The UN report on poverty is the truth, and we must shout it from the rooftops

By Bernadette Meaden
May 22, 2019

For millions of people in the UK, Philip Alston’s final report on poverty and human rights will be a powerful affirmation of their lived experience. Almost every line of it strikes a chord and rings true.  

The Government, on the other hand, says it is “barely believable”. We could hardly have a more vivid illustration of what the report itself describes as the “striking and almost complete disconnect between the picture painted by the Government…and what people across the country told the Special Rapporteur.”

As if to underline the truth of Professor Alston’s words, two things happened within hours of his report being published. First, the Department for Work and Pensions launched what can only be called a propaganda campaign, purporting to give the ‘facts’ about Universal Credit. Paid advertising dressed up to look like news in the Metro newspaper was immediately condemned by the Trussell Trust, and labelled, “shameless and deceptive”by the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust.

Almost simultaneously, Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee began hearing evidence on how Universal Credit was “driving some women to exchange sex for living essentials like food or a place to stay, because they are left with too little to provide for themselves and their children.”

The shocking evidence given by women fully vindicated Professor Alston’s description of Universal Credit as “a digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse”. Workhouses were designed to make the receipt of assistance such an ordeal that people would do anything rather than apply for it. Here we heard of women who had turned their lives around now going back to sex work because they simply couldn’t cope with Universal Credit, or waited so long or got so little money, they couldn’t survive. Women shared with the Committee the numerous barriers which prevent them even making a successful claim, and the almost impossible challenge of maintaining that claim without being sanctioned. (A woman who had been raped received an indefinite sanction because she missed meetings, for heaven’s sake.). Committee Chair Frank Field then disclosed that he, a veteran MP, had gone to his local Jobcentre and tried to make a Universal Credit claim, and with two managers helping him, couldn’t do it.

This evidence session gave ample proof that, particularly for the most vulnerable people, Universal Credit, far from being a simplification of the benefits system, is complex, inaccessible, inflexible, punitive and unforgiving. I would urge anyone who doubts the truth of what Professor Alston says about it to watch the session here.   

The government will try to undermine this report in any way it can. It is threatening to complain to the UN. But anyone who has any knowledge of what is actually happening in our communities knows it is true. The power of the report may come from the sense of righteous anger which pervades it, which is Professor Alston’s human response to the plight of the people he met in the UK. But, as he says, what people told him were “not just anecdotes. They are reflected in the numbers.”

The government may try to deny that they have implemented “the systematic immiseration of millions”, but this is what they have done, and all the statistics prove it. From homelessness, hunger, life expectancy, children being taken into care, drug deaths, crime – all the social indicators confirm that “UK standards of well-being have descended precipitately in a remarkably short period of time, as a result of deliberate policy choices made when many other options were available.”

For individuals and organisations who have any interest in social justice, the picture could not now be more stark, or the course ahead be clearer. In the face of government lies, spin and propaganda, we must insist on, and proclaim, the truth.

We must never again say that the government ‘isn’t doing enough to tackle poverty’. We must shout from the rooftops that the government is actively creating poverty, creating hunger, creating homelessness, and creating destitution. And when the government comes forward with a minor concession we mustn’t be grateful, but demand better. As Professor Alston says, "social inclusion, rather than increasing marginalisation of the working poor and those unable to work, should be the guiding principle of social policy". It's so basic, and so obvious.

In demanding this, we will not be asking for anything unreasonable or extreme. We will simply be seeking a return to a social security system which does what it is supposed to do – not deter, not punish, but support. We must demand that public services are adequately funded to provide the care and protection we will all need at some time. And we must assert that the resources are available to do this – it is simply a matter of political choice.

Our government has been inflicting suffering on our fellow citizens, adults and children alike, for almost a decade. We cannot allow this to continue.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 

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