It might seem to some observers that the department of work and pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse.
So reads the final report on the UK from the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston.
The Australian human rights lawyer spent fully 11 days in this country before writing a damning indictment on government welfare policy since 2010.
So incensed is HM government by his findings that Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has decided to file a complaint to the UN. Equally predictably, a chorus of Labour MPs and lefty keyboard warriors aver that this is yet more evidence of the Evil Tories’ anti-poor agenda.
What’s most striking about the report is not the findings themselves, but the shrill, partisan tone adopted by Alston throughout. That Alston’s intention is to launch a political attack looks clear when he ventures off piste to attack policies such as privatisation of the utilities, which have at best a tangential connection to the welfare system.
Alston is entitled to make points about spending priorities and their effects, but his penchant for glib moralising wears thin very quickly, even in a report that numbers only 21 pages.
For example, he accuses the government of a “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach” and an “uncaring ethos”. He claims cuts to welfare spending were born out of a “commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering”.
There is scarcely a mention of the massive financial crisis and recession which preceded the Coalition government coming to power, or any kind of analysis of the fiscal backdrop ministers have operated in since.
What, too, are we to make of his contention that ministers have been stripping back the welfare state despite a “booming” economy? Employment may have held up remarkably well, but pretty much everyone agrees that both GDP and wage growth have been anaemic at best for many years.
The rationale behind policies is not really on Alston’s agenda though. In his analysis it’s not just that they are misguided or poorly implemented, but that the people in charge are morally defective. Is he really all that surprised when the same ministers he excoriates are not all that inclined to engage with him?
None of which is to deny the problems with the Government’s welfare policy. As Alston notes, lengthy delays to Universal Credit payments have caused great and well-documented hardship, The rollout has been slow and beset by technical problems, while sanctions aimed at incentivising jobhunters can end up punishing them for minor infractions.
By far the biggest issue though, and one which is barely mentioned in the report, is the way social security spending is tilted towards older people. The regular debate over whether pensioners should get free TV licences or bus passes obscures the much more costly policy of retaining the triple-lock on the state pension (which Alston calls ‘commendable’). Over-65s in work, some on very high salaries, are also helped out by not having to pay national insurance, which is manifestly unfair given it is now just another form of income tax, rather than a proper contributory system.
Sadly in Alston’s report this kind of policy discussion too often plays second fiddle to coming up with sassy comments about what blackguards the government are. The ‘workhouse’ comment is a case in point – the welfare debate’s equivalent of Godwin’s Law. In much the same way as many people feel compelled to needlessly mention the Nazis in any discussion, some on the left feel an argument about poverty is incomplete without claiming we’ve somehow gone back to the 19th century.
Never mind, though, as it’s a pitch perfect soundbite for the one-line news generation, and the line many news outlets have understandably chosen to lead on.
More problematic than this kind of hyperbolic guff, though, is Alston’s approach to statistics. For instance, we hear that 14 million Britons are living in poverty, with little discussion of the metric used to arrive at that figure.
As we’ve discussed before on CapX, the most frequently used method at the moment puts a household in ‘relative poverty’ if its income is 60 per cent of the median national income. At the moment, that gives you a figure of about £16,000.
Whether or not that puts a household into poverty clearly depends on a range of factors, not least the hugely variable cost of housing in different parts of the country. Equally, for those pensioners who have already paid off their mortgage, £16,000 a year may not be an extravagant amount, but nor does it necessarily mean they are on the breadline. The same amount in Wigan will obviously go a lot further than in inner London.
There is a much more basic problem though. The “relative poverty” figure Alston cites is not a measure of poverty, but of inequality – an important metric with serious consequences, but by no means the same thing as poverty. After all, there’s a gigantic degree of inequality between pretty much everyone on earth and Bill Gates, that doesn’t make all the rest of us poor.
What makes it a particularly bad metric is that relative poverty declines if the better off get poorer, even if the poor have seen no improvement in their own living standards. That’s often the case during a recession when everyone’s incomes take a hit – inequality might fall, but no one is doing any better as a result.
Raising such quibbles inevitably leaves one open to being insensitive to the problems facing those at the bottom of the income ladder. However, asking for precision in statistics is not the same thing as airily dismissing the fact that many people face grave difficulties. If anything, it is demanding a more accurate appraisal so that the very neediest can get the support they need.
In fairness, as well as the overblown ’14 million in poverty’ number, Alston does offer a separate figure of 1.5 million people who have “experienced destitution”, which is defined as going without basic needs such as food, clothing, toiletries or fuel. This too might have its pitfalls, but is clearly closer to what most of us would think of as poverty than the relative measure discussed above.
It’s a far smaller number of people than the 14 million supposedly in poverty, and It also points to a far more severe level of hardship. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for instance, has a definition of destitution that includes a single person having under £70 a week in income, less than a quarter of the household rate in the ‘relative poverty’ measure.
The fact people are living in such penury in a wealthy country should prick all of our consciences. At the same time, it’s not unreasonable to point out the difference between inequality and outright poverty.
That kind of precise, clear-sighted view of what’s really going on in the UK is what ministers ought to be debating and acting on. Strident, biased and obviously partisan rhetorical attacks, such as those offered by Philip Alston, are altogether less useful.
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