It took just a two-week visit to the UK in late 2018 for Philip Alston, the former UN special rapporteur on poverty, to conclude that the Conservative government had inflicted “great misery” on Britons with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies when they came to power in 2010.
His report, published the following year, was rubbished by the government as a “barely believable account of Britain”. Three years on, ballooning energy and consumer prices threaten to push more of the UK population into destitution. With the announcement last week of yet another increase in the energy price cap, the average household bill is set to reach an all-time high of £3,549.
The social safety net that once protected the most vulnerable has been replaced with a “harsh and uncaring ethos”, Alston concluded in his 2019 report to the UN. He accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of creating a “digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse” in its requirements for claimants of Universal Credit to apply for and continue receiving the benefit.
On his trip around the UK back in 2018, Alston met with people who depend on food banks and charities to eat on a regular basis. He met people without homes and others who were sofa-surfing. He met individuals selling their bodies for sex in exchange for money or shelter. And he met disabled people “who were being told they need to go back to work – against their doctor’s orders – or lose support”, he wrote in the report.
The ideological change, as Alston terms it, brought in by the Conservatives and their policy of cutting back on public spending, “formally jettisoned” Britain’s welfare state, he told Spotlight in a recent video call from his home in New York. “And the Conservatives were very proud of that achievement,” he added.
The Australian-born Alston, 72, a human rights lawyer and academic at New York University’s School of Law, believes the UK has twice been a “social laboratory” regarding welfare: first in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Beveridge Report outlined a blueprint for the introduction of a welfare state, and second, when the Conservatives came to power in 2010.
“The coalition said: ‘Look, we don’t believe in this stuff any more’,” Alston says. “We don’t believe in welfare. We think that this is something that needs to be earned; there is no right to social protection or social security. We’re going to turn it into a contract, and we’re going to make you earn the protection that we provide. And if we don’t like what you’re doing, or you don’t do what you’re told, you’re going to just be cut out.”
Instead, Alston continues, the Cameron government instilled “a very particular, neoliberal, Thatcherite” belief “that the only solution is employment, that everything should be done to force people into work – almost regardless of the circumstances”. In his report for the UN, he criticised the government’s botched roll-out of Universal Credit, claiming that it “negatively [impacted] claimants’ mental health, finances and work prospects”.
Amber Rudd, the former work and pensions secretary at the time Alston’s report came out, said she was “disappointed” by the “extraordinarily political nature of the language” it contained and threatened to complain to the UN. “They never lodged a complaint,” Alston says. “No [government figure] actually questioned the statistics [cited]; they might have questioned the language [I used], but the basics were, I think, beyond [repudiation].”
Throughout the current cost-of-living crisis, various Conservative MPs have pointed to work as being a vehicle out of poverty. Earlier this year, for instance, Rishi Sunak told a Treasury questions session: “We all know the best way to make sure children do not grow up in poverty is to make sure they’re growing up in a house where people work.”
But research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JFR) shows that roughly seven in ten children in poverty in the UK grow up in a working household. And, according to official government figures, over 40 per cent of those claiming Universal Credit are in some form of employment. “Again, it’s the victory of ideology over anything else, and evidence is not of interest,” Alston says.
Further data paints a picture of the extent of poverty in this country. According to JFR figures from 2019/20, more than one in five of the UK population are in poverty; nearly one in three children live in poverty, while 18 per cent of pensioners are also poor. And, amid the current cost-of-living crisis, by 2023 as many as 16 million people could be classed as living in poverty in the UK, according to analysis by the Resolution Foundation think tank.
“One of the distinctive things about the UK,” Alston says, “is the extent to which there are charities and think tanks that really provide extremely objective and high-quality analyses. But the government never responds to those sorts of reports with anything other than an ideological flourish,” he adds. “So you can say that there are tens of thousands of people going to food banks, far more than ever. And they’ll say: ‘Ah, but employment is getting better all the time.’ And if you then were to say, ‘but what about the goddamn food banks?’ They’re going to say: ‘I told you, you idiot, employment is getting better all the time.’”
Alston continues: “Doesn’t it logically tell you that if employment is getting better, but at the same time food banks are having unprecedented levels of demand, that employment ain’t enough? But they don’t want to get into that debate.”
The straight-talking Alston was born in Melbourne and had a “privileged… and worry-free” childhood. He came of age at the height of protests towards the Vietnam War, to which he attributes his interest in human rights. Aged just 24, he became chief of staff to the minister for aboriginal affairs in the Australian Labor Party. He never became a member of the party, though he sits “on what I call the progressive side” of the political spectrum.
During the pandemic the Conservatives showed they can enact progressive forms of welfare, Alston argues, pointing to the furlough scheme and rises to Universal Credit as examples.
“The government basically acknowledged a lot of the problems that had been [previously] complained about for a long time, and they changed the system pretty significantly,” he says. “That worked very well for the sort of people who were otherwise relatively well off… the experience they had was a pretty smooth one; getting benefits that were livable… it was a humane system. But there’s been an almost total reversion since then.”
He adds: “So the government again knows exactly what the negative consequences are, and knows the damage that they are inflicting, but essentially, has no interest in low-income people because they’re not going to vote for them.”
Despite the decade-plus of austerity cuts, Alston believes there is a way back. “There’s no shortage” of “vastly superior” European welfare models for Britain to replicate and have a bigger state, he argues.
“There’s no question that all of that relies on taxation,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that a Labour government has to immediately announce that taxes on the rich are going to be increased… although I think that’s certainly appropriate given inequality and other problems. [But] that’s what the Labour Party absolutely has to do, in order to then be able to restore some of the services that are so badly needed for the average person.”
He is unsure, though, if Keir Starmer and his party are up to the challenge. “From what I see of the Labour Party, yes, they say the right things, but when you say: ‘Why don’t you campaign more robustly on this?’ They say: ‘Oh, well, it’s complicated’. It ain’t that complicated, in fact.”
The consequences of austerity are clear to Alston, however. “Considering the significant resources available in the country… the policies pursued since 2010 amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country’s human rights obligations,” he wrote in his final report. Today, he is still firm in his belief that the Conservative policy of austerity is tantamount to a human rights violation.
“I don’t think there’s any difficulty in concluding that the right to an adequate standard of living – which is a right, believe it or not – is violated by the policies that have been pursued,” he says. “But I think the Tories would simply say they just don’t believe in such a right.”
[See also: Boris Johnson was a catastrophe for Britain]