Last year, I investigated the harsh realities of poverty in the UK. In one of the world’s richest countries, I found 14 million people living in poverty, rising infant mortality rates, falling life expectancy for some groups, foodbanks springing up everywhere, rising homelessness, and overloaded and struggling schools and police services. Most of these problems are the direct result of government policies.
But in its response to my final report as UN Special Rapporteur, published last month, the government has refused to take these findings seriously, instead preferring a defensive approach that sidesteps all the real issues. This week, the UK and other governments will have the chance to discuss the report directly when I present it to the UN Human Rights Council.
The government’s response so far has consisted of three strategies. The first is denial. The report is “barely believable”, they say. In other words, it’s a load of rubbish. A pity then that a senior official of the Department of Work and Pensions subsequently told a House of Commons committee that the report was “factually correct” and that “in terms of austerity, cuts to local government funding, in terms of the reliance that we have on the labour market and the risk we face if there is a recession” the report made “really good points that we have taken on board, and we should take on board”.
The report relies on the government’s own data and that of some of the UK’s most reputable institutions. These findings should not be controversial, and the government should be addressing them instead of trying to muddy established facts.
The second strategy is distraction. Rather than acknowledge the extent of poverty, inequality, unaffordable housing, or hunger, the government pointed to a “UN report” that supposedly shows “the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live”. Aside from the fact that it’s not a UN report (but a report to the UN, that actually lists the UK as fifteenth in the world); acknowledging that many people in the UK are happy and that employment levels are at a record high does not refute the fact that too many are facing severe hardship.
The government claims it has “increased the generosity of benefits in recent years” and takes credit for small tweaks to its own harsh policies, but this is a blatant mischaracterisation of decisions to massively reduce public spending and systematically erode the value of benefits for those needing support.
Third, attack the messenger. The government claimed the report was insufficiently researched, “based on a tiny period of time spent here”. But it knows that my team and I spent months preparing for this visit, reviewing countless existing reports, making more than 100 advance consultations, and reviewing more than 300 submissions. And although the report is based on much more than the standard 12-day country visit, I spent that time meeting with people in poverty, prominent researchers, and frontline staff at foodbanks and advice centres, many of whom said they wished the government would do the same.
What is most puzzling to me is why the government is so defensive. Starting in 2010, it pursued a radical re-engineering of the welfare state, making poverty and its related outcomes foreseeable. If the government is being honest, it should “own” the consequences and say “yes, poverty is rising, inequality has increased, economic and social insecurity are rampant, and children are going hungry, but this is the price of trimming the budget and incentivising work.” Instead it is denying the predictable effects of its own policies.
If there is any good news, it is that these policies could still be reversed with huge savings in terms of economic and social trauma and much greater productivity in the future. This should be the time for a frank reckoning and a change of direction. All that is needed is a vision to make all Britons, not just the wealthy, better off, and to commit to minimum levels of social justice for all.