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"Scotland is sailing off into very different waters from the Conservative Party in England" - Exclusive interview with UN special rapporteur Philip Alston

When the UK Government first reacted to his report on the extent of UK poverty, Professor Philip Alston said that initially, he believed the response “might actually be a spoof”.

The report, which compared Conservative welfare policies to the creation of 19th-century workhouses, had been damning. Based on an investigation of the UK welfare system, carried out in November 2018, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty found that despite having the world’s fifth largest economy, one fifth of the UK population live in poverty, with 1.5 million people having experienced destitution in 2017.

Highlighting the “tragic social consequences” of the austerity regime established by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2010, the report traced the relationship between the relentless pursuit of spending cuts to the proliferation of food banks, rough sleeping and homelessness, falling life expectancy, a “decimated” legal aid regime and the brutal fact that 40 per cent of UK children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021.

It warned: “The bottom line is that 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. A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.”

The language was unflinching. As Alston’s report put it, unless austerity is reversed, the lives of the UK’s poorest people will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

“I am all in favour of the use of technology, but I have to say the use of technology can also be mindless

Produced on behalf of the UN, the report generated around 4,000 news pieces, but the UK Government didn’t want to hear about it. Responding on behalf of the government, then work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd said she was “disappointed, to say the least, by the extraordinary political nature” of the work, with a spokesperson following up to claim it was “barely believable”.

A spokesperson for the DWP said: “The UN’s own data shows the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live, and other countries have come here to find out more about how we support people to improve their lives.

“Therefore, this is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here. It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.”

An independent expert, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, Alston has conducted similar research into countries all over the world, travelling to the US, China, Saudi Arabia and Chile to highlight the plight of those living in extreme poverty, as well as the consequences of systematic neglect, and so he is no stranger to bringing instances of poverty, injustice and the denial of basic human rights to those in power. So how did his UK investigation compare to those other countries?

“I think Amber Rudd’s sense was ‘no, that’s not the role of a diplomat’. Well, I’m not a diplomat

Sitting down with Holyrood at the University of Edinburgh, he said: “I think what’s unique about the UK, and it’s fascinating in a way, is the different approaches of the component units. You’ve got Scotland sailing off into very different waters from the Conservative Party in England. I think Scotland is trying very hard to mitigate most of the main measures the Tories have implemented through Universal Credit and other things. That’s pretty unusual because you’ve got one government saying, ‘no, no, those policies are clearly unacceptable, they’re not economically or socially productive, we don’t want anything to do with them’ and then the government in London insisting ‘no, no, our policies are right, the Scots are crazy, they’re wasting their money’. That’s something I don’t generally see in other countries.”

And while the different trajectories of the various home nations can provide a useful study for the role of public policy in driving or reducing inequality, the abrupt change in the priorities of the Conservative-led government and the Labour administrations that came before also make the UK an unusual case.

“I don’t think it is particularly controversial [to say] the previous Labour government, particularly under Gordon Brown, made a really concerted effort to get child poverty down because it was a concern way back, and I think they had succeeded. That’s what makes the UK case so interesting, the fact it’s almost a laboratory experiment. You had the full-fledged welfare state, the National Health Service and so on, until 2010. Then parts of the system just turned on a dime, as the Americans would say. They turned 180 degrees, where suddenly all the different forms of support provided in benefits by local councils and other actors were transformed into much more austere versions. I think the consequences have followed very directly, in terms of food banks, in terms of child hunger, in terms of suicides, in terms of isolation and loneliness, even in areas where the government itself recognises there are problems.”

Results aside, the report was particularly notable for the way it eschewed the technical, often lifeless, language of diplomacy. Instead, in describing child poverty as “not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster”, he ensured the report translated easily into media coverage.

And it is perhaps no wonder the UK Government claimed the report as “political”. But then, it did clearly identify UK Government policy as the driver of poverty. That is inherently political. Would it even be possible to do Alston’s job diplomatically?

What’s the point of writing a report that is just another diplomatic assessment, that doesn’t attract any attention?

He said: “I think the biggest real criticism that Amber Rudd would have had is that I didn’t do my job diplomatically, because there is a lot of diplomatic-speak which might have led me to say, ‘well, the UK could be doing more than it currently is’ or, ‘it would be desirable for it to give greater attention to child poverty’. I think one can express things in those ways, and there’s a time and a place for that. In other words, if you think governments just haven’t thought of something, then it’s useful to remind them in gentle language. But if you reach the conclusion, as I did, that this is a very deliberate policy preference, then I think using pussy-footing language is self-defeating. You have to say it like it is.

“I think Amber Rudd’s sense was ‘no, that’s not the role of a diplomat’. Well, I’m not a diplomat. I’m here under UN auspices but I’m an independent expert and my job is to help countries understand better the real situation of poverty within their borders, and what they might do about it.”

He added: “What’s the point of writing a report that is just another diplomatic assessment, that doesn’t attract any attention? That doesn’t force people to reflect on things? It is true that I have always written my reports in a different style to the UN’s language. But I see the UN’s language, very often, as being deliberately crafted to put people to sleep. No matter how tragic a situation you are describing, it’s just sort of matter-of-fact, and a journalist or an average person reading it will just think, ‘oh, it’s happening and there’s not much we can do about it’.”

And while the UK Government’s response was complicated by Brexit and the change of leadership of the Conservative Party – incredibly, Boris Johnson has recently attempted to paint himself as a longstanding critic of austerity – Alston’s concern has shifted to the role of technology in reshaping the relationship between government and the most vulnerable.

But while technology already plays a “huge role” in the UK welfare system, it is clear to Alston that this is just the beginning.

“I think digital by default is close to a misnomer, because it is close to digital only. They’re using algorithms to make all sorts of decisions and I think their insistence on using the horrible language of the decision maker is a classic way of covering up the fact you have a machine-generated outcome. The investments that continue to be made in new technologies by the DWP indicate they are just going to deepen this engagement.”

But none of this is inherently problematic. Alston may well be right in worrying over the future use of digital technology and the growth of artificial intelligence in running a system that should be about caring for people, but it is equally possible that technology could be used to help improve people’s lives. But while he stresses that he is in favour of technology, it is clear that its success, on a human level, must be assessed by how it is used.

“I am all in favour of the use of technology, but I have to say the use of technology can also be mindless. I think, certainly when you are dealing with welfare, to have this endless tech optimism which pervades tech – that there is no problem which tech can’t solve – is really problematic, because when I am old, it may be that they can produce an electronic cat which I can stroke, and it may be that they can have my room monitored for any movement I make and there can be some reaction to whatever I do – not just falling but also sneezing or whatever – but that technology is not going to make up for the full range of social interactions, compassion, etc, that are required in a comprehensive social protection system. So the question is, what’s the balance? And each time a minister says, ‘let’s spend another billion on technology’, the likelihood is in fact that that billion is being taken out of many possible human resources. We don’t see investments in social work and social care, we don’t see a revaluing of the care economy, we see a much greater tendency to focus on the tech solutions – they’re sexy, they’re futuristic and they are oversold. So I do see that as a big risk, though I am a big supporter of tech.”

In this sense, it is not a specific technology that concerns Alston, but instead, the culture within which it will be used.

“The problem is, we have to acknowledge that none of these technologies are neutral, and they are not used neutrally, so the decision about which technologies to develop, and what to use them for, is very political. So what I want to talk about is, imagine that instead of looking at the overall welfare budget and saying, ‘OK, technology can enable us to cut that by 25 or 50 per cent’, which is what we are seeing in a lot of countries, that there will be all these magical savings because of efficiency, because of rooting out fraud and so on. But it’s not really true, in my view, because what they are doing is covering for a range of ways in which benefits are simply being cut. Corners are being cut.

“If you instead took a different approach and said, ‘OK, we’re going to keep the budget stable for welfare, what we want is to ask tech companies to come up with ways in which that 40 billion, or whatever the budget is, can be used more effectively to promote people’s wellbeing with creative solutions, then you would get a very different outcome, but tech companies are not, of themselves, focused on that. There’s no money, no profits, they are sort of libertarian, anyway, in their leanings, they’re not really interested in strengthening government, so I think we need to change that fundamental mentality.”

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