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UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

Volume 652: debated on Monday 7 January 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)

I thank the House for allowing me to hold this debate this evening on the statement by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, following his visit late last year to the United Kingdom, which, along with a plethora of other reports, has ensured that the grinding and increasing poverty of daily life for so many in the UK has been brought into the spotlight.

Unlike the Government, who have treated Professor Alston’s well-evidenced and thorough statement with complete and utter disdain, I want to personally thank him for his conviction in passionately highlighting the absolute shame, degradation and harm that this Government are inflicting on those they govern, which has led to 14 million people living in poverty.

In addition to the disdain that this Government showed for the UN rapporteur’s report, the United States Government showed the same disdain when he produced a report on poverty in the United States. I know that we have a special relationship with the United States, but I think it shames us all that we share that disdain. Does my hon. Friend agree?

My hon. Friend points to a worrying analogy, and I do of course agree.

Professor Alston’s statement confirms what many Labour Members have known for a very long time—that when it comes to welfare reform and this Government’s policy agenda overall,

“the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering.”

It has long been embedded in Tory DNA that “there is no such thing as society”, and social experiments in rolling back the state always begin with those who need the state the most. That is why the legacy of every Tory Government is one of deep inequality.

Professor Alston rightly notes that nowhere can this social re-engineering be seen more clearly than in the roll-out of “universal discredit”, as he calls it.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House for consideration. The report highlighted the alarming rise in food bank use. In my constituency, the Trussell Trust food bank had a 20% increase in take-up over the Christmas period because of debts due to delays in first universal credit payments, leading to people being forced to choose between paying rent and feeding their children. Does the hon. Lady not agree that the Minister—I am being respectful to him—must take steps to address the issues highlighted in the report? It cannot be ignored.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will come to those points later in my speech, but he is right; this cannot be ignored any longer.

In principle, universal credit seemed to make some sense. Consolidation of six benefits into one should have achieved the key tenets of simplifying payments and incentivising people into work. Crucially, however, it was never designed to get support to those who needed it in a timely and efficient manner. In reality, like all welfare reform measures from this Government, it was about creating a hostile environment and demonising and dehumanising benefit claimants. As Professor Alston notes, the Department

“is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles”

than with responding to genuine needs.

The result has been an unrelenting onslaught of abject harm inflicted on more than 3 million people. The late-in-the-day news that the next phase of roll-out is being scaled back gives no comfort to the millions already suffering. Trussell Trust food bank figures show that in areas where universal credit has been implemented, food bank usage has increased by 52%. The fact that the Work and Pensions Secretary states that she “regrets” the growth in food banks will offer no comfort to the estimated 8.4 million people in the UK suffering from food insecurity, or to the volunteers and faith groups filling the gap left by the state and manning the nearly 2,000 food banks that we shamefully now have operating as a permanent part of the welfare state.

Nor will the Secretary of State’s regret give comfort to my constituents, such as one 18-year-old girl starting out in life who unexpectedly lost her job and who, despite statements made by the Government to the contrary, has not been eligible for housing cost assistance through universal credit. She narrowly escaped homelessness thanks to the intervention of our irreplaceable South Tyneside citizens advice bureau. The Secretary of State’s regret will also not help my constituent who suffers from mental health difficulties and was left with only £1.25 per day to live on after the Department made an error with her payments.

The five-week delay embedded in the system, which often turns out to be longer, was never going to achieve anything other than hardship, because one day going hungry and not being able to pay the bills is one day too many.

In my constituency, there are nearly 6,000 children living in poverty, and in one ward 40% of children are living in poverty. Does my hon. Friend agree that in one of the richest countries in the world, unnecessary suffering brought about by Government policies is unacceptable?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I agree.

The 35-day delay leads to destitution and despair. There is no acceptable rationale for making people wait that long other than, to use Professor Alston’s words,

“to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship.”

That hardship is exemplified clearly in the draconian application of sanctions. It is estimated that across the benefits system, more than 350,000 people were denied access to benefit payments between 2017 and 2018 for the most trivial and minor of reasons—for example, missing appointments because a relative has died unexpectedly or because claimants themselves have been admitted to hospital, or attending interviews instead of jobcentre appointments. The list is endless.

Professor Alston’s statement pays attention to the 2017 Government transformation strategy, under which all Government services will be “digital by default”. Universal credit claimants have been used as guinea pigs, as this is the first major service to be digital by default. It was either a deliberate act or total incompetence that led the Government to the conclusion that the most vulnerable and those with limited digital literacy and limited access to computers should be the first to test that. Even worse, it has been done against a backdrop of closures of libraries and jobcentres—the very places that those struggling would have gone to for assistance.

This Government have created a disability culture void of medical evidence and based on ignorance, fabrications and downright cruelty. The work capability and personal independence payment assessments—the most damning policies of our time—have seen companies such as Maximus, Atos and Capita being handed multimillion-pound contracts to hit targets based on how many people with disabilities they can push into destitution, and people with Down’s syndrome being asked by assessors how they “caught” it.

My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. Does she agree that it is shameful that in 2017 the UN, which we associate with development work in third-world countries, found that 14 million people in Great Britain were living in poverty as a result of the Government’s failed welfare reforms? Does she agree that the Government should be ashamed of the findings of the UN report, which demonstrates that the only increases we have seen in this country are in child poverty, food bank usage and homelessness, as a direct result of Government policies? Does she agree that it is unacceptable for the Government to ignore the UN’s findings on poverty and the treatment of disabled people in this country?

The Government should be ashamed. They should also be ashamed that a wheelchair user with multiple sclerosis was asked how long it would be before she could walk again, and that a young woman with a cancer-related bone marrow disease was denied personal independence payments because she had a degree, because working to gain a qualification is apparently a sign that someone is “not really disabled”. On top of that, people with disabilities are losing their severe disability premiums and enhanced disability premiums under universal credit, leaving them £80 a week worse off.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate on this important issue, which I feel has been shamefully neglected by the Government up to this point. Does she agree that the use of informal observations in benefit assessments, which have no criteria and are open to subjective opinion and interpretation on the part of assessors, often results in inaccurate and ill-informed assessments? That has certainly caused some of my most vulnerable constituents considerable distress. Does she therefore agree that the Government should undertake a review of the use of such observations?

I agree that that would be a welcome way forward.

Those stories I have mentioned are not the exception but the norm, so it is little wonder that in 2017 the UN concluded that the UK Government were guilty of

“grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”.

The UK benefits system now locks people into a Kafkaesque nightmare, and for some the only escape, tragically, has been to take their own lives. This state-inflicted damage cannot and must not continue.

I too congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on her powerful speech. Does she agree that the welfare state system we now have, in which people are left utterly powerless and often without the support they need to appeal decisions, is contributing not only to rising debt but to rising levels of mental health problems, as people suffer from depression and despair because they are unable to get on and be treated fairly?

My hon. Friend is right. I used to be proud to live in a country where people, when in need through no fault of their own, were able to receive help from the welfare state in their darkest hours, but since 2010 that safety net has been eroded and ripped away so that work is no longer a route out of poverty. Punitive welfare reform, benefit cuts, inaction on low-paid and insecure work and the widening gulf between the cost of living and income have led to 4 million people being in work and in poverty, and over 4 million children living in poverty. Stories of children coming to school with a grey pallor and undernourished, rummaging through bins for food and wearing threadbare clothes are commonplace.

What comes through very clearly in Professor Alston’s report is that this Government do not have a vision for this county that works for everyone. His statement and the full report, which will follow in the spring, should be treated as a factual commentary and a warning for future general elections of how Tory Governments rip the very fabric of our county apart and cause irrevocable harm. Eight years of regressive policies have led to the hollowing out and decimation of local government and many other key public services, meaning that costly crisis management, rather than prevention, is now the norm.

We now see the human cost borne out on our streets, where homeless people are dying; where people suffering from terminal illnesses, disabilities and mental health difficulties are being wrongly declared fit for work, which means some attempt to take their own lives, and some are successful; where children and adults are being admitted to hospital for malnutrition; where food banks are having to turn desperate people away because they cannot cope with demand; where families are living in squalid temporary accommodation, with only the clothes on their backs and no end in sight; where vulnerable adults and children are being left with no social care provision at all; and where a whole generation of women have been plunged into poverty after their pensions were stolen from them by this Government.

This short debate in no way does justice to Professor Alston’s report, and I hope we will be able to revisit it in future, because as we debate it here tonight there will be mams and dads returning home after a hard day’s work with rumbling stomachs, looking through empty cupboards wondering how they will feed their children. There will be elderly people sat alone, the silence of their loneliness piercing as they wonder if they should eat or put their heating on. There will be thousands who have torn open that brown envelope this morning only for the words and decisions within it to tear their world apart. Their pain lies at this Government’s door. Their suffering should be the shame of this Government, but it is not.

Professor Alston noted the

“striking…disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from…people…across the country.”

He added:

“The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial…poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.”

In his response I hope the Minister will answer one pertinent question, the answer to which millions of people currently suffering need to know: does that political will exist yet?

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), who has done a huge amount of work in this area over a number of years. She brings a huge amount of experience to many of the points she has raised.

This report covers not only the Department for Work and Pensions but the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Treasury and the Department for Exiting the European Union, but I will be speaking predominantly from the perspective of the DWP. At this stage it is only an interim report, and we are committed to considering Professor Alston’s views and opinions very carefully.

I recognise that hon. Members would now expect me to disagree with the majority of the report as it stands, and there are certainly things with which we do not agree, but I support the important role of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), other departmental Ministers, our respective teams and I were fully engaged with the process. We met Professor Alston, we supported the visits and the engagement throughout the process and, as I said, we will give very serious consideration to his views and opinions.

As a Minister, I am not precious. Government should be challenged and held to account, whether by the UN special rapporteur, by stakeholders or by the fantastic work of the various Select Committees. All Governments of all political persuasions, since the dawn of time, have had challenging reports, and it is rare we get a report that says, “Fantastic. You are single-handedly doing everything perfectly right.” Such reports are an important part of our democratic process, and even the most challenging and most critical reports ultimately shape future decisions.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I am a little confused, because the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have both dismissed the findings and do not agree with the report. Has there been a change of thinking since they made those comments?

What I am saying is that we will consider the report seriously. We obviously do not agree with all the points, but Professor Alston has highlighted some important views and opinions to which we should rightly be looking to respond.

One challenge I make to Professor Alston ahead of his final report is that, at two of the visits, the visits to Newcastle and Clacton, he had the opportunity to meet frontline staff and volunteers. At the recent Women and Equalities questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) expressed a huge amount of disappointment from those frontline staff and volunteers, who felt that their fantastic work was not recognised—it had just one line. It is right that the report holds the Government’s feet and Ministers’ feet to the coals, but we would all recognise that there are people doing a fantastic job, both the paid formal staff and the volunteers, and I hope Professor Alston will reflect on that.

As we consider Professor Alston’s views and findings, we must remember that this is a snapshot. On many of the issues raised, we are rightly already taking action, acknowledging that there were issues and that they needed to be dealt with. That is either through the additional money secured in recent Budgets, or through our ongoing and crucial work with stakeholders, with their particular expertise. As I have said, while this covers many Departments, I will focus on where the DWP has the lion’s share of the involvement.

Understandably, UC formed a significant part of both the report and the speech we have just heard. To be absolutely clear, this was never a financial thing. We are looking to spend an additional £2 billion compared with the legacy benefits, and rightly so. UC offers the opportunity for personalised, tailored support dealing with housing, training and childcare, and giving claimants who are in a position to seek work an additional 50% more time to find work.

Although there are still challenges and there is much more work to do, if Members visit jobcentres, they will find that the frontline staff do recognise that UC is significantly better than the complex legacy benefits. They were six benefits across three agencies—HMRC, the DWP and local authorities—and, frankly, people had to be nuclear physicists to navigate them. We all know from our own constituency casework how complex it was to unravel the situation.

My constituency office is about 100 yards from the social security office—it is as close as that—and I have had numerous distressed people come from the social security office to my office looking for advice. I have written perhaps not to the Minister directly but to his Department to outline some of the changes that we feel should be made. In the light of those things, perhaps more needs to be done in the social security office to address the issues early on.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am coming on to those. UC dealt with the fact that, for some, there was in effect a 90% tax rate. The well-documented 16, 24 and 30-hour cliff edges were significant barriers for people. It was so confusing and complex that £2.4 billion-worth, we believe, of claims went untaken each year across 700,000 claimants, who were some of the most vulnerable people. My role in the DWP is to represent vulnerable people going through the benefits system and it was often those people who were missing out on money because they were simply unaware that they were entitled to the support that we rightly wanted them to have.

Let me make a bit of progress and I will give way if I have time. The hon. Member for South Shields has raised some important questions and I want to try to cover as many as I can in the limited time. If I can, I will come back to the hon. Lady.

There have already been much needed improvements, partly through the additional £4.5 billion cash boost that has been secured in recent Budgets. There are the changes to advance payments, particularly to make that a part of the discussion in the initial conversation. We have changed repayments from six months to 12 months to 16 months and the rate at which they are done. That is something that we will continue to review. There is the additional, non-repayable two weeks’ housing benefit, worth up to £237, and the recent announcement of an additional two weeks of ESA, JSA or income support, worth up to £200. We have scrapped the seven days’ waiting. There are the alternative payments—direct to landlords—on housing, and more frequent payments where we feel that will help. There is the additional £1,000 work allowance, worth £630, which alone came to £1.7 billion. There is the 12-month exemption from the minimum income floor for the self-employed, and there is the increase in the severe disability premium from £158 to £326.

However, there are areas where we still need to do further work. The hon. Member for South Shields talked about digital by default. I think we do need to look at that. We have alternatives in place, but we also need to be more proactive in recognising those who would need that support. We have to identify vulnerable claimants and a major step was to put in place a formal arrangement—I championed this—with Citizens Advice. It will remain independent of us, it is widely respected and it is best placed to give support, particularly to vulnerable claimants, not just on the digital side, if that is needed, but general support as people navigate the benefits to which they should be entitled.

Building on that, we have to make sure that stakeholders are absolutely key and at the heart of everything we do in training our frontline staff and providing support for claimants. For example, a month before Christmas, I was working very closely with Women’s Aid, Refuge and ManKind, meeting three or four times, so that they could do a root and branch review of the training we do to help to identify potential victims of domestic abuse, update our training manuals and guidance, feed in the feedback they receive from their supporters, and look at the best ways to identify potential victims, refer them to the maximum number of local and national support organisations, and work on the level of support we can offer. That is a principle I would like to see formalised, so that it does not just happen because it is a topical issue; it is a given going forward and we look to do that in many areas.

A lot was said about measures of poverty and what the reality is out there. What we do know is that there are 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty—a record low—including 300,000 children. On the different measures of relative and absolute poverty before and after housing, all are no higher than in 2010 and three are now lower. The average income of the poorest fifth in society under our Government has increased by £400 in real terms.

Does the Minister agree with Professor Alston’s assessment that, because the Government use four different measures of poverty, they can essentially say what they want about the figures? The reality is that there are 14 million people living in poverty in the UK.

The hon. Lady has just used one of the statistics. There is cross-party work on looking at alternatives. We are very interested to see if there is a way we can find statistics that we can all agree on. I think that is one area on which we do all agree.

The richest fifth are £800 less well-off under this Government. We are rightly targeting support at those who are most in need. Household incomes have never been higher and income inequality has fallen, having risen under the last Labour Government.

Many Members referred to food banks. Food affordability, the ability to afford a meal, has almost halved in the last five years. It is down to 5.4%. That is 2.5% lower than the EU average. There is still more to do in that area, which is why I am committed to working a lot more closely with the food bank network in this country. For a variety of reasons, some people may be going to food banks who should be receiving formal support. I want to make it as easy as possible to identify, to refer them and to get them back in to the system, so they can receive the full support.

The hon. Lady is shaking her head. I do not understand why anybody would not want to do everything within their power to identify vulnerable people in society and give them the support we want to give to them. The very heart of the question raised by the hon. Member for South Shields is: is there a will from the Government? There absolutely is—from me and right through the Government.

We are going to keep on working with all stakeholders and partnership organisations to ensure that those in most need in society receive the support that they should. We are also looking at homelessness. Rightly, we have put in an additional £1.2 billion, building on the principles of the duty to refer. We have some exciting pilots: the Newcastle trailblazer; partnership working led by Crisis, which has had some really positive findings; and the Housing First initiatives in Manchester, Liverpool and the west midlands. Again, they are on the principles of identifying, referring and supporting. There are exciting developments from those pilots and they will go to the heart of future roll-out support.

The key for me, with my individual role in the Department, is sharpening up the tailored support, whether for care leavers, ex-offenders or the parental conflict programme, and ensuring that those who need the extra support that many of us in our lives have been able to take for granted are given it to unlock everybody’s potential. Some of the areas I felt were missing from the report related to education attainment to unlock people’s potential. I went to a school that was at the bottom of the league tables and two of my best friends went to prison. It is absolutely key that we ensure that, regardless of people’s background, they are given the maximum opportunity to succeed. I wholeheartedly support the significant improvements we are making in education.

As a former headteacher, I talk to a lot of my former colleagues. Many of them, of a morning, are washing children’s clothes and giving them breakfast. They are having to give children extra lunch because they are starving. Does the Minister agree that that is totally unnecessary and inappropriate? We should be caring for the most vulnerable in our society.

That is why it is absolutely right that we have targeted support at the poorest in society, so the poorest fifth are now £400 better off in real terms than they were under the Labour Government. We will continue to do that work.

By prioritising sound financial management and a strong, growing economy, we have been able to deliver record employment in every region of the country. Wages are rising the fastest in a decade. We introduced the national living wage, income tax threshold changes and universal credit childcare up to 85% of costs, which is worth up to £15,000 to parents with two or more children, and we doubled free childcare. Those are all priorities for this Government, because we recognise that everybody should be supported, regardless of their background. By treating people as individuals in a simplified system that can give tailored, personalised support, we can unlock their potential, regardless of their unique challenges and opportunities.

As I said, we have to take many of the findings and opinions seriously. We are doing a huge amount of work, and we will continue to do so. I thank the hon. Member for South Shields for raising this very important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.