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
"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
"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
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
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."
BREXIT AND ITS IMPACT ON THE POOR
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
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
"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
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
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
"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.
THE UNIVERSAL CREDIT AND DIGITAL WELFARE STATE
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
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
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
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
The reality is that governments simply seek to operationalize their
political preferences through technology; the outcomes may be good
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
"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.
DISMANTLING OF SOCIAL SAFETY NET
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
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
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.