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UN Expert Laments UK's Doubling Down On Failed Anti-poor Policies

2nd June 2019

Photograph of UN Expert Laments UK's Doubling Down On Failed Anti-poor Policies

GENEVA (22 May 2019) - The UK Government's policies have led to the systematic immiseration of millions across Great Britain, the UN's expert on poverty and human rights said in a report released today, calling for a new vision that embodies compassion to end the unnecessary hardship.

"The results of the austerity experiment are crystal clear," Philip Alston said in his report following an official visit to the country in November 2018. "There are 14 million people living in poverty, record levels of hunger and homelessness, falling life expectancy for some groups, ever fewer community services, and greatly reduced policing, while access to the courts for lower-income groups has been dramatically rolled back by cuts to legal aid.

"The imposition of austerity was an ideological project designed to radically reshape the relationship between the Government and the citizenry," the expert said. "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.

"The Government's ‘work not welfare' mantra conveys the message that individuals and families can seek charity but that the State will no longer provide the basic social safety net to which all political parties had been committed since 1945," Alston said.

"It is hard to imagine a recipe better designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions," said the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. "But in response to this social calamity, the Government has doubled down on its policies.

"The endlessly repeated response that there are more people in employment than ever before overlooks inconvenient facts: largely as a result of slashed government spending on services, close to 40 percent of children are predicted to be living in poverty two years from now; 16 percent of people over 65 live in relative poverty; and millions of those who are in-work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope."

Alston acknowledged that the Government had taken action on a number of the issues raised in his preliminary report. "I welcome the moves to adopt a uniform poverty measure, to systematically survey food insecurity, and to further delay the rollout of Universal Credit. That programme will be improved by plans to provide more time to repay advances, to reduce debt payment limits, and to reduce extreme penalties. But, for all the talk that austerity is over, massive disinvestment in the social safety net continues unabated," Alston said.

"It is difficult to see recent changes as more than window dressing to minimise political fallout," he said. "The situation demands a new vision that embodies British compassion and places social rights and economic security front and centre."

The UN expert said Brexit is clearly an issue of utmost concern to all sides but it has also become a tragic distraction from the social and economic policies that in the meantime are shaping a Britain that it is hard to believe any political parties really want. "It certainly won't be a prouder, stronger, and more self-confident British community that emerges unless attention is given to the crisis of destitution and the chronic insecurity of low-income earners," Alston said.

"Given the significant resources available in the country, the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have caused so much pain and misery, amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the United Kingdom's human rights obligations," Alston said. “The Government should restore local government funding to ensure crucial social protection can help people escape poverty, reverse particularly regressive measures such as the benefits cap and two-child limit, and audit the impact of tax and spending decisions on different groups."


PHOTO The Special Rapporteur hears from people affected by poverty in Newham - © Bassam Khawaja 2018.

Scottish Government Response - Published 31 May 2019

Extreme poverty and human rights: response to UN Special Rapporteur.

The Scottish Government was pleased that the Special Rapporteur was able to spend two days of his UK visit in Scotland, hearing directly from people affected by poverty and meeting Scottish Ministers, parliamentarians, government officials and representatives of civil society.

Since his visit, Professor Alston has continued to engage with Scottish civil society, including through a webinar with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations to provide an opportunity to discuss his preliminary findings.

In response to those findings, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People wrote to the Special Rapporteur on 21 March 2019 to provide an update on Scottish Government activity in areas where he had expressed an interest during his visit, including the Social Security Charter and the First Minister's Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership.

UK Government welfare changes

The Scottish Government welcomes the Special Rapporteur's final report. It is a devastating analysis of the UK Government's austerity measures, describing the policies pursued since 2010 as retrogressive and in clear violation of the country's human rights obligations, and clearly shows there must be change in direction.

In Scotland alone, there will have been £3.7 billion cut from annual social security spending by 2020 to 2021 due to the UK Government's decisions. The Special Rapporteur notes that devolved administrations are spending considerable resources to protect people from the worst impacts and these efforts are simply not sustainable. In 2018 to 2019 we spent over £125 million to mitigate the worst impacts of these changes and to protect those on low incomes, and we will do so again this year. This is money we would much rather invest in lifting families out of poverty.

The Scottish Government agrees with Professor Alston’s assessment that the UK Government must reverse the many policies it has pursued that are increasing poverty and inequality, such as the benefits freeze and two-child cap. His criticisms of Universal Credit - including the long wait for a first payment, the digital exclusion built into the system, the lack of split payments and the negative impact it has on women - reflect the numerous representations made to the UK Government by Scottish Ministers.

The UK Government must take heed of this report and make the radical changes necessary to provide support to people and to actively take action to tackle poverty and inequality in the UK.

Measuring and tackling poverty in Scotland

The Scottish Government regards confronting poverty as an urgent human rights concern, and one that requires priority action across ministerial portfolios and on the part of all state institutions.

There is no single, agreed measure of poverty at a UK level. Professor Alston recommended that the UK should adopt the Social Metric Commission’s (SMC) measure as a single measure of poverty.

In his report, as well as noting that the Scottish Government is investing considerable resources to protect people living in poverty, the Special Rapporteur referred to Scotland’s own ambitious plans for poverty reduction. These plans are underpinned by four official measures of child poverty, as set out in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017, which are expressed as targets towards the eradication of child poverty in Scotland. The four target measures, unanimously agreed by the Scottish Parliament, each focus on a different dimension of child poverty, and this means that a nuanced and ambitious approach is needed to make progress. So while the Scottish Government agrees that a single measure of poverty would be a valuable additional tool for holding governments to account, this should not replace the more holistic set of measures agreed in Scotland as part of the 2017 Act.

The SMC poverty measure is based on the same basic principles as the Scottish Government’s current measures but makes adjustments to what is considered to be income and what is considered as an inescapable cost. Crucially, it measures poverty after housing costs, which is key to the established Scottish approach. We continue to work closely with the SMC to improve measurement and understanding of poverty in Scotland, and Scotland’s child poverty measurement framework incorporates many of the issues raised by the SMC in its new measure. We welcome the announcement that the UK Department for Work and Pensions will start to develop experimental statistics on the SMC’s definition of poverty and we will gladly work with them to continue to improve the understanding of poverty in the UK.

The SMC states that the UK Government’s political debate has focused on the measurement of poverty rather than on the action that is needed to drive better outcomes. In contrast, the Scottish Government is committed to action, having already set ambitious statutory targets based on a basket of existing measures agreed by stakeholders and unanimously by the Scottish Parliament. As these measures are already driving progress, we would not want to divert substantial resource from this purpose.

Since publication of the first Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, the Scottish Government has worked with local partners to introduce a minimum school clothing grant worth at least £100 per eligible child - a significant boost to previous levels. We have brought in a Best Start Pregnancy and Baby Payment, which replaces the UK Government’s Sure Start Maternity Grant and gives £600 for a first child and £300 for second and subsequent children. We have also recently introduced new Early Learning and School Age payments of £250 per child, paid around the time a child would start nursery and school. These payments help cover essential costs at key points and, because they are cash payments, parents choose how to spend the money in a way that best meets family needs.

By 2021 to 2022, the Scottish Government will be investing around £990 million per year to deliver the commitment to almost double the funded entitlement to early learning and childcare to up to 1,140 hours per year for all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds. In addition, we are working to deliver an intensive employment support service for parents who are out of work, and for those in work who want support to progress in their careers, and also a new income supplement - a regular payment which will provide further vital support for parents on low incomes. The Parental Employability Service, backed by £12 million by 2022, will focus on the key family groupings identified in the Child Poverty Action Plan, which include lone parents, families with a disabled parent or child, and minority ethnic families.

Launched in 2015, the Scottish Attainment Challenge aims to achieve equity in education, with a particular focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap. During the current parliamentary session, the Scottish Government is investing £750 million through the Attainment Scotland Fund, which includes over £180 million in 2019 to 2020 for raising attainment and closing the poverty related attainment gap, targeting funding at schools and local authorities who will benefit the most.

Scotland’s social security system

In his report, the Special Rapporteur highlights Scotland’s new social security system, which is guided by the principles that social security is a public service, an investment in the people of Scotland, is itself a human right and essential to the realisation of other human rights, and that respect and dignity of individuals is to be at the heart of the Scottish social security system. The system was co-designed on the basis of evidence, and a Social Security Charter has been developed with people who have experience of social security, aligned with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comment 19.

The Scottish Ministers have a duty to report annually to the Scottish Parliament on what they have done to meet the expectations set by the Social Security Charter. There is a further duty to review the Charter a minimum of every five years, and reviews which change the content of the Charter must be approved by Parliament.

The Scottish Commission on Social Security is an independent scrutiny body with a legal duty to report to Parliament on the system’s performance against the Charter. Organisations, especially those which support and advise clients, will be able to submit evidence to the Commission for investigation where they believe the system is frequently falling short of the expectations set by the Charter. The Commission can then choose to report its findings to Parliament. In executing all of its functions, including those in relation to the Charter, the Commission has a legal duty to have regard to relevant human rights instruments.

In addition, individuals who believe that their treatment has fallen short of the standards contained in the Charter have the right to complain and to escalate complaints to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

Food insecurity

The Scottish Government agrees with the Special Rapporteur’s views on measuring household food insecurity and, following an initial commitment made in 2016, has done so since 2017 as part of the Scottish Health Survey. From 2019 onwards, food insecurity will be measured UK-wide through the Family Resources Survey.

The Scottish Government is also supporting dignified responses to food insecurity through its £3 million Fair Food Fund; providing a safety net for people on low incomes through the Scottish Welfare Fund; delivering access to sanitary products in a wide range of public places including all education settings; helping over 70,000 households in Scotland to sustain their tenancies by providing more than £64 million in Discretionary Housing Payments; and investing more than £3 billion to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes, including 35,000 homes for social rent, by 2021.

Life expectancy in Scotland

The Special Rapporteur points out in his report that Scotland, despite having the lowest poverty rates in the UK, has the lowest life expectancy. According to statistics published by the Office for National Statistics in September 2018, life expectancy in Scotland (for those born in 2015 to 2017) had fallen slightly to 77.0 (from 77.1 in 2014 to 2016) for males and 81.1 (from 81.2) for females. In 2015 to 2017, males born in Scotland’s most deprived areas could expect to live 13 years fewer than those in least deprived areas. For females, the gap was 9.6 years.

Over the long term, life expectancy in Scotland has increased. NHS Health Scotland reports suggest that the pattern is similar in England and Wales, the USA, Iceland and Northern Ireland, and that austerity is having an adverse impact. The causes of changes in life expectancy are difficult to pinpoint and the British Medical Association has observed that more research is needed. The issues are complex and relate to an ageing population, enduring inequalities, deprivation and poverty, and changes in the pattern of disease. Health inequalities are a symptom of wider socioeconomic inequalities.

The Scottish Government is taking action to improve health outcomes:

our Tobacco Action Plan (June 2018) focuses on addressing health inequalities and targeting smoking rates in the communities where people find it most difficult to quit

since 2008, we have invested over £746 million to tackle problem alcohol and drug use, and in 2018 to 2019 we allocated additional funding to improve alcohol and drug treatment services for each year of this Parliament

our national alcohol and drug strategy, Rights, Respect and Recovery (November 2018), responds to the changed patterns of drug and alcohol use, and associated harms and deaths, in Scotland

our Alcohol Framework sets out measures to prevent alcohol-related harm, including reviewing the minimum unit price and our plans for restrictions on alcohol advertising

our diet and healthy weight delivery plan (July 2018) sets out a vision for everyone in Scotland to eat well and have a healthy weight

the 2018 to 2019 Programme for Government contains a package of measures to support positive mental health and prevent mental ill health

Public health priorities published by the Scottish Government and COSLA in June 2018 provide consensus on key challenges that Scotland needs to tackle to reduce health inequalities. A new public health body, Public Health Scotland, will provide leadership and work collaboratively across the public health system to apply data, evidence and research on what works to improve health and wellbeing in Scotland.

Embedding human rights and equality

The Scottish Government fully acknowledges and embraces its responsibility to ensure that human rights are given substantive, practical effect across all areas of public policy. Last year the Scottish Government refreshed Scotland’s National Performance Framework. The Framework helps monitor progress towards achieving eleven National Outcomes, which include to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, and to tackle poverty by sharing opportunities, wealth and power more equally. A total of eight of the eleven outcomes are linked to the international human rights framework.