What is it about a United Nations (UN) report that could have the Tories so rattled?
When a UN special rapporteur released a report into extreme poverty in Britain last week, the government called its findings “barely believable”.
You can see why they might want to say that. The report is a devastating assessment of a decade of Tory rule.
Not only does it spell out the “tragic social consequences” of austerity—it lays the blame squarely at the feet of the Tories’ “ideological agenda”.
It begins with some damning statistics.
One fifth of the population of Britain—14 million people—“live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017,” says the report.
And that’s just its opening shot.
“Close to 40 percent of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021,” it continues.
“Life expectancy is falling for certain groups—and the legal aid system has been decimated.”
UN special rapporteur Philip Alston heard from people who have to “choose either to eat or heat their homes”. And people said “children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food and sending it home because teachers know their students will otherwise go hungry”.
Disgracefully—though unsurprisingly—the Tories dismissed and denounced the report’s findings out of hand.
Responding to Alston’s initial findings, released last year, they claimed unemployment was at its lowest for 40 years. They said there are fewer people in “absolute poverty” than in 2010.
The report rubbishes both claims. “Widely accepted independent measures find poverty is rising,” it says.
And in any case, argues the report, “Living in a working household does not bring freedom from poverty, with nearly 60 percent of those in poverty in a family where someone works, and in-work poverty on the rise.”
The real reason the Tories want to sweep this one under the carpet is because it completely dismantles their justification for austerity.
It spells out how the Tories have “made no secret” of their plan to erode the welfare system. They want to replace it with “a punitive, mean?spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping.
“A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.”
It’s a scandal that the Tories have got away with it for so long. For most of that period, the Labour Party had a leadership that went along with that Tory ideology.
But now it is a supposedly anti?austerity party, the Tories still cling on. The missing factor throughout the last ten years has been struggle—and the unwillingness of trade union leaders to call strikes that could break the Tories.
We still need that resolve now.
Benefits hammered by Tories
An entire chapter of the report describes how the Tories have dismantled the benefits and services people rely on.
“Most British people have a personal stake in the social safety net functioning effectively. Yet, it has been systematically and starkly eroded,” it says.
A freeze in benefits has meant “poor families” have seen their income fall as prices rise. Last year Tory chancellor Philip Hammond could have ended the freeze, it says. But instead “chose to change income tax thresholds in a way that will help those who are better off but does nothing to move the needle on poverty.”
Cuts to housing benefit mean it has been “decimated amidst a real crisis in affordable housing.”
Legal aid cuts mean many poor people have “lost access to critical support and some have even reportedly lost custody of their children.”
And local government cuts mean large numbers of vulnerable children “are at greater risk of harm due to rapidly deteriorating frontline child protection services.”
Universal Credit slammed
The report is damning about the hated Universal Credit (UC) benefit.
It says its author “heard countless stories of severe hardships suffered under UC,” adding. “Where UC has fully rolled out, food bank demand has increased.”
The report says that councils, devolved governments and voluntary organisations “described their preparations for the roll out of UC as if they were preparing for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic.”
It outlines what years of scandal surrounding UC have already revealed—payment delays and “cruel, inhuman and degrading” sanctions leave claimants destitute or in debt.
And yet “ministers described UC as a nearly unmitigated success”.
For all that, the UN report still thinks UC can be saved. “Social support should be a route out of poverty, and Universal Credit should be a key part of that process,” it says.
“Reforms are urgent and should go well beyond tinkering.”
Women paying higher price
The report describes how Tory austerity has “taken a greater toll” on women.
“In 2018, women were paid 17.9 percent less per hour on average than men. They made up 60 percent of the workers receiving low pay and were disproportionately engaged in part-time work with little wage progression,” it says.
It also describes how benefits changes have a “stark impact on single parents”, noting that 90 percent of them are women. And it says the fact that UC is paid to just one person in a household can leave women dependent on an abusive partner.
Minorities hit harder by cuts
The report argues that “black and Asian” households are hit harder by Tory austerity.
“Black people and people from a South Asian background are the most likely to live in poverty and deprivation,” it says.
“Yet as a result of changes to taxes, benefits and public spending from 2010 to 2020, black and Asian households in the lowest fifth of incomes will experience the largest average drop in living standards, about 20 percent.”
Asylum seekers are targeted
“Destitution appears to be a design characteristic of the asylum system,” the report says.
Asylum seekers are banned from working and limited to a derisory level of support that guarantees they will live in poverty.
“The government promotes work as the singular solution to poverty, yet refuses to allow this particular group to work.
"While asylum seekers receive some basic support, they are left to make do with an inadequate, poverty level income of around £5 a day.”