"Social calamity and economic disaster"

Submitted by martin on 20 November, 2018 - 12:43 Author: Martin Thomas
Food banks

"14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials...

"Various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40% by 2022...

"Homelessness is up 60% since 2010, rough sleeping is up 134%.... Food bank use is up almost four-fold since 2012, and there are now about 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis".

Philip Alston, the UN "Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights", in his 16 November report (bit.ly/alstonr), sums up the picture as a government drive since 2010 for a "a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful... elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance... a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one".

Alston is not speaking from a left-wing background. He is an international lawyer, coming from a well-off background in Australia, whose older brother was until recently the president of Australia's Liberal Party (equivalent of the Tories).

His report, a crisp summary of work by many research and campaign groups, primarily indicts social benefit policies, but starts by saying that "the labour and housing markets provide the crucial backdrop".

In other words, the Tory mode of dealing with the economic turmoil and depression since the crash of 2008 has slashed union rights, battered union organisation in the area where it was strongest, the public sector, and thus pushed hard against unions' ability to sustain wages and conditions.

Real wages are still way down on levels before the crash.

Then there's the long-term rundown of social housing, the push which has taken most young people into private renting under landlord-and-tenant laws giving them little security and few rights, and the cutbacks in housing benefit rates.

Against that "backdrop", the benefit system, the "safety net", has been transformed not just by cuts but by an orientation "more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to needs".

Many of the cuts mean costs, even costs to public budgets, being displaced from the benefits bill to elsewhere (food banks and other forms of emergency provision) rather than being reduced, but Government policy, says Alston, is shaped by "wanting to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship" and to push people into "low-paid, temporary work just to avoid debilitating sanctions".

"Almost 60% of those in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works. There are 2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work fu;ll-time... One in six people referred to [Trussell] food banks is in work".

If Brexit goes through, it will all get worse. Even supporters of Brexit now mostly no longer dispute that it will hit economic life. "The most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society will be least able to cope and will take the biggest hit".

Alston reports at length on the Universal Credit program, "fast falling into Universal Discredit". "Consolidating six different benefits into one makes good sense, in principle", but the punitive way it has been done annuls the good sense.

The five week delay from a claim to getting benefits leaves many destitute. If they get "advance payments", those must be repaid in relatively short order, and debts to DWP can be deducted from Universal Credit at a rate much higher than from older benefits.

UC involved "draconian sanctions, even for infringements that seem minor. A UN report found "grave and systematic violation of the rights of persons with disabilities", partly on the basis of the sanctions regime.

The UC has to be claimed online is not an innocent drive for efficiency. "One wonders why some of the most vulnerable and those with poor digital literacy had to go first in what amounts to a nationwide digital experiment".

"Only 47% of those on low income use broadband internet at home... 16% of the population is not able to fill out an online application form.

"People who do not speak English and the disabled are more likely to be unable to overcome this hurdle...According to DWP’s own survey from June 2018, only 54% of all claimants were able to apply online independently, without assistance. As of March 2018, only about one third of all Universal Credit claimants could verify their identity online via GOV.UK Verify, a crucial step in the application process".

"Around one third of new UC claims fail in the application process". But "official policy is to keep 'face-to-face' help at a minimum".

The "automation" in the UC system has another twist. It relies on the tax authorities remitting information about your income, received fromyour employer, automatically to DWP.

"About 2% of the millions of monthly transactions are incorrect". Because of the computerisation, "claimants often have to wait for weeks to get the proper amount even when they have written proof".

The automated systems are also used to "segment" claimants into "low, medium, and high risk", behind their backs.

All this is framed by "capping benefit amounts to working-age households, limiting support to two children per family, reducing Housing Benefit... and reducing the value of a wide range of benefits".

The effects are doubled by "dramatic reductions in the availability of legal aid", the 49% real-terms cut in local government money from central government from 2010-11 to 2017-8, the closure of more than 500 children's centres between 2010 and 2018, the closure of more than 340 libraries between 2010 and 2016, and the shrinking of local welfare funds.

The impact is bigger on families with disabilities, who "are projected to lose £11,000 on average [from 2010 to] 2021/22, more than 30% of their annual net income".

And on a particular group of "women born in the 1950s have been particularly impacted by an abrupt and poorly phased in change in the state pension age from 60 to 66".

"Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead". Labour must fight for a different political choice: to tax the rich to restore welfare.

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