Trade unions have always fought against poverty. And it should be taken for granted that no one in the world’s fifth largest economy should be living below the breadline.
But a record 8 million people are now living in poverty despite being part of a working family.
And just last month we found that there are now 2.9 million children growing up in poverty in working households – a rise of 800,000 since 2010.
Now the UN ‘Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights’ has released an excoriating report comparing the government’s welfare policy to a “digital and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens”.
The report finds that:
austerity was a “drastic change in government policy“ that was pursued “more as an ideological than an economic agenda”.
As a consequence, welfare spending has been “systematically and starkly eroded” since 2010, “significantly compromising its ability to help people escape poverty”.
And in particular, Universal Credit, the system of social security bought in alongside sharp cuts to the level of financial support, is having ‘horrendous’ effects on people’s lives – as the trade union movement has pointed out time and time again.
The report paints a shocking – albeit familiar – picture of poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.
A fifth of the population is now living in poverty, with child poverty predicted to rise to 40%.
Support for local authorities has been “deliberately gutted” by cuts of up to 49 per cent.
Then there is the decimation of legal aid and housing benefit and the “unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation” caused in part by cuts to transportation and public services.
The upshot is an ever-growing number of people being forced to choose between eating and heating – and a disgraceful 60 per cent rise in homelessness between 2011 and 2017.
The report closes down the government’s standard response that “work is the solution to poverty”, with “record employment rates as evidence that the country is going in the right direction”.
As the TUC has argued, the problem is that “even full-time employment is no guarantee against in-work poverty”. After all: “in-work poverty rates outstripped the growth in employment in 2018”.
This is a big deal and a fundamental challenge to post-2010 policy and outcomes.
And when it comes to measuring poverty, the government is also strongly criticised for talking about ‘absolute poverty’ – “a selective, widely criticised and mostly unhelpful indicator” – allowing it to ignore the evidence about the real growth in poverty in the UK.
Defaulting to these arguments means that “the Government has essentially foregone the opportunity to engage in a discussion about the real issues affecting poverty in the UK”.
Yesterday illustrates this exact point, with the government placing a front and back page advert in the London Metro entitled: ‘Myth: Universal Credit does not work. Fact: It does’.
As does the fact that work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd is to lodge a complaint at the UN over the report, a move Alston dismissed as seeking ‘to distract from the troubling findings of this report by misrepresenting the process behind it’.
Trade unions were born out of opposition to the 1834 Poor Law that created the workhouses in the first place, so we know a thing or two about standing up to a government that allows poverty to flourish.
As this report makes clear, we need to fight even harder today to ensure that the shocking poverty the UN has exposed becomes a thing of the past.
Because we know that just as this level of poverty is a political choice, we can make the choice to eradicate it. The best way out of poverty is well-paid and decent work. That means:
Ending the insecurity at work that leaves too many working people struggling to make ends meet
putting power in the hands of working people through our unions to fight for a fair wage – ending the longest pay squeeze for 200 years.
Reversing the damaging austerity that has slashed the services we all rely on
Stopping and scrapping Universal Credit before it does even more damage to people’s lives; and
Reversing the cuts to social security since 2010 that are pushing families into poverty.
The poverty this report exposes should be a source of shame for the UK.
But we have a choice to put this right. It’s time for every trade unionist to fight for a government that will take action.