In the absolute clusterfuck of the past week you’d be forgiven for not noticing that Esther McVey’s ostensibly Brexit-related departure happened to occur a day before the findings of a UN envoy report on poverty, with a particular focus on her own Department for Work and Pensions, were due.
The results of this report were beyond damning. On Friday the 16th of November 2018 Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, ended a two-week UK tour with a stinging declaration that despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, levels of child poverty are ‘not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster’.
There was no attempt to detach bleak conditions in the UK from the government and policies which have obviously caused them: Alston plainly attributes British poverty to austerity measures, privatisation and the decimation of local councils which formed the ‘fabric’ of society. The most pointed accusation came at the DWP’s flagship Universal Credit system, which collates and vastly diminishes previously separate welfare programs. Alston describes the system which has been slowly introduced since 2013 as ‘Orwellian’ (though I think Kafkaesque would be the more appropriate literary comparison), and even dunks by joking that it was ‘falling into universal discredit’.
Amber Rudd replaces Esther McVey to become the new DWP Minister, only 7 months after she herself resigned from the Home Office for lying about deporting Windrush citizens back to countries they left as children 50 or 60 years ago – to their deaths in at least 11 cases.
Presumably Alston’s report came to her attention on her first day in office, and serves as a pretty stark receipt of what the last 10 years of austerity policies have ravaged on those who rely on government assistance. Among the most gruesome and nauseating highlights include a West African woman having to her drink her baby’s milk formula because she couldn’t find local food banks, disabled people defying their doctor’s orders to return to work and keep their benefits going and young people selling their bodies or drugs in order to put a roof over their head after being told that there are no public housing options in their area.
Alston believes that the government are ‘in denial’ about poverty in the world’s fifth largest economy. During McVey’s time in office she was forced to apologise for fudging a National Audit Report into Universal Credit, and derided a Parliamentary report which claimed that the program would represent a net loss of roughly £5 billion worth of welfare payments as ‘fake news’. A day after the report was released Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng said in response to its findings that he ‘doesn’t know who this UN man is, I don’t know what his background is’, implying that he was some kind of imposter walking around talking to British poor people.
This government works on an ‘out of sight, out of mind principle’, and the nature of poverty in a commodified neoliberal society is that it’s socially as well as economically crippling. The UK media is monopolised by financial interests sympathetic to the Tories and self-censors appropriately; transport is expensive and face-time with decision makers is increasingly sold to lobbyists rather than meted out to the public. The UN envoy represents one of the only attempts in the post-austerity era to give a voice to the voiceless in all four corners of the United Kingdom, and the voice is pained and withered.
Most importantly, Alston’s work opens up a much-needed conversation about poverty in a country where the poor are seen as barnacles rather than victims. The UK is in an acute stage of a mental health crisis, and references to suicide and depression obnoxiously crop up again and again throughout the report. Stigma serves a useful function in keeping those who have obviously been failed by society underground.
It’s time to switch the shame of poverty from the victims to the holders of power that have allowed it to fester. The work of Alston and the UN is a good first step in creating a political solution to heal a broken Britain.