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Poverty and Human Rights: UN Report

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 25 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the concerns raised by the report of the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his visit to the United Kingdom, published on 22 May.

My Lords, nothing has changed since I answered exactly the same Question on this issue last week, when it was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Janke. We have responded fully to the special rapporteur’s recommendations and will continue to reform the welfare system so that it encourages work while supporting those who need help—an approach based on clear evidence that work offers families the best opportunity to get out of poverty.

My Lords, the Government have previously dismissed the report as “nonsense”, “barely believable” and “inaccurate”, and have effectively rejected virtually all its recommendations. Yet, as was pointed out in this House last week, the DWP’s lead poverty official has acknowledged that it “made … good points” and was “factually correct”. One of those facts was the highly regressive impact of tax and benefit changes since 2010, which,

“have taken the highest toll on those least able to bear it”.

Will the Government therefore look again at the recommendation that requests that the NAO assess the cumulative social impact of those policies, especially on those in vulnerable circumstances, which independent experts have shown can be done?

My Lords, it is right that any Government are held to account for the effectiveness of their approach to tackling poverty, which was always one of our key priorities. While we take every report of this nature incredibly seriously, and recognise that there is more to do—as we always do—we remain disappointed by the overtly political tone of the report and strongly refute the suggestion that we have taken a deliberately punitive approach to welfare reforms. This year we will be spending £220 billion on welfare.

My Lords, not every assertion that comes from the United Nations should be taken at face value, any more than an assertion that comes from the Government or indeed from government agencies. But Philip Alston describes himself as left wing and then describes life for the poor as akin to a Dickensian workhouse. Can my noble friend tell me why, if this is the case, so many people are queueing up to come and live the awful life in this country?

My noble friend makes a very good point. We are in very good shape in this country and we deliver the fourth most generous level of welfare support in the OECD. We spend more on family benefits than any other country in the G7, and as a share of our GDP, our public spending on family benefits is the second highest in the OECD. We continue to listen and learn, but we are also very proud of what this Government are delivering.

My Lords, I draw the Minister’s attention to recommendation (e) in the report, which I hope is less contentious. It mentions the importance of the Government getting the new fairer funding review correct, as it affects every council’s ability to plan and provide for services for the most vulnerable and poorest in society. Can she update the House on progress with that important review, because at the moment, councils do not know how much funding they will get from 2020, how it will be distributed and the means of delivery?

I have to tell the noble Baroness that that is not exactly my area, but I will take away what she asked. It is important to say that we are doing all we can to ensure that we are delivering more from our services and continue to increase spending—certainly from the Department for Work and Pensions—to support those in need.

Thank you, Chief Whip. One of the causes of abject poverty of the most vulnerable is of course the work capability assessment. One of the creators of that assessment has declared it unfit for purpose. It denies severely disabled people benefits when they have no—but no—prospect of work. What plans do the Government have to review the model of the work capability assessment?

I am pleased to report that we are looking at that very point at the moment and are about to carry out a pilot for a much easier work capability assessment, which will mean that people do not have to have repeats or assessments for different things. That is something we are taking on board very seriously.

My Lords, given the Minister’s dismissive reaction to the UN report, can she explain why, for the first time in the history of the welfare state, teachers are bringing food into schools because so many children are too hungry to learn?

My Lords, I am not dismissive of the report overall but I am dismissive of the UN rapporteur’s approach, which was very unhelpful. We are doing an awful lot to support children in schools, with breakfast clubs and so on. We are also spending a lot more on family benefits to make sure that children are properly fed. However, we can always do more and we take poverty seriously.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is important for us to recognise that many good reports come from the United Nations on all manner of areas for which it is responsible, and that it is therefore rather unfortunate that this report was not objective in the normal way that we would expect of the United Nations? Does she agree that this should be drawn to the attention of the UN through our usual channels there?

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for what he says. I have just been at the United Nations in New York, representing Her Majesty’s Government at a disability conference. Time and again, Ministers and commissioners—everyone involved with the UN—said that they do not recognise this report. Much that the United Nations does is brilliant but I am grateful to my noble friend for suggesting that sometimes, as in this case, its reports are not as objective as they should be.