Disappearing the welfare state
Even that den of thieves, the United Nations, recognises the suffering imposed on the working class by the politics of austerity, writes Eddie Ford
Ruffling a lot of Tory feathers, the United Nation’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, last week published a damning report on how British governments - the Con-Dem coalition and then the Cons minus the Dems - have inflicted poverty on large sections of the British people through their deliberate political policy of austerity.1 He particularly attacked the levels of child poverty, which are “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”, and also savaged the government’s flagship policy of universal credit (UC) - a chaotic mess that is only adding to the misery.
Following a two-week ‘fact finding’ tour of the country - no doubt a joyless task - Alston issued his short, but comprehensive, 24-page document: ‘Statement on visit to the United Kingdom’. In this study, he especially exposes the “mentality” responsible for austerity and benefit reforms - or deforms, to be more exact. These polices have torn the social fabric asunder, in his view - ‘compassion’, or concern for those suffering extreme hardship, has been “replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and callous approach”, with UC being a supreme example. It is a system designed to punish the ‘undeserving poor’ and save money at their expense - as made obvious by George Osborne three years ago, when he robbed UC of billions in order to pay for an increase in income-tax personal allowance. The former chancellor knew where his priorities lay.
Surprising even this writer, according to Alston about 14 million people (a fifth of the population) live in poverty - with four million of these more than 50% below the ‘official’ poverty line and 1.5 million in a state of destitution or absolute poverty, since they are unable to afford basic essentials (he cites figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and elsewhere). Each year the UK government publishes a survey of “income poverty”, called Households Below Average Income (HBAI), setting the poverty line at 60% of the median UK household income. The HBAI provides two types of household data: before and after housing costs are deducted (BHC and after AHC).2
Problematically, many official poverty statistics use the BHC information, even though it seems fairly obvious that a more accurate measure of the real income available for a household is AHC - ie, the actual amount of money families and individuals have at their disposal. The 2015-16 HBAI poverty line, excluding housing costs, was £15,444 a year for a couple and £20,852 for a lone parent with two children.
Of course, there are numerous ways of measuring and assessing poverty. For instance, in 2014 the Poverty and Social Exclusion project at Bristol University found that the proportion of households lacking three items deemed necessary for life in the UK (such as fresh fruit and vegetables) had increased from 14% in 1983 to 33% in 2012. Many poor people, needless to say, live in areas where there is no large supermarket nearby and, lacking transport, must rely on corner shops, where food is less healthy and more expensive. Food prices increased by 7.7% from 2002 to 2016, while the poorest families’ incomes fell by 7.1% - meaning that more than a million live in “food deserts”, according to a recent study by the Social Market Foundation and Kellogg’s.3
Alston picked out various other iniquities in today’s Britain, including the limit on benefit payments to only the first two children in a family - it is “in the same ballpark” as China’s one-child policy, because it punishes people who have a third child. Whatever happened to family values? Then there are the cuts of up to 50% to council budgets, slashing away at Britain’s “culture of local concern” and “damaging the fabric” of society. He highlighted predictions that child poverty could rise by at least 7% between 2015 and 2022, possibly up to a rate of 40% - a staggering statistic. After visiting towns and cities throughout Britain, Alston thought it was “obvious to anyone who opens their eyes” that there has been a rapid rise in food banks, people sleeping rough in the streets, homelessness of all sorts, and a general sense of “deep despair”. The latter has led even the Tory government to appoint the world’s first ever minister for suicide prevention (Jackie Doyle-Price) - 4,500 people take their own lives in England each year due to “unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation”.
Targeting UC, the rapporteur called for the scrapping of the five-week delay in receiving benefits, which has plunged many into desperate hardship, vagabondage, homelessness and worse. Fundamental flaws in the design and implementation of UC, notes Alston, have caused untold harm to claimants’ mental health, finances and work prospects, with the benefits sanctions being “harsh and arbitrary”. Vulnerable claimants “struggled to survive”, he said - in fact, the entire system was “Orwellian”, “cruel and inhuman” and “fast falling into universal discredit”.
Alston said he had met people who did not have a safe place for their children to sleep, others who had sold sex for money or shelter, young people who felt joining a gang was about the only way to survive, and people with disabilities who were being told they needed to go back to work or lose support, against their doctors’ orders. Meanwhile, he said, town hall budgets In England had been “gutted” - inevitably resulting in a record sell-off of libraries and parks, and the closure of youth centres, leading to yet further isolation and loneliness, with charities attempting to “fill holes in government services”. As for food banks, their organisation “resembled the sort of activity you might expect for a natural disaster or health epidemic”. Tellingly, Alston observed that the government’s embrace of digital technology and automation, especially in regards to UC, had the effect of excluding people with no internet access or skills - all leading to the gradual disappearance of the post-war British welfare state “behind a webpage and an algorithm”.
Alston called for the “legislative recognition of social rights” - something that has long been the norm in countries like Sweden and Germany. If any of his recommendations or findings were incorporated into UK law, it would require a radical rebalancing of public service finance, not least in favour of more taxes and higher spending.
But, of course, Alston is realistic enough to know that there is no chance of that happening, at least with the present government and its ideology. Therefore, he felt he had no choice but to conclude that Britain was in “breach” of four UN human rights agreements relating to women, children, disabled people and economic and social rights. He acidly remarked: “If you got a group of misogynists in a room and said, ‘How can we make this system work for men and not for women?’, they would not have come up with too many ideas that are not already in place.” Without doubt, Alston argued, poverty in the UK is a conscious “political choice” - he will be formally presenting his report to the UN human rights council in Geneva next year. Various UK charities welcomed his study, saying it was a “wake-up call for government”.
Neatly proving Philip Alston’s point that the British government is in a “state of denial” about poverty in the UK, and the political imperatives behind such denials, the government said it “completely disagreed” with his analysis. Stop interfering in our affairs. A Downing Street spokesperson robotically declared that household incomes were at a “record high”, income inequality had fallen and that UC - far from being a disaster on every level - was “supporting” people into work faster, thus “helping people” improve their lives. The statement about household incomes having never been higher is an obvious nonsense, as it fails to take into account inflation.
Then we have the comments from Amber Rudd - now back from purdah after resigning as home secretary in April for “inadvertently misleading” MPs over targets for removing illegal immigrants as part of the Windrush scandal. She now replaces Esther McVey as work and pensions secretary, the latter resigning in protest last week over Theresa May’s Brexit deal. When questioned by her Labour shadow counterpart, Margaret Greenwood, about Alston’s specific criticisms of UC, Rudd sighed and said she was “disappointed, to say the least, by the extraordinary political nature of his language” - how unfair of him. This discourse was “wholly inappropriate”, tut-tutted Rudd, adding that “we look forward to working with experts in the area to make sure we get the right outcome for the people who we want to look after” - like the capitalist class and millionaires, Amber?
Philip Alston’s report follows similar audits of extreme poverty in China, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Mauritania and, of course, the United States - which was accused, accurately enough, of pursuing policies that deliberately forced millions of Americans into financial ruin, while lavishing vast riches on the super-wealthy, and concluding that 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 million are in “extreme poverty”.4 Alston reported a lot of other uncomfortable truths about America, such as the fact that there are many fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average; US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world; Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in other advanced capitalist countries; US inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries. In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world; it has the highest incarceration rate in the world; its youth poverty rate is the highest across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with one quarter of young people in poverty, compared to less than 14% across the OECD, etc, etc.
In a manner similar to the official British response, the Donald Trump administration launched a furious assault on Alston. The charmless US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, decried the report as “politically motivated”, fulminating about how it is “patently ridiculous for the UN to examine poverty in America” - she absurdly declared that ‘only’ 250,000 Americans are in extreme poverty. A separate study by Princeton University economist Angus Deaton - cited in the UN report - found, however, that about 5.3 million Americans live on less than $4 a day, including government pay-outs.