‘A striking and complete disconnect’Posted: May 22, 2019
Originally posted as a blog for Inside Housing on May 22.
Not much in today’s report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty will surprise anyone who has worked in housing over the last decade.
The coruscating criticism of universal credit, the benefit cap, the benefits freeze, the under-occupation penalty and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ seen since 2010 arrives at a time when we have almost become immured to their impact on tenants in general and lone parents and disabled people in particular.
And it was only last week that the latest Homelessness Monitor from Crisis showed the effect of all that on the wider housing system, giving social landlords an incentive not to rent to the poorest people and driving them into a private rented sector in which housing benefit no longer covers their rent.
Yet the final report from Professor Philip Alston is still a shocking reminder of dire consequences that he says are ‘obvious to anyone who opens their eyes’ and of a government response that hovers between hostility, indifference and complacency.
Part of this is due to the Special Rapporteur’s vivid turn of phrase about what he calls ‘the systematic immiseration of millions’. Some choice examples include:
- ‘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.’
- ‘The driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering – a dramatic restructuring of the relationship between people and the State.’
- ‘The British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm, with significant implications for those living in poverty.’
- ‘It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens.’
But what really struck me reading this final report was how completely he skewers the government’s response to criticism.
A classic example came when ministers responded to his interim report in November by denying that they are ‘in denial’ on poverty.
Professor Alston does credit work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd for softening some of the harshest elements of universal credit and housing secretary James Brokenshire for acknowledging (after initial denials) the possible link between the government’s policies and rising homelessness.
Otherwise, he says, the government falls back on ‘two sets of talking points’: first, claims about ‘record’ employment; and second, claims of ‘record low’ numbers of people in absolute poverty.
But he found ‘a striking and complete disconnect’ between the picture painted by the government and what he heard and saw from people across the UK: schools forced to feed children who would otherwise go hungry; rapid increase in homelessness and rough sleeping; and an increase of almost two years in the gap in life expectancy between the most deprived and most affluent communities.
He welcomes the proposed new measure of poverty recommended by a bipartisan commission and which ministers agreed to publish last week but says the fact that a fifth of the UK population lives in poverty despite record employment levels ‘makes clear that employment alone does not keep people out of poverty’.
At the same time the social security policies pursued since 2010 ‘amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country’s human rights obligations’ and are motivated by ideology rather than economics.
His stark conclusion is that:
‘By treating work as a panacea for poverty while dismantling the social safety net, the Government has created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences, especially if and when there is prolonged economic contraction.’
While the ‘triple lock’ on pensions had helped tackle poverty for older people, the benefits freeze, benefits cap and all the other cuts have exacerbated it for people of working age – the chancellor could have used his revenue windfall last year to end the freeze a year early but chose income tax cuts to help the better off instead.
As for universal credit, he says local authorities, devolved governments and the voluntary sector told him they were preparing for the roll-out as though it were ‘an impending natural disaster.
And he turns his fire again on the government’s response to criticism: the ‘test and learn’ approach risks treating ‘vulnerable people like guinea pigs’ and cannot be ‘a decades-long excuse for failing to properly design a system’.
When he asked about these problems, ministers were ‘entirely dismissive’, blaming their opponents for trying to sabotage their work, suggesting the media did not fully comprehend the system and describing universal credit as ‘a nearly unmitigated success’.
That has been evident right from the early days of the new system when what the National Audit Office described as the ‘good news culture’ at the Department for Work and Pensions under Iain Duncan Smith simply refused to listen to criticism.
Clearly that culture has survived all the tinkering to the system that Professor Alston says is not enough and ‘is fast falling into ‘universal discredit’.
Among his recommendations are the reversal of ‘particularly regressive measures’ like the benefit freeze, two-child limit, benefit cap and under-occupation penalty; a new multi-dimensional measure of poverty; changes to universal credit; and reviews of conditionality and sanctions and the impact of policy on vulnerable groups.
And he concludes that Brexit should present an opportunity to ‘reimagine what the UK stands for’ with legislative recognition of social rights and social inclusion rather than marginalisation the guiding principle of social policy.
Will ministers listen? On past form, and past treatment of previous criticism from the UN, almost certainly not – and work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd says she will complain.
The report is a ‘barely believable documentation of Britain’ and ‘completely inaccurate’, according to a DWP spokesman, and the UK is ‘one of the happiest countries in the world in which to live’.
There are some signs of a change in tone: the familiar line about work as the best route out of poverty has now been changed to ‘all the evidence shows that full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life’.
We’ll have to wait for the Budget and the spending review, a new prime minister and possibly a general election to find out if there will be changes of substance to match.