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Government must end 'defensive state of denial' and tackle child poverty in the UK

Government must end 'defensive state of denial' and tackle child poverty in the UK
4 min read

The UN Rapporteur has held up a revealing mirror to British society, says Baroness Lister.

‘A disgrace’, ‘a social calamity’ and ‘an economic disaster, all rolled into one’ was the damning verdict of the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights on the state of child poverty, following his recent visit to the UK.  A key focus of Professor Alston’s inquiry was social security – ‘a vital anchor to prevent people being pulled into poverty’ – which has been subjected to ‘radical social engineering’.  He concluded that, despite ‘some good outcomes…great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily’, as cuts have ‘undermined the capacity of benefits to loosen the grip of poverty’. 

A common thread running through his shaming statement was the ‘striking and almost complete disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from many people directly, across the country’: ‘the Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial’, was ‘dismissive’ of concerns raised about universal credit and appeared unconcerned by the shredding of the ultimate safety net provided by local welfare assistance schemes.  

So, right on cue, the government’s response to the statement betrayed the very state of denial of which it stood accused.  The Prime Minister made clear ‘that we do not agree with the report’ and the new Work and Pensions Secretary, despite her welcome acknowledgement of concerns raised by others about universal credit, dismissed ‘the extraordinary political nature of his language’.  Minister after minister has wheeled out the reduction in the numbers in ‘absolute’ poverty (more accurately described as a measure ‘anchored’ in the living standards of 2010-11) to rebut the statement.  In doing so, they conveniently ignore the growing numbers in relative poverty, including a rise of 500,000 children in the last five years, as analysed by a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report.  David Cameron’s message in his 2006 Scarman Lecture that ‘the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty’ is long forgotten.  Professor Alston himself criticised the way the government cherry picks statistics.

The full impact of social security cuts is not yet reflected in the poverty rate statistics; nor do they tell us anything about the depth of poverty.  To the extent that people in receipt of social security are already poor, cuts in their benefits will not affect the numbers in poverty.  We must now start paying more attention to how far people are falling below the poverty line; analysis by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of York University points to a worrying widening in this ‘poverty gap’.  It is thus not surprising that Professor Alston recounted examples of extreme poverty among people to whom he had spoken, despite being told by government that ‘there is no extreme poverty in the UK’. 

Professor Alston’s statement was based on over 300 written submissions – an unprecedented number for such a mission – as well as an intensive 10 days of visits around the UK in which he heard not just from organisations working with people in poverty but from many people experiencing poverty themselves.  In contrast to the government’s response, that of civil society has been enthusiastic because the statement resonated with their own experience on the ground and the press have reported anger at the government’s reaction among some of those experiencing poverty to whom Alston spoke. 

The government’s reaction would have been more defensible had it been based on its own evaluation of the impact of policies such as the benefits freeze and two-child limit, but to date it has refused to carry out such an evaluation of most of its policies as well as the cumulative impact assessment called for by various bodies.  The UN Rapporteur has held up a revealing mirror to British society.  The government could maintain its defensive state of denial or it could follow the Archbishop of Canterbury’s advice to respond carefully, listen and learn and use the statement in tackling the ‘burning injustices’ Alston has identified.  The response to my oral question might give us a clue as to which it will be.      


Baroness Lister is a Labour member of the House of Lords.

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Lister - A benefits increase is essential to ease the cost of living for low-income families


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