After a decade as a laboratory experiment for the politics of austerity and a government reforming the state with the zeal of a Victorian schoolmaster, Britain is now the kind of place that gets visits from the UN's expert on extreme poverty.
Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur into extreme poverty and human rights, has been doing a two-week blitz of the country, from Newcastle to Essex, and he presented his initial findings at a press conference in London today. The results are damning.
According to the UN, 14 million people – a fifth of the population – live in poverty. Many of them in work. And the number is rising, with child poverty expected to increase 7 percent between 2015 and 2022. "For almost one in every two children to be poor in 21st century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one," reads the report.
One government response to child poverty has been that poor people shouldn't have too many children, and families can't claim tax credits or universal credit for a third child. This saw Alston compare Britain to a dictatorship: "I think the two child policy, I'm just not sure how to put this because I don't want to go in the wrong direction, but China's one child policy? Yes it was forced, it was physical, but this is in the same ball-park," he said today.
He also noted that women lose out from the welfare system so remarkably that "if you had got a group of misogynists in a room and said, 'Guys, how can we make this system work for men and not for women?' they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what's in place."
He said that Britain is becoming an "alienated society" and suggested that, by allowing people to languish in poverty, the government is falling short of its human rights obligations. Brexit, he said, is likely to make things worse for the poor.
A fair few of Britain's poverty-stricken people live in Jaywick. The Essex village is a former holiday resort that became a permanent community almost by accident because of a post-war housing crisis. With little infrastructure – getting mains sewage in 1977 – it has been in limbo ever since: the council has been reluctant to invest in a place that was never really meant to be there. Now, its golden sands lie next to an area consistently ranked as among the most impoverished in the country – topping the Indicies of Multiple Deprivation list in 2010 and 2015.
The place came to international attention recently when a political attack ad used its image to illustrate "foreclosures, unemployment and economic recession!" A town hall meeting hosted by Alston and the UN on Sunday to enquire into poverty drew attention of a more welcome kind.
Among a range of testimonies, which ranged from harrowing to matter-of-fact, three people spoke of having contemplated suicide because of poverty – a woman who got into debt because she didn’t qualify for benefits, another who was told she said made herself "intentionally homeless" because she fled an abusive partner, and a man who got into debt and felt unable to provide for his family.
But they were still here, sharing their experiences. The picture that emerged was desperation caused by a welfare system characterised by callous bureaucracy. But also of defiance. A young disabled woman spoke of the welfare system as "an everyday battle that we are committed to fighting without questioning… I choose to question it".
"We've seen today the faces of poverty, and they don't look like what the politicians describe. You’ve seen how hopelessly down and out and inarticulate and useless these people are," Alston noted wryly.
The press release preceding the Alston’s visit said, politely, that he came to "investigate government efforts to eradicate poverty", as if attempts to help people may have gone wrong. What his report conveys are that reforms have actively harmed people by creating a welfare system that sends you literally mad when you need help, making you wait weeks on end for financial assistance in an emergency.
This is all on purpose: "The motivation is very clearly an ideological one." The system is "driven by the desire to get across a simple set of messages: The state does not have your back any longer, you are on your own… what goes along with that is the sense that we must make the system as unwelcoming as possible." Local authorities, he writes, "have expended significant expense and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system".
Alston is not exactly a radical – it's not his remit to be – and at his press conference said that, "The introduction of a social security net is designed precisely to enable the system to keep working." Those are the sort of sentiments that you might think a government, even a Conservative one, would listen to.
And yet, given the bleak picture, perhaps the most damning thing in Alston’s findings is that some of the worst aspects of the benefits system could be changed overnight. So why aren’t they? Everyone can see what’s happening, notes Alston – charities, think-tanks, parliamentary committees, the National Audit Office – "But through it all, one actor has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is. The government has remained determinedly in a state of denial."