Last week, the government was accused by the UN’s poverty expert of being “in a state of denial” over the “misery” of poverty that austerity and its welfare reforms have caused. And so on Monday it was down to Amber Rudd to kick off her new tenure as Work and Pensions secretary by finding an innovative new way to not listen.
Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, delivered his damning verdict last Friday. Questioned about it in Parliament this week, Rudd said, “I have seen the report by the rapporteur, I’ve read it over the weekend, and I must say I was disappointed to say the least by the extraordinary political nature of his language.”
Imagine coming to investigate a decade of government policy and trying to make it political. For shame, Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.
“We are not so proud that we don’t think we can learn as we try to adjust universal credit for the benefit of everybody. But that sort of language was wholly inappropriate and discredited a lot of what he was saying,” Rudd added.
The government may have caused 120,000 unnecessary deaths with its policy of austerity, but Philip Alston really took things too far in suggesting its welfare reforms have anything to do with politics. What a bad guy. Never mind that he had completed a two-week blitz of the country’s poverty hot-spots from Newcastle to Jaywick, listening to testimony after testimony of people dealing with poverty, something none of the five work and pensions secretaries since March of 2016 have bothered with. His report can be casually discarded because Amber Rudd doesn't care for its tone.
You can imagine how this could play out for the rest of time – politicians covering their ears and shouting “LALALALA I’m not listening” as soon as someone says something “political”. Alternatively, it could be applied to other spheres of life. I will continue to drink pints of milk as I found the doctor's remarks about my IBS disappointingly medical in nature. I will ignore this council tax bill, as it is too fiscal. Your request that I do the washing up is discredited in my eyes, for being extraordinarily domestic.
Despite what Amber Rudd might say, welfare reform, and the austerity that was used to sell it, is political. According to Alston, the rolling out of universal credit – the Tories’ flagship welfare policy – is being prepared for by the voluntary sector with “the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic”. But it’s not a natural disaster. It’s entirely manmade.
"Consolidating six different benefits into one makes good sense, in principle," says Alston. "But many aspects of the design and rollout of the programme have suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting."
Rather than the supposed need for austerity, what’s really driving welfare reform is a sociopathic ardour to return to the days of the work-house: “In the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic, but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering,” says Alston. Which doesn’t sound sinister at all.
“The government has made no secret of its determination to change the value system to focus more on individual responsibility, to place major limits on government support, and to pursue a single-minded – and some have claimed simple-minded – focus on getting people into employment at all costs,” says Alston. The feckless, the indolent, the disabled and the sick are to be shoved into jobs, any jobs, often against medical advice, because politicians know that toil is the best medicine.
This manifests, for instance, in the fact that if you make a successful claim on universal credit, you’ll be waiting five weeks to see any money, which is a helluva long time if you’re skint. The waiting period, which can in practice take 12 weeks, “pushes many who may already be in crisis into debt, rent arrears and serious hardship, requiring them to sacrifice food or heat".
Why? “The rationales offered for the delay are entirely illusory,” offers Alston, “and the motivation strikes me as a combination of cost-saving, enhanced cashflows and wanting to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship.” In other words, the state is intentionally inflicting suffering.
Amber Rudd had to resign as Home Secretary over the Windrush scandal, which was in fact Theresa May’s “hostile environment” working exactly as intended. Newly the Work and Pensions Secretary, she’s taken over the brief for universal credit, another policy inflicting immense pain precisely on purpose.
But the infatuation with the nobility of the work and its anti-hero, the benefits scrounger, is not the preserve of this government, or Tories in general. As Alston notes: “Successive governments have brought revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it.” The current brutality can only happen as a product of years of orthodoxy.
While conditionality in benefits was introduced under Thatcher, you can trace the current adage that “work is the best route out of poverty” back to 2006, and a DWP paper under Tony Blair’s government called “Is Work Good For Your Health and Wellbeing?” The paper concluded that, “There is a strong evidence base showing that work is generally good for physical and mental health and well-being.” That’s pretty conclusive and very amenable to the economic imperatives of a country enthusiastically embracing globalisation (the same imperatives which disincentivise governments from toning down Britain’s oppressive anti-union laws).
Politicians were enjoying an easy answer, but the paper contained a number of disclaimers and nuances. It warned that there is “a limited amount of high quality scientific evidence that directly addresses the question” and pointed out seven areas for further study. “Most of the evidence is relatively short-term”, it said. There should be more study into the “physical and psychosocial characteristics of jobs that are ‘good’ for health”. “There should be more rigorous research into the whole area of work-related ‘stress’.” Unanswered questions included, “How much is work good for health? How much does unemployment harm health?”
Its conclusion that work is good for health came with numerous provisos including, “the nature and quality of work and its social context”. Even as someone who doesn’t have a disability, the authors’ conception of work comes across as pretty abstract and optimistic, but presumably if that context is, “I’ll take absolutely any job despite my chronic illness to avoid getting a benefits sanction” then it is less good for your wellbeing.
The authors also noted that work is good because it is “generally the most important means of obtaining adequate economic resources, which are essential for material well-being and full participation in today’s society”. This leads to the question that if there was a way for people who are unable to work to not be poor – a benefits system that let people live above the poverty line??? – that might be preferable to work.
The Child Poverty Action Group noted that the paper had probably been subjected to “the selective analysis bug” which had “been making its rounds in the DWP”. Politicians skipped to the tl;dr, and found a certain rationale to undermine the social safety net. Time and again, governments have demonised benefits claimants on one hand, while insisting that they want to help them into the paradise of working life on the other. They want to help people “reach their potential” by which they mean, “pull your weight”.
A 2016 government paper called “Improving Lives” aimed at “transform[ing] the employment prospects of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions” said “The evidence that appropriate work can bring health and wellbeing benefits is widely recognised” – citing the decade old “Is Work Good For Your Health and Wellbeing?”.
It then went on to blithely talk up the benefits of universal credit for getting disabled people into work. By this time, critics were already calling the policy “universal cruelty”, and claimants were staging desperate protests and telling harrowing tales of pen-pushing callousness. But the government didn’t listen.
On Monday, three days into her new job, Amber Rudd was insisting that the problems with universal credit were "despite its good intentions". And while she won't listen to the "extraordinary" language of the UN special rapporteur, she "will be listening and learning to the expert groups in this area who do such good work." But she won't. Not really, because to do so would be to turn its back on over a decade of bloody-minded political consensus.