The Special Rapporteur condemns the British government’s ideological destruction of the welfare state

The final report on the UK by the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights is damning: “much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

The report is in Microsoft Word format, which may make it inaccessible to some, so here is a PDF version. Here is a taste of what he says:

The Government has made no secret of its determination to change the value system to focus more on individual responsibility, to place major limits on government support and to pursue a single-minded focus on getting people into employment. Many aspects of this programme are legitimate matters for political contestation, but it is the mentality informing many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping, and elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society. It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens, rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity in an age of deep and rapid transformation brought about by automation, zero-hour contracts and rapidly growing inequality.

I suspect that those of us who live here have become hardened to it, so that it doesn’t seem quite so bad as it does to an external observer.  Certainly many of the underlying problems have gone on for decades – I remember findings in the 1980s, from the Policy Studies Institute, that half the families on benefit were running out of money most weeks.  The retrenchment of social security in the 1980s and 90s, and the ‘welfare reforms’ after 2000, have all added to the problems.  The sad truth is that we left behind the principles of the welfare state long ago.

One thought on “The Special Rapporteur condemns the British government’s ideological destruction of the welfare state”

  1. Agreed. I started working for Strathclyde Regional Council in 1980; multiple deprivation was a big issue then; start of the cuts* to local government spending; the growth of welfare rights services across UK. Whilst I did not become a benefits adviser until 1991, I was aware of the Supplementary Benefits Scheme in 1981 and its relative “generosity” with elements such as “additional requirements”. Whilst Thatcherism marked the formal start of the era of individualism and consumerism, the erosion of trade union rights etc, Blair’s New Labour project from 1997 embraced much of the philosophy and continued with reductions to welfare spending esp. in relation to illness and disability whilst encouraging “enterprise” and private/public borrowing etc. There were some positives (the introduction of Disability Living Allowance by the Tories in 1993 which actually resulted in more claims) and Gordon Brown’s Tax Credits made a real inroad in to child and family cash poverty (albeit was too “generous” at the start for higher earners and too complex administration resulting in overpayments for many claimants). The financial crisis of 2008-10 of course ended the Blair/Brown show and ushered in severe welfare cuts courtesy of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010. The decade since has been one of more severe cuts to welfare spending and local authority spending ushering in the era of Food Banks, Universal Credit, claimant suicides and all the other misery which the UN has highlighted. In Scotland, 20 years of devolution have protected us from the worst effects of cuts to local government spending; we have preserved Council Tax Reduction and a national Welfare Fund which many English local authorities have cut to the bone. We now have limited devolution of some social security powers which may or may not make a significant difference to poverty depending upon the willingness of the Scottish Government & Holyrood to commit extra resources to this. However, for the majority of Scots, it will still be decisions made at Westminster and DWP which affects most of the key income related welfare benefits and the overall share of public spending available to Scot Gov and subsequently our public services. Whilst I** have no personal reason to grumble about life’s unfairness, on behalf of those who struggle with limited resources from day to day, it is hard to see any basis for real optimism in the foreseeable future. Given that the full effect of some of the welfare cuts is yet to work through, the uncertainties of Brexit & the general negative trends in international economics & politics, it is possible and maybe even probable, that for some, “things will get worse before (if) they get better”. How Scotland will react to this growth in unfairness remains to be seen.
    (*cuts to spending is of course a crude term. In the 1980s, the cuts to public spending were actually cuts to planned growth rather than cash cuts or even real term cuts. However in the past decade, the “cuts” to specific aspects of welfare spending have been actual, resulting in actual drop in living standards and real suffering for some.)
    (**and perhaps 70-80% of my contemporaries?)

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