DWP denies it’s in denial on poverty

Originally posted on November 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

With unintended irony the government has responded to a United Nations report accusing it of being ‘in denial’ about extreme poverty by denying that there is a problem.

The last time a UN official visited Britain and had the temerity to criticise government policy it sparked a furious row on the Today programme.

Ministers dismissed Raquel Rolnik, the special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, as ‘the woman from Brazil’ and ‘an absolute disgrace’ ad accused her of producing ‘a misleading Marxist diatribe’.

This time around there was no real row about ‘the man from Australia’, no formal complaint to the UN secretary-general and the Today programme ignored Professor Philip Alston, special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Whether that reflects changed editorial priorities at the BBC, a ministerial determination not to rise to the bait or simply the way that Brexit sucks away all the oxygen from other news remains to be seen.

However, Professor Alston’s report published in London on Friday is if anything even more damning that the one produced by Ms Rolnik.

Like her he concentrates on the impact of cuts and ‘reforms’ to the welfare system. If the focus is on extreme poverty nobody in housing will need any reminding of the relevance.

Poverty levels in Britain are, he says, ‘not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster all rolled into one’.

Despite the abundant evidence from all quarters:

‘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.

He argues that seeing all this through the frame of austerity misses the real point that ‘the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering’.

What he means by this is the government’s determination to ‘change the value system’, stress ‘individual responsibility’ and ‘pursue a single-minded, and some have claimed simple-minded, focus on getting people into employment at all costs’.

Meanwhile universal credit and all the other ‘reforms’ have also cost far more than their supporters admit, with billions in ‘savings’ offset by costs transferred to the community, local government, the health service and police.

All of this may be familiar to most people but this message is coming from an expert and articulate outsider.

Professor Alston heard countless stories about the severe hardship caused by universal credit but:

‘When asked about these problems, Government ministers were almost entirely dismissive, blaming political opponents for wanting to sabotage their work, or suggesting that the media didn’t really understand the system and that universal credit was unfairly blamed for problems rooted in the old legacy system of benefits’.

That bunker mentality was evident right from the start under Iain Duncan Smith – very early on the National Audit Office skewered way that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) only ever wants to hear good news.

To the simplistic focus on work, add the impact of ‘draconian’ and ‘arbitrary’ sanctions and the failures of ‘digital by default’.

Meanwhile ‘test and learn’ cannot be ‘a decade-long excuse for failing to properly design a system that is meant to guarantee the social security of so many’.

Professor Alston also looks beyond universal credit to ‘the dismantling of the broader social safety net’: cuts and freezes in benefit; dramatic reductions in entitlement to legal aid; and swingeing cuts to local authorities and other services.

He again criticises the assumption that employment is a ‘cure-all for poverty’ while at his press conference on Friday he described the impact of the changes on women as what you might be suggested ‘if you got a group of misogynists together in a room’

Among his recommendations are the reversal of ‘particularly regressive measures’ like the benefits freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap and the bedroom tax (though he is careful not to call it that).

There should be an independent review of welfare conditionality and sanctions and changes to universal credit including the elimination of the five-week delay in benefits and the facilitation of separate payments to household payments and weekly or fortnightly as well as monthly payments.

Will any of it make any difference? Raquel Rolnik’s report was ignored despite clear lessons that might have spared ministers a lot of grief later on.

The general response to this one seems to be that Professor Alston should stick to looking at poverty in Africa but five months ago he published a similarly excoriating report on the impact of Donald Trump’s ‘cruel’ policies in the United States.

The DWP’s response is to ‘completely disagree with this analysis’ and repeat the standard line about universal credit working, more people in work and fewer people living in absolute poverty.

One of the few positive effects of Brexit so far is the resignation of the latest work and pensions secretary Esther McVey.

If her replacement, Amber Rudd, really wants to make a success of her new job she should be asking whether the standard DWP line will be enough to tackle an issue that has become as toxic for the government as the ‘hostile environment’ that led to her resignation as home secretary.

Her best starting point would be to read this report with an open mind and then act on it.

Postscript: Sadly Ms Rudd seems to be sticking to the DWP script so far. 



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