Baroness Janke: Repair our broken social security safety net now

Posted On: 
17th June 2019

Fourteen million UK citizens now live in poverty. The government must urgently re-establish a welfare system worthy of the fifth largest economy in the world, argues Baroness Janke

A delivery to a foodbank
PA Images

The publication in May of the report by UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston on extreme poverty and human rights sent shock waves across government. Ministers reacted with outraged disbelief and subsequent denial of many of the report’s findings. However, to those who are familiar with the humiliations and sufferings of the least well-off in our country, they are a reflection on the day-to day realities faced by the 14 million people in poverty in the UK. The report uses the definition of poverty recommended by the cross-party Social Metrics commission chaired by the conservative peer Baroness Stroud; to its credit the government has now agreed to adopt this definition, which identifies income rather than salary as the key issue once living costs such as housing and childcare are considered.

The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, a leading centre of global finance, and has record low levels of unemployment. Yet 14m people, one fifth of the population, live in poverty, with 4m of these more than 50% below the poverty line.

With local authorities “gutted” by cuts, many social services have been eliminated and police services reduced to skeletal proportions. Libraries have been closed in record numbers, community and youth services shrunk – it is not surprising that acute financial and social pressures result in higher levels of mental illness. Professor Alston states that he heard “story after story” of people who had considered or attempted suicide.

The report identifies and describes the way disadvantaged groups such as women, single parents and disabled people have faced acutely worsening circumstances because of changes to policy on benefits. Professor Alston likens the Benefit system to the nineteenth century Workhouse made infamous by Dickens.

"Disadvantaged groups such as women, single parents and disabled people have faced acutely worsening circumstances"

Women earn on average 17.9% per hour less than men and make up 60% of workers receiving low pay. Reductions in Social Care services place a greater burden on primary care-givers, who are disproportionately women. Single parent families, of whom 90% are women, are more than twice as likely to experience poverty than any other group. Half of the total number of children in one-parent families are in poverty.

Policies such as the benefit cap and freeze, the two-child limit and the introduction of full job-seeking requirements for single parents of children as young as three have had a stark impact according to the report. In August 2018 two thirds of those who had benefits capped were single parents. Single parents in the bottom 20% of income will have lost 25% of their 2010 income by 2021-22. As a result of tax and benefits changes, the poverty rate for children will jump to 62% by then.

Nearly half of those in poverty 6.9m are from families in which someone has a disability. They have also been some of the hardest hit by austerity measures. Changes to taxes and benefits will mean that some families are projected to lose £11,000 by 2021-2022 more than 30% of their income. Professor Alston heard repeatedly of assessments that were superficial dismissive and contradicted the advice of their doctor. With cuts to local government funding, particularly social care, many families with a person with a disability have been driven to breaking point.

It is understandable that the Government has reacted strongly to the report in view of the hard-hitting language. However, the sources of statistics on which the judgements are made are well-documented and from reputable sources such as the Social Metrics Commission, Resolution Foundation, Child Poverty Action group and many others. The searing tone, unfettered criticism and moral outrage at the injustices laid bare in the report have had wide coverage. Heightened public awareness of the experiences suffered by so many our fellow citizens must bring pressure for urgent action to re-establish an effective social safety net worthy of a country such as the UK.

Baroness Janke is a Lib Dem peer. Her Oral Question Is on Wednesday 19 June.