Martin Charlesworth
Nothing left in the cupboards

It seems astonishing to think that both the UN and an NGO focused on human rights would turn their attention to the UK, but that’s exactly what has happened in recent months. Last week the international NGO Human Rights Watch published a special report on austerity and welfare in the UK just days before the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights published his report. We normally see our role as in combatting the human rights abuses of other countries, not facing scrutiny ourselves.

However, something specific has taken place in the UK over the past decade which has had a serious impact on the welfare of the poorest members of our society. The first factor was the effect of the financial crash of 2008 on our public finances. The UK’s sovereign debt grew dramatically over a short period of time as the government scrambled to offset the impacts of the crash and to stabilise the economy and banking system. The second factor was a new welfare policy pursued by the successive governments since 2010. In the midst of an attempt to reduce public spending there was a decision to reform welfare in order to save money, to incentivise the jobless into work and to simplify the benefits system.

The combination of these two factors has produced an accelerating social crisis for the poor. This is what drew the attention of Human Rights Watch to the situation in the UK. This is their verdict:

“In the UK, the impact of deep cuts in the welfare system since 2010 has been disastrous for poor families’ living standards and in particular their access to adequate food.”  (p.4)

The particular focus of the report is the sudden and dramatic rise in food poverty during the past decade – as a human rights issue as well as a public policy issue. This has taken everyone by surprise but is now an established reality. Researchers for the report studied as much data as they could identify. They entered into discussion with government officials. They spoke to charities. They engaged closely with the food bank movement. They interviewed benefits claimants and food bank clients.

The report highlights three policy areas which it considers to be hugely detrimental to the poorest members of society. First, the so-called “benefits cap” which puts a ceiling on the amount an individual household can receive in benefits. Second, the “benefits freeze” which has stopped benefits increasing along with inflation for several years and is still in force. Third, the “two-child limit” to benefits entitlement which penalises families with more than two children. The report argues that all these policies are punitive and should be reformed or abandoned.

However, much of the report’s attention is focused on the Universal Credit system. Here, a number of flaws are identified which, the report proposes, are “particularly harmful” (p.5). The report proposes a number of changes to Universal Credit:

“Universal Credit can be improved to better respect the rights of people, including those living in poverty, to an adequate standard of food. This report calls on the UK government to use the opportunity of its current pause on the further rollout of Universal Credit to evaluate and address the system’s structural flaws, and not just problems with delivery. The government should also ensure that everyone has access to adequate food, including in emergency situations through a system of grants. It should introduce technical changes such as paying benefits in advance to avoid debt from the outset. It should review the excessive use of punitive sanctions, reducing payment rates on advances, and hardship payments. And it should improve processes by which people in financial crisis can access emergency assistance.”  (p.8)

We at Jubilee+ welcome the Human Rights Watch report as a helpful contribution to the ongoing public discussion about welfare policies and poverty in the UK. We are working closely with the food bank movement and local churches who have risen so effectively to the challenge as welfare reform has had unintended but real detrimental effects on the poor. Alongside this, we are glad to be part of an ongoing constructive dialogue with the DWP and in particular with Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd on these issues. We hope to help the government reassess the impacts of welfare policies and take remedial actions.

One of the issues we’ll be exploring at our next national conference is how the Church can prepare for increasing poverty in the future. Book in here…