He claims statistical backing for his anecdotes but provides no robust evidence on either suicide or food insecurity. What is the actual trend in suicide rates? Statistics from the ONS show in 2010 there were 10.2 suicides per 100,000 people. This rose to 11.1 in 2013; a statistically significant increase but a small one. Since then it has fallen back to 10.1. Putting this in context, even at the height of the recession and austerity, the suicide rate did not go significantly higher than those registered in the early 2000s (10.9 to 11.9). Indeed, today’s rate is down from 14.7 per 100,000 in 1981.
The Special Rapporteur points to increasing food insecurity, saying we have no measurement of this. Well actually we do (for now). Statistics from Eurostat show the share of households unable to afford a meal with meat, fish, chicken or a vegetarian equivalent every second day has been falling from 9.3 per cent in 2012 to 5.4 per cent in 2017. It is true that food insecurity on this measurement went up sharply after 2009, but it is almost as if Professor Alston has arrived too late.
Figure 7: Share of households unable to afford a meal with meat, fish, chicken or a vegetarian equivalent every second day – Eurostat
The only evidence he gives on food security beyond the anecdotal, are statistics on foodbank use. Alston writes:
‘Food bank use is up almost four-fold since 2012, and there are now about 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis.’
Yet the claim that food bank use is up almost four-fold since 2012 refers actually to the number of food parcels handed out by the Trussell Trust, which runs the majority but not all food banks. That is not the same as the number of individual users. Between 2012/13 and 2017/18, the volume of food parcels handed out rose from 346,992 to 1,332,952 – roughly fourfold.
The Trussell Trust has previously been caught out presenting a rise in volume of food handed out as the same thing as individual users and it seems the Special Rapporteur has made a similar mistake. It is also true that the Trussell Trust has expanded its operations so it is little wonder it is handing out more and more food. It also operates foodbanks in Bulgaria.
Much is made in the preliminary statement on benefits reform and particularly the introduction of the Government’s new Universal Credit. Unsurprisingly, the appraisal of what is a major reform is unduly negative, reliant on selective evidence and anecdotes, and delivered in a sneering tone, with the conclusion that it is “fast falling into Universal Discredit”.
He continues: ‘While some surveys suggest certain claimants do have positive experiences with Universal Credit, an increasing body of research makes clear that there are far too many instances in which Universal Credit is being implemented in ways that negatively impact many claimants’ mental health, finances, and work prospects.’
Referenced to support these quantitative claims is just one paper reliant on qualitative research methodology. Government ministers are presented as uncaring and deliberately wanting to instil hardship.
We are told “recent statistics indicate dramatic fluctuations in sanctioning, perhaps reflecting different instructions from on high”. What we are not told is that sanction rates are at their lowest since the introduction of Universal Credit, at 2.8 per cent as of May 2018, down from 4.9 per cent in August 2015, down from 6.9 per cent in March 2017.
Universal Credit is an ambitious reform that, despite good intentions, has been critiqued for mistakes in its implementation, which have impacted on the vulnerable. The government has responded to some of these criticisms and tried to mitigate adverse unintended consequences. Yet for Professor Alston, everything is seen in the worst possible light.
He writes that “poverty is a political choice” implying that the British Government deliberately chose to impoverish people. Everything is down to austerity – the fact that this was a global financial crisis does not matter. He ignores key evidence from the ONS which shows incomes actually increased for the lowest income quintile over the period 2008 to 2017. Incomes for the richest quintile took the largest hit and have only just recovered to pre-crisis levels.
Figure 8: Growth in median equivalised household disposable income by quintile group – Office for National Statistics
Income inequality, according to the Gini coefficient, is gradually declining. There is far more decency to this country than Professor Alston is prepared to give credit for and the manner of his conduct while visiting our country has been little short of insulting. That is not to say we do not have problems but what is called for is a more reasoned and evidenced case, pinpointing the actual issues.
Since he began his job as Special Rapporteur in 2014, Professor Alston has visited eight countries, two of which have been in the G7 group of richest economies (UK and USA). His brief is for extreme poverty and human rights. The United Nations classifies extreme poverty as living below a sustenance level of $1.90 per day. His job is literally defined by a measurement of absolute poverty, a concept he scorns. While we have real instances of poverty in this country, we do not have it on this scale.
In two countries today, people are dying of starvation where the cause is purely political – Venezuela and Yemen. Yet the Special Rapporteur’s statement is extensively (if not well) researched and that has required time, money, and effort. Surely these resources would be better used elsewhere? Beyond generating angry tweets from leftists, damning headlines in The Guardian, and fraught expressions of concern from Channel 4 News reporters, his efforts will change little here.