You may have seen earlier this year that I wrote a letter to help inform the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK. The full report, compiled by Professor Philip Alston, was released this week and it makes for some very difficult but important reading. (You can read the full report here).
I was the only individual MP to make a submission to the report, with Prof. Alston speaking to a broad range of frontline organisations and experts, as well as individuals living in or affected by poverty.
As MP for Bristol South, I’ve seen first-hand just how damaging government cuts and ill-advised decisions are for people living in poverty.
Like the country, Bristol is divided. There are areas of great wealth in some parts of the city, and there are areas where people are struggling to get by with stagnant wages and rising living costs.
As I wrote in my letter to Prof. Alston, Bristol South has the highest number of social security claimants in the city, the poorest health outcomes – including lower life expectancy – and the lowest educational attainment. The southern part of the constituency has poor transport links and higher crime rates. All of this has a direct and unmistakable link with poverty.
My role as MP is to be a strong voice for Bristol South and I felt I should share the impact government cuts were having on my constituents as part of this report.
The comprehensive report goes as far as to suggest that the government is in violation of its human rights obligations due to its ideological and systematic dismantling of the social safety net.
“Given the significant resources available in the country, the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have caused so much pain and misery, amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the United Kingdom’s human rights obligations,” writes Prof. Alston. “It is hard to imagine a recipe better designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions.”
The government has tried to dismiss this report as ‘barely believable’. This response shows just how out of touch they are. The report, while certainly very damning for the government, paints an accurate picture of what a lot of my constituents are dealing with.
It looks at the impact of government cuts and changes to benefits on particular groups, including women, single parents and disabled people. It’s clear, as it has been to me since Universal Credit was first rolled out in Bristol South, that these groups – which already face ongoing challenges – are being hit particularly hard.
The report reads: “Given the structural disadvantages faced by women, it is particularly disturbing that so many policy changes since 2010 have taken a greater toll on them.”
It goes on to say that benefits changes have had a ‘stark impact’ on single parents, who are twice as likely to experience persistent poverty, with half of all children living in single parent families living in poverty. One in four children now live in poverty in Bristol and figures suggest that is set to rise significantly over the next few years, with Brexit making things worse for the most vulnerable people.
Prof. Alston recognised that the tired old ‘record levels of employment’ response from the government is particularly unhelpful. Besides, poverty is not confined to unemployed families. I’ve spoken before about underemployment – where people are working but are still struggling to afford the basics. The report suggests that families where two adults earn the minimum wage are still falling 11% short of the adequate income needed to raise a child.
The report flags another worrying statistic: “Nearly half of those in poverty – 6.9 million people – are from families in which someone has a disability – they have also been some of the hardest hit by austerity measures.”
Crucially, this report doesn’t just outline the current situation – but it has some clear recommendations for the government to take steps to address this. Some of these echo things I’ve been pressing the government to do, such as delaying the rollout of Universal Credit and restoring funding to local government.
Prof. Alston concludes: “The situation demands a new vision that embodies British compassion and places social rights and economic security front and centre.” I couldn’t agree more.