On Monday 7th January, Emma led a 30 minute adjournment debate on the preliminary findings of UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, after his visit to the UK last November.
Here is her full speech:
I thank the House for allowing me to hold this debate this evening on the statement by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, following his visit late last year to the United Kingdom, which, along with a plethora of other reports, has ensured that the grinding and increasing poverty of daily life for so many in the UK has been brought into the spotlight.
Unlike the Government, who have treated Professor Alston’s well-evidenced and thorough statement with complete and utter disdain, I want to personally thank him for his conviction in passionately highlighting the absolute shame, degradation and harm that this Government are inflicting on those they govern, which has led to 14 million people living in poverty.
Professor Alston’s statement confirms what many Labour Members have known for a very long time—that when it comes to welfare reform and this Government’s policy agenda overall, “the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering.”
It has long been embedded in Tory DNA that “there is no such thing as society”, and social experiments in rolling back the state always begin with those who need the state the most. That is why the legacy of every Tory Government is one of deep inequality.
Professor Alston rightly notes that nowhere can this social re-engineering be seen more clearly than in the roll-out of “universal discredit”, as he calls it.
In principle, universal credit seemed to make some sense. Consolidation of six benefits into one should have achieved the key tenets of simplifying payments and incentivising people into work. Crucially, however, it was never designed to get support to those who needed it in a timely and efficient manner. In reality, like all welfare reform measures from this Government, it was about creating a hostile environment and demonising and dehumanising benefit claimants. As Professor Alston notes, the Department “is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles” than with responding to genuine needs.
The result has been an unrelenting onslaught of abject harm inflicted on more than 3 million people. The late-in-the-day news that the next phase of roll-out is being scaled back gives no comfort to the millions already suffering. Trussell Trust food bank figures show that in areas where universal credit has been implemented, food bank usage has increased by 52%. The fact that the Work and Pensions Secretary states that she “regrets” the growth in food banks will offer no comfort to the estimated 8.4 million people in the UK suffering from food insecurity, or to the volunteers and faith groups filling the gap left by the state and manning the nearly 2,000 food banks that we shamefully now have operating as a permanent part of the welfare state.
Nor will the Secretary of State’s regret give comfort to my constituents, such as one 18-year-old girl starting out in life who unexpectedly lost her job and who, despite statements made by the Government to the contrary, has not been eligible for housing cost assistance through universal credit. She narrowly escaped homelessness thanks to the intervention of our irreplaceable South Tyneside citizens advice bureau. The Secretary of State’s regret will also not help my constituent who suffers from mental health difficulties and was left with only £1.25 per day to live on after the Department made an error with her payments.
The five-week delay embedded in the system, which often turns out to be longer, was never going to achieve anything other than hardship, because one day going hungry and not being able to pay the bills is one day too many.
The 35-day delay leads to destitution and despair. There is no acceptable rationale for making people wait that long other than, to use Professor Alston’s words, “to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship.”
That hardship is exemplified clearly in the draconian application of sanctions. It is estimated that across the benefits system, more than 350,000 people were denied access to benefit payments between 2017 and 2018 for the most trivial and minor of reasons—for example, missing appointments because a relative has died unexpectedly or because claimants themselves have been admitted to hospital, or attending interviews instead of jobcentre appointments. The list is endless.
Professor Alston’s statement pays attention to the 2017 Government transformation strategy, under which all Government services will be “digital by default”. Universal credit claimants have been used as guinea pigs, as this is the first major service to be digital by default. It was either a deliberate act or total incompetence that led the Government to the conclusion that the most vulnerable and those with limited digital literacy and limited access to computers should be the first to test that. Even worse, it has been done against a backdrop of closures of libraries and jobcentres—the very places that those struggling would have gone to for assistance.
This Government have created a disability culture void of medical evidence and based on ignorance, fabrications and downright cruelty. The work capability and personal independence payment assessments—the most damning policies of our time—have seen companies such as Maximus, Atos and Capita being handed multimillion-pound contracts to hit targets based on how many people with disabilities they can push into destitution, and people with Down’s syndrome being asked by assessors how they “caught” it.
The Government should be ashamed. They should also be ashamed that a wheelchair user with multiple sclerosis was asked how long it would be before she could walk again, and that a young woman with a cancer-related bone marrow disease was denied personal independence payments because she had a degree, because working to gain a qualification is apparently a sign that someone is “not really disabled”. On top of that, people with disabilities are losing their severe disability premiums and enhanced disability premiums under universal credit, leaving them £80 a week worse off.
Those stories I have mentioned are not the exception but the norm, so it is little wonder that in 2017 the UN concluded that the UK Government were guilty of “grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”.
The UK benefits system now locks people into a Kafkaesque nightmare, and for some the only escape, tragically, has been to take their own lives. This state-inflicted damage cannot and must not continue.
I used to be proud to live in a country where people, when in need through no fault of their own, were able to receive help from the welfare state in their darkest hours, but since 2010 that safety net has been eroded and ripped away so that work is no longer a route out of poverty. Punitive welfare reform, benefit cuts, inaction on low-paid and insecure work and the widening gulf between the cost of living and income have led to 4 million people being in work and in poverty, and over 4 million children living in poverty. Stories of children coming to school with a grey pallor and undernourished, rummaging through bins for food and wearing threadbare clothes are commonplace.
What comes through very clearly in Professor Alston’s report is that this Government do not have a vision for this county that works for everyone. His statement and the full report, which will follow in the spring, should be treated as a factual commentary and a warning for future general elections of how Tory Governments rip the very fabric of our county apart and cause irrevocable harm. Eight years of regressive policies have led to the hollowing out and decimation of local government and many other key public services, meaning that costly crisis management, rather than prevention, is now the norm.
We now see the human cost borne out on our streets, where homeless people are dying; where people suffering from terminal illnesses, disabilities and mental health difficulties are being wrongly declared fit for work, which means some attempt to take their own lives, and some are successful; where children and adults are being admitted to hospital for malnutrition; where food banks are having to turn desperate people away because they cannot cope with demand; where families are living in squalid temporary accommodation, with only the clothes on their backs and no end in sight; where vulnerable adults and children are being left with no social care provision at all; and where a whole generation of women have been plunged into poverty after their pensions were stolen from them by this Government.
This short debate in no way does justice to Professor Alston’s report, and I hope we will be able to revisit it in future, because as we debate it here tonight there will be mams and dads returning home after a hard day’s work with rumbling stomachs, looking through empty cupboards wondering how they will feed their children. There will be elderly people sat alone, the silence of their loneliness piercing as they wonder if they should eat or put their heating on. There will be thousands who have torn open that brown envelope this morning only for the words and decisions within it to tear their world apart. Their pain lies at this Government’s door. Their suffering should be the shame of this Government, but it is not.
Professor Alston noted the “striking…disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from…people…across the country.” He added: “The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial…poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.”
In his response I hope the Minister will answer one pertinent question, the answer to which millions of people currently suffering need to know: does that political will exist yet?