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Extreme Poverty and Human Rights: United Nations Report

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 19 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the findings of the report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published on 22 May.

My Lords, we have responded fully to the special rapporteur’s recommendations. A sustainable solution to poverty needs a strong economy and a benefits system that works with the tax system and the labour market to support employment and higher pay. Under this Government, employment is at its highest level since the 1970s. Wages are rising at their fastest in a decade. Income inequality has fallen. The number of children in workless households is at a record low.

The evidence in the report is from widely respected sources: one-third of children are in poverty—the Social Metrics Commission; 50% of children in one-parent families are in poverty—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; the bottom 20% of earners will have lost 10% of their income by 2021—the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Is it not time that the Government listened to the poor and their charities and restored a social safety net worthy of the UK in the 21st century?

My Lords, nobody wants to see poverty rising and we treat the issues raised by the special rapporteur seriously. However, we seriously regret the inflammatory and overtly political tone of his report and strongly refute the suggestion that we have failed to listen to stakeholders. As set out in our published response, we have taken action in a number of areas, including the recently announced reduction in the maximum duration for a single sanction from three years to six months.

My Lords, the rapporteur drew specific attention to the plight of women born in the 1950s, who have been particularly impacted by the “abrupt and poorly” phased in change to the pension age. Does the Minister accept that these women should be compensated for the loss they have experienced?

My Lords, I believe in equality. Some of the rapporteur’s recommendations show a rather myopic understanding of universal credit. When I broached the subject of this report while representing Her Majesty’s Government at the UN last week, it was clear that everyone who knew about it was keen to distance themselves from it, preferring to compliment this Government on, “Groundbreaking, exemplary and world-leading policies in the area of work and pensions.”

My Lords, if the success is so great, why are so many schools in my diocese having to feed children, and why does almost every parish contribute to food banks?

My Lords, we have done an enormous amount to tackle poverty since we came into government. We have invested huge sums of additional money into developing a welfare system that encourages people into work and supports them in work and with progression in their jobs, so that they can better provide, because we know that the best way to get out of poverty and save children from it is to work. As the IFS said today:

“Absolute poverty remains at its lowest ever level”.

Will the Minister comment specifically on Wales? The report says:

“Wales faces the highest relative poverty rate in the United Kingdom, with almost one in four people living in relative income poverty. Twenty-five per cent of jobs pay below minimum wage”.

My Lords, we are tackling poverty across the country. I refer noble Lords to the leader article in the Times of 25 May:

“The failings of Mr Alston’s report are legion … it is padded out with such accusations as that the government evinces a ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach’”.

This is the Times. It said, “This is nonsense”. It goes on:

“yet poverty in this sense does not exist in Britain in the 21st century”.

We are responding to reports with care but, in all seriousness, we must say that many things in this report are exaggerated and inflammatory.

My Lords, perhaps I may offer the Minister a quote about the report:

“we did a fact check of that report. He made a lot of good points. It was factually correct … in terms of the facts, of austerity, cuts to local government funding, of the reliance that we have on the labour market and the risk that we face if there was a recession, all of those things were really good points that we have taken on board”.

That is a quote from the policy director for children, families and disadvantage at the DWP, giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee last week.

Given that we have received not just this report but one after another showing that families on low incomes are really struggling, and given the crucial point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds that families are turning up at food banks all over the country, working parents are going to food banks and schools are feeding hungry children, something is going wrong. Please will the Minister look again at this?

My Lords, we continue to listen and to learn. The Government continue to spend more than £95 billion a year on benefits for people of working age. I say again, as I have said so many times before, that when the party opposite were in government, 20% of all working-age households in the United Kingdom—including Wales—were entirely workless. We have brought that figure down to 13.9% and we want to bring it down much further, but there are many different ways in which we are making a difference, listening and investing more money in real terms into the system to support and encourage people into the world of work and support those who cannot work.

I have answered it. We have listened; we have taken the questions and statements of the rapporteur very seriously. We do not accept, in the words of people at the United Nations last week, the political scaremongering, the hyperbole, the inflammatory and scaremongering approach to the whole subject. It is not helpful from someone who was not keen to engage with our officials.