Philip Alston has released his final report of his 2018 visit to the UK - including the North East. The damning report sets out the face of poverty in the UK, his analysis of the factors causing it and recommendations for change. It's strongly worded and paints a comprehensive but bleak picture of recent changes that have led to increasing poverty and hardship.

Poverty as a political choice

The top line? Here in the fifth richest country in the world, a fifth of the population live in poverty - with the predictions are for this to rise. Critically, he argues that this is the result of Government policy since 2010, through which have seen progress on tackling child poverty “unravel and poverty is again on the rise.”

Changing the face of society

Far from merely a cost saving exercise, he argues the policies amount to “radical social re-engineering”, and that the cost of creating such extremes of poverty may outweigh any savings. Together these changes have changed the face of society, limiting government support and with a single minded focus on employment- to the extent that the DWP are accused of designing a “digital, sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse”!

The multifaceted face of poverty including low-pay, poor employment conditions, inadequate benefits is doubly felt in the context of local government cuts, and reducing public space.

 “The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings.”

Policies of austerity introduced in 2010 continue largely unabated despite the tragic social consequences.”  While the economy has now largely recovered, surpluses have been used to give tax cuts for the rich, rather than changing policy.

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Child poverty

Close to 40% of children are predicted to be in poverty by 2021.

The report notes that after years of progress, since 2010, child poverty has been increasing, and almost entirely in working families. Alston specifically addresses the disproportionate impact of the changes on children, including the two-child policy, the benefits cap and the de-coupling of Child Benefit from inflation and living costs. Single parents and their children are among the worst hit by the changes.

The report particularly highlights the issues faced by children and families, noting children going to school hungry, and schools taking measure to address this, with poorly paid teachers even feeding and clothing children out of their own pockets.

The most vulnerable worst affected

Cuts to social spending have hit the lowest income households the worst, with women, children, racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups worst affected,  leading to concerns that they may breech international law on non-discrimination.

Alston also points to the rise in loneliness, isolation, suicide and mental health issues arising from the removal of the social security net and replacement with a “harsh and uncaring ethos”, while care for those with mental illness has reduced dramatically.

Key concerns contributing to poverty:

  • Disinvestment in social support, including weakening the ability of benefits to lift people out of poverty
  • Dramatic reductions in Legal Aid which previously covered legal costs for housing, family and benefits issues, which have meant that access to rights is dependent on ability to pay, in some cases leaving families unable to pay to fight for custody of their children
  • Huge cuts to local government funding (around 50% 2010-2017) at a time when need for social services was rising. This has had a huge impact on critical social care services. More than 500 children’s centres closed 2010-2018.
  • Increasing privatisation meaning basic services are unaffordable, including public transport
  • Universal Credit, specifically the five week delay, conditionality and sanctions, and the move to “digital by default”

Government in denial?

The report highlights the UK Governments tendency to talk only about work as the route out poverty, rising employment, and a reduction in absolute poverty - without acknowledging the lived experience of many – let alone how to address the suffering of so many.

“The Government has essentially foregone the opportunity to engage in a discussion about the real issues affecting poverty in the United Kingdom and refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem.”

The report is hard hitting and should be a wake-up call, but for many of us who work with children and families, it puts into context what we already know – that life for the poorest families is hard, and has been getting harder. It’s not right that children are trapped in poverty. We urge the government to heed the report and act. Poverty can be alleviated but requires recognition of the issue and efforts to address it.

These are our rights

With Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd  threatening to challenge the UN report, it doesn’t currently bode well for actually focusing on addressing poverty. Critical then is that the findings are for us to take forward and push for change together with families and charities around the country.

Britain has been a leader in developing the welfare system, and our British values are of compassion and justice. Regardless of party politics, we need to see urgent action to ensure children in our society do not grow up with such hardship.

Read the full report

Professor Alston is an independent human rights law expert, appointed by the United Nations to be Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights. In October 2018 he spent two weeks travelling the UK to meet people living in poverty, and the charities and experts advocating for them. His visit included Newcastle and North Tyneside. He also received more than 300 written submissions, including from Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University.

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