Brexit is a distraction – we need social justice

By Bernadette Meaden
May 5, 2019

Matt Hancock calling for poor and disabled people to be given fitness trackers seems to perfectly encapsulate the superficiality and casual cruelty of the approach taken by governments since 2010. Yes, let’s give poor and disabled people fitness trackers. And while we’re about it, why don’t we give hungry people recipe books, and people who can’t afford heating knitting patterns. Perhaps we could give homeless people a course on survival skills. In fact, let’s do anything except change the policies that are making people poor, hungry, cold and homeless. Let’s do absolutely anything except stop the injustice.

Many times over the past nine years, as successive governments have deliberately and systematically removed income and support from poor and disabled people, and dismantled the services upon which they relied, I have wondered how much of it was down to genuine ignorance, and how much was a chilling disregard for people they seemed to consider less human than themselves. When you design a benefit system for people who may have no internet access or savings, and decide to make it digital by default with a minimum six weeks wait for any money – is that ignorance, or cruelty, or both?

At a recent event in London, the worst possible interpretation of the government’s attitudes and motives seemed to be confirmed. Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur who visited the UK last year, spoke about how poverty in other countries compares to what he found in the UK.

Compared to the USA, China and several other countries he’d visited, he said current UK poverty stands out as a crisis caused by pure political choice – that poverty was being deliberately created by policy, and that in the face of disastrous results, the Government chose to double down. When he pointed out to the government the harm its policies were causing they said, “Yep they are the policies. Yep these are the results. We are not changing.”

When Professor Alston’s remarks were reported the headlines inevitably seized upon the B word, as it seems everything now has to be viewed through a Brexit lens. But what he said was, “Brexit has been an almighty distraction and those who are really worried about the future of Britain should be looking more at social policy than Brexit because that’s where the future is being decided.”

Grimly, he said, “You are really screwing yourselves royally for the future by producing a substandard workforce and children that are malnourished.”

Could there possibly be a more damning indictment of a government – that it deliberately produces poverty and suffering, that it really doesn’t care about the millions of people whom it is causing to suffer, and that it is blighting the country’s future by destroying the health and wellbeing of its children?

And this tragedy, this unconscionable cruelty, is pushed to the background as the government degenerates into a giant playground squabble, and the media obsesses about anything but the issues which are really shaping our present and our future. 

Philip Alston will soon deliver his final report on poverty and human rights in the UK. In a decent country it would be political dynamite. If it does not prompt a radical change of course on social policy, I really fear for our future – inside or outside the European Union.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 

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