The alarming rise of poverty in the UK is deliberate – and so too in the US says Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, discussing findings of his final report on the United Kingdom.
June 14, 2019 Produced by Lynn Fries
PHILIP ALSTON: I think that whatever position one takes on Brexit, the two sides are at least agreed on the fact that they want a strong, proud, and socially coherent United Kingdom. But the reality is that all of the attention has been devoted to the sort of legal technicalities of the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe rather than on the way in which British society is actually developing today. What we actually see is the fraying of the social safety net, with the emergence of much greater economic insecurity across a lot of different income groups in the UK. There is a real threat, I think, to the values, to the aspirations that both sides in the Brexit debate have. But no attention is being paid to those developments.
I don’t think the opposition has done nearly enough to highlight the challenges of poverty. The Conservative government is, as I’ve said, clearly in denial. It insists that these problems simply don’t exist. And yet there are reports in the media, there are reports in all of these specialized agency analyses in the UK of the dramatic falling apart of the basic fabric of British society in so many areas around the country. That’s what needs to be addressed, and that’s what’s going to determine the real shape of Britain once the Brexit debate is finished.
LYNN FRIES: It’s The Real News. I’m Lynn Fries. Today’s show features the issue of UK poverty; specifically, the UK investigation of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, now that his final report is available online.
I spoke with Philip Alston from New York City, where he’s a professor of law at NYU and chair of the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. We go now to my report on what Philip Alston had to say, and further context on his Brexit comment featured at the open of the show.
LYNN FRIES: So, Philip, the last time we spoke was after the release of your preliminary report on poverty in the UK. And since then the UK government’s taken action on a number of issues raised in your report. First, give us the good news, and then tell us why you say it’s just window dressing to minimise political fallout.
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, the United Kingdom government has taken a number of steps, particularly in relation to what’s called universal credit, which is the combined welfare payment that brings together six pre-existing programs into one. It’s an innovative and potentially very good program which has, in my view, been implemented in a way that is counterproductive. It’s got a lot of criticism in the United Kingdom from all of the leading welfare groups. And in response, I think in part to the report that I brought out, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has announced a series of significant changes. To give you an example, the system seeks to ensure the cooperation of welfare beneficiaries by imposing very severe penalties or sanctions for non-compliance. So if they are late for meetings, if they don’t look for enough jobs, if they don’t spend enough time searching each week, and so on, they can be subject to penalties. Those penalties were, until very recently, for as long as three years. In other words, a complete ban on all payments for a three year period. The Secretary of State has now wound that back, and the limit is six months. That’s a significant improvement.
On a number of other aspects, some of them reasonably technical but nonetheless very important for welfare recipients, the Secretary of State has also loosened the regulations. And that’s, I think, a very good outcome. But nonetheless, my assessment is that this doesn’t change the basic policy. The basic policy is what’s called in Britain austerity.
Now, austerity for most of us means that there is an economic or financial crisis and temporarily something has to be done to save money. But in the UK context austerity has really been instead a policy designed to systematically cut back on the sort of role that governments plays in assisting people in need. And there is no sign that that overall project is changing.
LYNN FRIES: Phillip, you said the endlessly repeated response that there are more people in employment than ever before overlooks inconvenient facts, and the government is sticking to a ‘work not welfare’ mantra.
PHILIP ALSTON: It’s very popular in conservative circles these days in many countries to say that the answer to people’s problems is work and not welfare. And there is no doubt that work is a key solution to poverty. And rising employment rates in the United Kingdom are a very good sign. The difficulty is that the UK has actually achieved close to full employment. There’s no real prospect that the rates will go up from here. But even with full employment there are 12 million people who are still living in poverty. There are still one and a half to two million people living in what is officially designated as destitution. There is widespread homelessness. There is very extensive use of food banks. All of the social indicators are in very bad shape.
And so the question is if employment is the only solution, and there’s nothing more that can be gained through that, why is it that so many people are still living in poverty? And the answer is, first of all, that a lot of the people, of course, are either too old or otherwise unable to work. Children are particularly affected. One third of all children, at a minimum, in the UK live in poverty. And then you’ve got the problem of in-work poverty. In other words, people who are working, very often full time, but not able to earn enough money to live on. And so there remains, as there is in every society, a need for a significant social safety net where the government will really provide the necessary short-term assistance and if necessary long-term for those simply can’t make it on their own and for whom employment is not the only answer.
LYNN FRIES: You’ve said that the government’s austerity program has badly damaged the social safety net, and you compared the country’s welfare overhauls to a version of a Victorian workhouse.
PHILIP ALSTON: The analogy that I make in the report is to a Dickensian vision of a workhouse. If you go back historically, the characteristics of that workhouse were that the conditions were such that no one really wanted to go into a workhouse unless they were absolutely desperate and had no other alternative. I think that’s the way in which the UK welfare system is being shaped these days. Thr penalties that were imposed in the workhouses were draconian. Again, that has echoes of the penalties that are relied upon heavily today. And the rewards for being in the workhouse were also absolutely minimal. In addition, there was the requirement of long days of work, often in makework jobs. The classic crushing stones for the sake of it. And again, in the UK system you’ve got this 35 hours a week of job searching which needs to be demonstrated by anyone who’s receiving these benefits. And that’s fine. It’s a reasonable system if you’re looking at the first ten, twelve, or whatever, weeks. But if someone is forced to continue putting in 35 hours every week when nothing has been happening for the preceding 12 weeks, it begins to look like crossing stones rather than looking for creative solutions. Why is it that this person isn’t able to find employment, and what can we do more constructively, apart from the more or less punitive insistence that they demonstrate that they spent 35 hours searching mputer databases walking around looking for potential employment.
LYNN FRIES: You made a Twitter comment that rather than addressing the substance, the UK government has sought to distract from the troubling findings of this report by misrepresenting the process behind it. What do you mean by that?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, the UK government has pointed to the fact that my visit took only 11 days. It’s actually 12, not 11. And the implication is that I arrived in the UK knowing absolutely nothing, and at the end of 12 days I was in a position to write a detailed report. That, of course, is a complete misrepresentation. Any international visit of this sort, whether it’s by the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank or a special rapporteur, is built upon a huge amount of prior research. In my case, my staff and I conducted hundreds of interviews with experts in the United Kingdom. We collected over 300 submissions, detailed, all of which are available online, from different think tanks and other interested parties. And when we were in the UK we made a huge effort to travel throughout the country speaking with people.
So the report is very thoroughly grounded in detailed research. But I think the other point which really troubles me in the UK government’s response, they have said that. My report is barely believable. In other words, the statistics that I offer are so shocking that who could possibly believe them? And they don’t. But it’s not me. My report is based very heavily upon all of the most respected think tanks and government agencies working in the United Kingdom, whether it’s the National Audit Office, whether it’s the various government statistics agencies, whether it’s the Trussell Trust, the Rowntree Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies. All of these groups are putting out reports on a very regular basis documenting exactly what I’ve drawn attention to. So to dismiss all of this as barely believable is a real failure to engage with the substance of a major problem that is confronting the United Kingdom.
LYNN FRIES: I’ve seen reports by the teachers union where they’re saying that schools have become an unofficial fourth emergency service for vulnerable families hit by austerity, and that the National Health Service is left to pick up the pieces as social safety nets fail. This according to a report by UK health professionals.
PHILIP ALSTON: One of the interesting things about conservative policies which insist that welfare must be cut is the assumption that either people will suddenly no longer need the assistance magically; they’ll say, oh, well, the gig is up. I guess I better go out and work. Or they will rely on family. Family will come to the rescue. And that’s a good thing, too, because the state is off the hook. But the reality is that the collapse goes ahead. It’s just that the established state agencies which are best placed to provide assistance are no longer there.
And so what happens, and this is not only in the UK, but it certainly is in the UK, is that the burden suddenly falls on other agencies that are not at all well equipped. And they include, for example, the police. The police are picking up a lot of the really serious problems that should be being dealt with by council social protection workers and others. Teachers at schools are being called upon to provide emergency food and clothing and other forms of assistance. And of course, the hospitals, the NHS, then, has to bear a lot of the burden as well, because people who might have been otherwise getting preventive care through local councils or other sources are not getting that. And so their condition gets so bad that they have to go to an emergency room.
So these welfare needs don’t magically disappear. They simply pop up in other places where they are much more expensive to address, and where the expertise is not what it should be in order to do that in the best way.
LYNN FRIES: I was just reading two-thirds of councils say they can’t comply with a new homelessness law. They just don’t have the money to implement it.
PHILIP ALSTON: Yes. Councils have been devastated, most of them, particularly in England, because in the other areas local governments have made an effort to preserve funding. But in England, councils have had cuts of up to 50 percent. And that means that they are barely able to fulfil what are called their statutory obligations. And statutory obligations mean that they have to help children who are being abused or elderly people who are at grave risk or whatever. But anything beyond that has suddenly become optional, and in most cases is no longer able to be provided.
LYNN FRIES: In the press release for your final report, in response to this social calamity the UK government has doubled down on its policies, and it’s hard to imagine a recipe that’s more designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions.
PHILIP ALSTON: If you have one-third of the children of your population already living in poverty, and if the predictions are that percentage is going to increase fairly significantly in the years ahead, then just from an economic perspective, the sort of workforce that you’re preparing is going to be substandard. These children are not getting the nutrition they need. They’re not getting the childcare. They’re not getting the education. They are living a life which is normal for those in poverty. In other words, constantly on the edge, constantly deprived in one way or another. And barely able to concentrate in school and pursue the opportunities that are supposedly provided for them.
LYNN FRIES: You’ve reported on poverty in two of the wealthiest countries in the world, the U.S. and the UK. And I’d like to ask you to comment on read throughs you see between these two investigations.
PHILIP ALSTON: What is striking for me in my job as UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty is that in a great many of the countries I visit the response is, look, we’re all in favor of trying to help everyone in our society, but we simply don’t have any money. We just can’t afford it. But in the U.S. and the UK the economies are thriving. Huge tax cuts have been able to be afforded for the wealthy in both countries. And the result is that you’ve got a very deliberate decision not to try to respond to the deep suffering, to the tens of millions of people living in poverty in those countries, and instead to make the rich richer, and assume that that growing inequality will somehow make life better in the country, when the reality is that it will make life better for the top 5 percent, and certainly for the top 1 percent. But it’s doing nothing for the rest.
LYNN FRIES: We’ve been listening to Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. Many thanks to Philip Alston. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
Philip G. Alston is an international law scholar and human rights practitioner. He is John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, and Chair of the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Philip Alston is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights (2014-2020).