Time to make poverty as a political choice too uncomfortable for our government

By Jill Segger
November 29, 2018

 United Nations Special Rapporteurs are independent experts who have a specific thematic or country mandate from the UN Human Rights Council. They "examine, monitor, advise, and publicly report" in the light of that mandate. They act independently of governments and do not receive financial compensation from the UN for their work.

Special Rapporteurs often conduct fact-finding missions to investigate allegations of human rights violations. They can only visit countries which have agreed to invite them. Such are the conditions which surround the recent visit to the UK of Professor Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights. His report is here

This report has met with a dismissive response from the government. That will surprise few, but it is nonetheless deeply disturbing that ministers should have been in such haste to brush away the findings of a respected human rights lawyer who has done what none of them will ever do: spend 12 days listening to the lived experiences of people in poverty across the United Kingdom.

This gulf between the lives of struggling families and individuals and the perceptions of those who legislate for their condition could not be plainer. Using figures to conceal the consequences of insecure employment, low pay, punitive sanctions and what appears to be a complete indifference to the impossibility of engaging with the DWP’s demands if you have poor mental or physical health or lack IT skills, is callous. It is also inexcusably destructive.

Bernadette Meaden asks ‘what next?’ in the light of the Special Rapporteur’s findings . We need to recognise and insist upon the importance of this question and place it in firmly in an essential challenge to the inequality which is disfiguring our society. That inequality is so clear to anyone with their eyes open that the government can do nothing but offer absurd denials and – despite having had their knuckles rapped on more than one occasion by the National Audit Office and the UK Statistics Authority – they continue to retaliate with partial and selective statistics.

The poisonous mix of deprivation and powerlessness is a growing source of anger. It is at the root of the Brexit division which is taking on many characteristics of a civil war in the UK. Ministers in successive governments have chosen to turn away from so much economic and societal dysfunction that even now – on the threshold of an action which they admit will make the country much poorer – they are failing to see that the entirely understandable view of a remote ‘elite’ is the cause of this anger and the cliff edge to which it has brought us.

Last week, we read that Denise Coates, Chief Executive of the gambling company Bet365, has become the country’s highest paid executive, paying herself £265 million last year. This was the same week in which Shelter revealed that there are at least 320,000 homeless people in Britain.

The responses of highly paid politicians to cries of pain from the just-about-managing and the no-chance-of-managing-at-all are tin-eared and crass. When Esther McVey resigned as DWP minister in protest at Theresa May’s Brexit plan, she was challenged on social media about the financial penalties faced by recipients of Universal Credit if they choose to leave a job. Her response? “By resigning, my salary has been halved.” Yes. To a back-bencher’s salary of £77,379 – a salary which has risen by 11 per cent over the period in which other public sector pay rises have been capped at one per cent.

If a worker is fortunate enough in gig-economy Britain to have 40 hours work a week, paid holidays and is aged 25 or older, the minimum wage would deliver them £16,286 a year. And it is well to remember here, that for purposes of recording statistics, a person doing one hour of paid work a week is counted as ‘employed’.

Where the daily experiences of the comfortably secure and the desperate are so far apart, there can be little sense of a shared purpose. It cannot make for anything but despair – or for anger where the individual has sufficient energy left from the struggle to survive.

We are an unhappy and angry country. A collective sticking of fingers in ears accompanied by the la-la-la of indifference and factual misrepresentation from policy makers and legislators has brought us to this place. It time to channel that anger so that rather than eating at our own cohesion, it is directed towards a will for change.

This is the time for faith bodies, civil society groups and all people of goodwill to step up, to work together for that change and to put pressure on the government to act on the Special Rapporteur's recommendations.

Philip Alston is right: “Poverty is a political choice”. We have to act collectively to make sure that choice becomes too uncomfortable for our government.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.