to account for inflation after Brexit, up to 90 0,000 more people could fall into poverty.

This would strain a social support system that has been gutted in recent years.

The UK stands to lose billions of pounds in EU funds that will disproportionately affect the poorer areas that have most benefited from them, including almost 9 billion pounds in poverty reduction funding between 2014 and 2020.

"Although the government has announced a "shared prosperity fund" to replace this funding, local and devolved governments told me they had no information about the fund or how it would operate - just five months before Brexit," said Mr Alston.

Time is running out, he said, adding that Brexit could also have particularly harsh consequences for people living in Northern Ireland, with people living on the border and dependent on trade or cross-border employment.


According to the Special Rapporteur, no single program embodies the combination of the benefits reforms and the promotion of austerity programs more than Universal Credit.

"Although in its initial conception it represented a potentially major improvement in the system, it is fast falling into Universal Discredit," said Mr Alston.

Social support should be a route out of poverty, and Universal Credit should be a key part of that process.

Consolidating six different benefits into one makes good sense, in principle, he said.

But many aspects of the design and rollout of the programme have suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is 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.

While some surveys suggest certain claimants do have positive experiences with Universal Credit, an increasing body of research makes clear that there are far too many instances in which Universal Credit is being implemented in ways that negatively impact many claimants' mental health, finances, and work prospects.

The Universal Credit system is designed with a five week delay between when people successfully file a claim and when they receive benefits.

Research suggests that this "waiting period," which actually often takes up to 12 weeks, pushes many who may already be in crisis into debt, rent arrears, and serious hardship, requiring them to sacrifice food or heat.

Relatively unnoticed amidst the turmoil of Brexit, the UK government announced the "total transformation" of government in 2017.

The 2017 Government Transformation Strategy was presented as "the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world."

Not only will government services become "digital by default," as was first announced in 2012, but the inner workings of government itself will be transformed in a push for automation aided by data science and artificial intelligence.

There are few places in government where these developments are more tangible than in the benefit system.

"We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a web page 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," Mr Alston underlined.

He said that Universal Credit has built a digital barrier that effectively obstructs many individuals' access to their entitlements.

Women, older people, people who do not speak English and the disabled are more likely to be unable to overcome this hurdle.

The Special Rapporteur noted that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is very much in fashion and there are many related initiatives in the UK.

Government is increasingly automating itself with the use of data and new technology tools, including AI.

Evidence shows that the human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable are especially at risk in such contexts.

A major issue with the development of new technologies by the UK government is a lack of transparency.

Even the existence of the automated systems developed by the Department for Work and Pensions' "Analysis & Intelligence Hub" and "Risk Intelligent Service" is almost unknown.

The existence, purpose and basic functioning of these automated government systems remains a mystery in many cases, fueling misconceptions and anxiety about them.

There is nothing inherent in Artificial Intelligence and other technologies that enable automation that threatens human rights and the rule of law.

The reality is that governments simply seek to operationalize their political preferences through technology; the outcomes may be good or bad.

But without more transparency about the development and use of automated systems, it is impossible to make such an assessment.

"And by excluding citizens from decision-making in this area we may set the stage for a future based on an artificial democracy," said the Special Rapporteur.

Transparency about the existence, purpose, and use of new technologies in government and participation of the public in these debates will go a long way toward demystifying technology and clarifying distributive impacts.

"New technologies certainly have great potential to do good. But more knowledge may also lead to more realism about the limits of technology. A machine learning system may be able to beat a human at chess, but it may be less adept at solving complicated social ills such as poverty," said the Special Rapporteur.


According to the Special Rapporteur, there are many ways in which the overall safety net has been reduced since 2010.

In this context, he highlighted the benefit freeze and cap, the reduction of legal aid, the reduced funding of local authorities, and resulting cuts in other specific services.

Significant reductions in the amount of and eligibility for important forms of support have undermined the capacity of benefits to loosen the grip of poverty.

Capping benefit amounts to working-age households, limiting support to two children per family, reducing the Housing Benefit for under-occupied social housing, and reducing the value of a wide range of benefits, have all made it much harder for people to make ends meet.

Poor households typically spend a higher proportion of their income on consumer goods than wealthy households and already often struggle to put food on the table after bills are paid.

Despite this, the Government froze benefit rates in 2016, thus enabling continuing inflation to systematically reduce the value of the benefits.

Poor families have thus had to do more with less as the prices of goods has gone up and the value of their income has declined. Households are expected to have to cope with a reduction of 4.4 billion pounds in 2019/20 alone.

There have been dramatic reductions in the availability of legal aid in England and Wales since 2012 and these have overwhelmingly affected the poor and people with disabilities, many of whom cannot otherwise afford to challenge benefit denials or reductions and are thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy.

In 2010, the Government pledged to radically reform public services by cutting funding to local authorities in England.

This has had tremendous implications for local authorities, which are obligated to balance their books and whose revenue raising powers are limited.

According to the National Audit Office, local governments in England have seen a 49% real-terms reduction in Government funding from 2010-11 to 2017-18 alongside a rise in demand for key social services.

As a result, they have transferred a greater share of service costs to users who are often the least able to pay.

They have cut spending on services by 19% and focused their spending on statutorily mandatory adult social care and child protection services.

Mr Alston noted that more than 500 children's centers closed between 2010 and 2018, and between 2010 and 2016 more than 340 libraries closed and 8,000 library jobs were lost.

Local welfare funds, a vital resource for people on the brink of crisis, have been another casualty of austerity.

Many local governments in England have closed or cut their Local Welfare Assistance Schemes, leaving vulnerable people and those facing emergencies without anywhere to turn.

At least 28 authorities have shuttered their local welfare funds and councils reported reducing their related expenditures by 72.5% between 2013 and 2018.

From 2015 to 2018, the proportion of destitute people who reported receiving in-kind help from local welfare funds dropped sharply by 28%.

The collapse of this resource for people who face sudden hardship has apparently been of no concern to the government, which decentralized responsibility for the funds and does not collect any information on what has become of them, said Mr Alston.

"As I toured the country, I was told time and again about important public services being pared down, the loss of institutions that would have previously protected vulnerable people, social care services that are at a breaking point, and local government and devolved administrations stretched far too thin," said Mr Alston.

In England, homelessness is up 60% since 2010, rough sleeping is up 134%. There are 1.2 million people on the social housing waiting list, but less than 6,000 homes were built last year.

Food bank use is up almost four-fold since 2012, and there are now about 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis.

"The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities. The changes to taxes and benefits since 2010 have been highly regressive, and the policies have taken the highest toll on those least able to bear it."

The government should initiate an expert assessment of the cumulative impact of tax and spending decisions since 2010 and prioritize the reversal of particularly regressive measures, including the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and the reduction of the housing benefit for under-occupied social rented housing.

As the country moves toward Brexit, the Government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens, said Mr Alston.