Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

London, 16 November 2018


The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, it contains many areas of immense wealth, its capital is a leading centre of global finance, its entrepreneurs are innovative and agile, and despite the current political turmoil, it has a system of government that rightly remains the envy of much of the world. It thus seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the Government to appoint a Minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation. And local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies. Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off. While the labour and housing markets provide the crucial backdrop, the focus of this report is on the contribution made by social security and related policies.

The results? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are


The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty

more than 50% below the poverty line,

and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic


But the full picture of low-income well-being in the UK cannot be captured by statistics alone. Its manifestations are clear for all to see. The country’s most respected charitable groups, its leading think tanks, its parliamentary committees, independent authorities like the National Audit Office, and many others, have all drawn attention to the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well off in this country. But through it all, one actor has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is. The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial. Even while devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to devise ways to ‘mitigate’, or in other words counteract, at least the worst features of the Government’s benefits policy, Ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan. Some tweaks to basic policy have reluctantly been made, but there has been a determined resistance to change in response to the many problems which so many people at all levels have brought to my attention. The good news is that many of the problems could readily be solved if the

1 Social Metrics Commission, “A new measure of poverty for the UK,” September 2018,, p. 97.

2 Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Glen Bramley, et al., “Destitution in the UK 2018,” June 7, 2018, pp. 2-3.

3 Institute for Fiascal Studies, “Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2017-18 to 2021-22,” November 2, 2017


between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.




Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations below.

In my travels across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland I met with people living in poverty, whether old, young, disabled, in work or not. I talked with civil society, front line workers, work coaches, and officials from local, devolved, and UK governments; and visited community organizations, social housing, a Jobcentre, a food bank, an advice center, a library, and a primary school. I also met a range of Ministers in the central government and in Wales, as well as with the First Minister in Scotland. I spoke at length with politicians from all of the major political parties.

In the past two weeks I have talked with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future, young people who feel gangs are the only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities who are being told they need to go back to work or lose support, against their doctor’s orders.

I have also seen tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbors supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services. I also heard stories of deeply compassionate work coaches and of a regional Jobcenter director who had transformed the ethos in the relevant offices.

Although the provision of social security to those in need is a public service and a vital anchor to prevent people being pulled into poverty, the policies put in place since 2010 are usually discussed under the rubric of austerity. But this framing leads the inquiry in the wrong direction. In the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering. Successive governments have brought revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it. Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned.

In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping.

Most of the political debate around social well-being in the UK has focused only on the goals sought to be achieved. These goals are in many respects admirable, even though some have been controversial. They include a commitment to place employment at the heart of anti-poverty policy, a quest for greater efficiency and cost savings, a determination to simplify an excessively complicated and unwieldy benefits system, a desire to increase the uptake of benefits by those entitled, removing the ‘welfare cliff’ that deterred beneficiaries from seeking work, and a desire to provide more skills training.


But Universal Credit and the other far-reaching changes to the role of government in supporting people in distress are almost always ‘sold’ as being part of an unavoidable program of fiscal ‘austerity’, needed to save the country from bankruptcy. In fact, however, the reforms have almost certainly cost the country far more than their proponents will admit. The many billions advertised as having been extracted from the benefits system since 2010 have been offset by the additional resources required to fund emergency services by families and the community, by local government, by doctors and hospital accident and emergency centres, and even by the ever- shrinking and under-funded police force.

Leaving the economics of change to one side, it is the underlying values and the ethos shaping the design and implementation of specific measures that have generated the greatest problems. 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, and some have claimed simple-minded, focus on getting people into employment at all costs. Many aspects of this program are legitimate matters for political contestation, but it is the mentality that has informed many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society. I provide various examples later in this statement.


My report comes at a critical moment in the debate over Brexit. I take no position on its merits or on the optimal terms for undertaking it, but anyone concerned with poverty in the UK has reason to be very deeply concerned. Whatever happens in the period ahead, we know that deep uncertainty will persist for a long time, that economic growth rates are likely to take a strong hit, and that tax revenues will fall significantly. If current policies towards low income working people and others living in poverty are maintained in the face of these developments, the poor


There are many concerns linked to Brexit. Given the vast number of policies, programs and spending priorities that will need to be addressed over the next few years, and the major changes that will inevitably accompany them, it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society who will be least able to cope and will take the biggest hit. The IMF has suggested that a no-deal Brexit could cost the UK economy somewhere between 5% and 8% of GDP, representing a loss of thousands of pounds per household.

4 Women’s Budget Group et al, “Exploring the Economic Impact of Brexit on Women,” March 2018, p. 2.

will be substantially less well off than they already are.

public discontent, further division and even instability, thus underscoring the importance that steps be taken now to avoid such outcomes.

This could well lead to significant

In my meetings with the government, it was clear to me that the impact of Brexit on people in

poverty is an afterthought, to be dealt with through manipulations of fiscal policy after the event,

if at all. But Brexit will have serious consequences in this domain and the challenges need to be


dealt with head on. A lack of clarity is preventing families at risk of poverty from planning for its impact. People feel their homes, jobs, and communities are at risk. Ironically, it was these very fears and insecurity that contributed significantly to the Brexit vote.

The fall in the value of the pound has already increased the cost of living for people in poverty


by £400 pounds per year,

and researchers have estimated that the UK economy is already 2-

2.5% smaller than it would otherwise have been.


Almost all studies have shown that the UK

economy will be worse off because of Brexit, with consequences for inflation, real wages, and

consumer prices. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, if the government does not

adequately uprate benefits to account for inflation after Brexit, up to 900,000 more people could


fall into poverty.

This would strain a social support system that has been gutted in recent years.

The vote for Brexit reflects a great value being placed on the notion of sovereignty. But while people in a democracy are entitled to prioritize sovereignty through such a vote, it is imperative for steps to be taken to protect the most vulnerable and to ensure that the further fiscal consolidation measures called for by the Government and the International Monetary Fund should not be achieved at the risk of making that group of people even worse off.

The UK stands to lose billions of pounds in EU funds that will disproportionately affect the poorer areas that have most benefited from them, including almost £9 billion in poverty


If the European Charter of Fundamental Rights becomes no longer applicable in the UK, the level of human rights protections enjoyed by the population will be significantly diminished. The UK should not roll back EU-derived human rights protections on workplace regulation and inequality.

Universal Credit

No single program embodies the combination of the benefits reforms and the promotion of austerity programs more than Universal Credit. Although in its initial conception it represented a potentially major improvement in the system, it is fast falling into Universal Discredit.

5 Holger Breinlich et al, Centre for Economic Performance and LSE, “The Brexit Vote, Inflation and UK Living Standards,” November 2017, p. 3; Holgar Breinlich et al, “The Consequences of the Brexit Vote for UK Inflation and Living Standards: First Evidence,” November 2017,; Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “How could Brexit affect poverty in the UK?,” September 6, 2018, p. 5.

6 Institute for Government, “Understanding the economic impact of Brexit,” October 2018, %20for%20web%5D.pdf p. 9.

7 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “How could Brexit affect poverty in the UK?,” September 6, 2018,

8 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “The EU referendum and UK poverty,” June 2016, p. 9.

reduction funding between 2014 and 2020.

prosperity fund” to replace this funding, local and devolved governments told me they had no information about the fund or how it would operate—just five months before Brexit. Time is running out. Brexit could also have particularly harsh consequences for people living in Northern Ireland, with people living on the border and dependent on trade or cross-border employment.

Although the government has announced a “shared


Social support should be a route out of poverty, and Universal Credit should be a key part of that process. Consolidating six different benefits into one makes good sense, in principle. But many aspects of the design and rollout of the programme have suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting. 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


In addition to all of the negative publicity about Universal Credit in the UK media and among politicians of all parties, I have heard countless stories from people who told me of the severe hardships they have suffered under Universal Credit. When asked about these problems, Government ministers were almost entirely dismissive, blaming political opponents for wanting to sabotage their work, or suggesting that the media didn’t really understand the system and that Universal Credit was unfairly blamed for problems rooted in the old legacy system of benefits.

The Universal Credit system is designed with a five week delay between when people successfully file a claim and when they receive benefits. Research suggests that this “waiting period,” which actually often takes up to 12 weeks, pushes many who may already be in crisis


that negatively impact many claimants’ mental health, finances, and work prospects.

into debt, rent arrears, and serious hardship, requiring them to sacrifice food or heat.

Given the

delay, which will only be partially mitigated by a recent concession, it is no surprise that the

majority of claimants seek “advance payments,” which in turn must be repaid to DWP in


The rationales offered for the delay are entirely illusory, and the motivation strikes me as a combination of cost-saving, enhanced cashflows, and wanting to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship. Instead, recipients are immediately plunged into further debt and inevitably struggle mightily to survive.

There are undoubtedly many people who have benefited from the Universal Credit system, and many of the Jobcentre staff play important roles in supporting and encouraging their clients. But many claimants also feel that they are forced to jump through hoops for the sake of it, fill out

9 Mandy Cheetham, Suzanne Moffatt, and Michelle Addison, “’It’s hitting people that can least afford it the hardest’: the impact of the roll out of Universal Credit in two North East England localities: a qualitative study,” November 2018, two-North-East-England-localities-a-qualitative-study-November- 2018/pdf/Universal_Credit_Report_2018pdf.pdf?m=636778831081630000.

10 Ibid.

11 Parliament, “Hardship caused by Universal Credit,”

relatively short order.

already meager Universal Credit payments at a rate much higher than is the case with the older benefit system.

Additionally, debts to DWP and to third-parties can be deducted from

While supposedly deductions are capped at a maximum rate of 40% of the

standard allowance portion of the payment (which will change to 30% in a year’s time), the

Government told me that in fact additional clawbacks can occur. These so-called “Last Resort

Deductions” are for matters such as rent, gas, and electricity arrears, if it is judged to be in the

best interest of a claimant or their household.


pointless job applications for positions that do not match their qualifications, and take inappropriate low-paid, temporary work just to avoid debilitating sanctions. One Conservative Party MP with whom I spoke criticized DWP for adopting a military-style command and control approach rather than seeking to empower their clients and instill confidence.

The digital-by-default feature of Universal Credit is highly controversial and a detailed assessment of this aspect is found on page 7 below.

When claimants contest assessments that they consider to be wrong, there is a clear sense that the Orwellian named anonymous ‘decision-maker’ rarely varies the approach. Similarly the requirement that before appealing a disability assessment to a tribunal a phase of mandatory reconsideration must take place is considered by many observers to be little more than a delaying tactic.

One of the key features of Universal Credit involves the imposition of draconian sanctions, even for infringements that seem minor. Endless anecdotal evidence was presented to the Special Rapporteur to illustrate the harsh and arbitrary nature of some of the sanctions, as well as the devastating effects that resulted from being completely shut out of the benefits system for weeks or months at a time. As the system grows older, some penalties will soon be measured in years.

Recent statistics indicate dramatic fluctuations in sanctioning, perhaps reflecting different

instructions from on high. For unemployed people, between 6% and 8% are subjected to

sanctions, and 31% of sanctions were for a period exceeding three months, and one in eight were


over six months.

A recent book characterized the sanctions as being cruel, inhuman and and the Inquiry undertaken by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with


Many detailed studies have been undertaken which give substance to the harsh consequences that



Disabilities found “evidence of grave and systematic violation of the rights of persons with disabilities,” partly on the basis of the sanctions regime.

ensue for vulnerable claimants who are sanctioned.

notwithstanding, there is no clear evidence that recent high employment rates in the UK are due to sanctions, or that blunt and harsh sanctions are superior to far less harmful methods to encourage compliance with conditionality. Indeed, a real deficiency in the data DWP provides about sanctions makes it difficult to assess the regime. DWP does not make public sanctions data disaggregated by race or ethnicity, much less certain other claimant statuses such as single parents or carers. It is also impossible to determine from the data the number of sanctions that an individual has received, so it is not clear if the duration of sanctions is due to consecutive sanctions or rather an individual sanction of longer duration.What is clear from those with whom the Special Rapporteur has spoken, is that sanctions succeed in instilling a fear and loathing of the system in many claimants.

Departmental and Ministerial insistence

12 David Webster, Briefing: Benefit Sanctions Statistics, August 2018 (6 September 2018).

13 Michael Adler, “Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment? Benefit Sanctions in the UK,” 2018.

14 Welfare Conditionality project, “Final Findings,” May 2018; Peter Dwyer, “Punitive and Ineffective: Benefit Sanctions within Social Security,” 25 Journal of Social Security Law 139 (2018); and Lisa Scullion, Peter Dwyer, Katy Jones, Philip Martin, and Celia Hynes, Sanctions, Support and Service Leavers, April 2018.


The government says it is taking an experimental “test and learn” approach to Universal Credit, but there seems to be an unacknowledged risk that this approach could treat vulnerable people like guinea pigs and wreak havoc in real peoples’ lives. “Test and learn” cannot be a decade-long excuse for failing to properly design a system that is meant to guarantee the social security of so many, and it does not remedy the damage done to those who were thrown into debt or out of their houses, or made to rely on food banks before the improvements kicked in.

As I spoke with local authorities and the voluntary sector about their preparations for the future rollout of Universal Credit, I was struck by how much their mobilization resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic. They have expended significant expense and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system. Scotland has repeatedly urged the Government to halt the rollout and paid DWP for the introduction of certain flexibilities for claimants, such as the ability to receive payments more frequently. This is a constant complaint, and while some beneficiaries are happy with monthly payments, a great many suffer as a result of the arrangement, and may end up visitng the food bank or forgoing heating just to stretch a very small amount out over an entire month. While cost has been cited by DWP as one justification for being inflexible and unresponsive, vast amounts have already been expended on automating the system and I am unaware of any precise costing estimate to justify the resistance to implementing this reform.

A Digital Welfare State

Relatively unnoticed amidst the turmoil of Brexit, the UK government announced the ‘total transformation’ of government in 2017. The 2017 Government Transformation Strategy was presented as “the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world.”15 Not only will government services become ‘digital by default,’ as was first announced in 2012, but the inner workings of government itself will be transformed in a push for automation aided by data science and artificial intelligence.

There are few places in government where these developments are more tangible than in the benefit system. We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm. In its place, a digital welfare state is emerging. The impact on the human rights of the most vulnerable in the UK will be immense.

Universal Credit as a Digital by Default Service

The UK government made Universal Credit the first major government service that is ‘digital by default.’ This means that an entitlement claim is made online and that the beneficiary then interacts with authorities mainly through an online portal. One wonders why some of the most vulnerable and those with poor digital literacy had to go first in what amounts to a nationwide digital experiment.

From the outset, the belief within DWP has been that the overwhelming majority of Universal Credit claimants are online and digitally skilled, and confident enough to claim and maintain benefits digitally. Despite contrary indications from some officials, the relevant documents show DWP’s assumption that most people are at ease and competent online.

15 UK Government, “Government Transformation Strategy,” February 9, 2017, p. 4.


Overall rollout of broadband internet in the UK may be high, but those figures hide the fact that many poorer and more vulnerable household are effectively offline and without digital skills. According to 2017 Ofcom figures, only 47% of those on low income use broadband internet at home. Only 42% of those who are unemployed and 43% of those on low income do their


UK population do not have five basic digital skills and 16% of the population is not able to fill

banking online.

According to the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2018, 21% of the 17

out an online application form.

Universal Credit has built a digital barrier that effectively obstructs many individuals’ access to

their entitlements. Women, older people, people who do not speak English and the disabled are


52% of its clients in ‘full service’ Universal Credit areas found the online application process


a crucial step in the application process.

Again, despite official protestations to the contrary, ‘digital by default’ is really much closer to digital only. Since Universal Credit was announced in 2010, DWP has always underlined that alternative routes to this benefit needed to be “kept to a minimum.”22 According to its own figures, 95% of Universal Credit claims they receive are made online. DWP points to the Universal Credit Helpline as an alternative route, but long waiting times and call center staff who, according to civil society organizations, are often poorly trained, make this a very frustrating alternative. Jobcentres, many of which have been closed, offer online access, but very little digital assistance is available and official policy is to keep ‘face-to-face’ help at a

more likely to be unable to overcome this hurdle.

23 support.

Only in really exceptional cases will work coaches make a home visit to offer digital


According to a 2017 Citizens Advice survey, According to DWP’s own survey from June 2018, only 54% of all claimants were


able to apply online independently, without assistance.

one third of all Universal Credit claimants could verify their identity online via GOV.UK Verify,


The reality is that digital assistance has been outsourced to public libraries and civil society organizations. Public libraries are on the frontline of helping the digitally excluded and digitally

16 Ofcom, “Internet use and attitudes,” August 3, 2017,

17 Lloyds Bank, “Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2018,” us/whats-happening/consumer-digital-index.asp.

18 On the impact on vulnerable individuals of Universal Credit as a ‘digital by default’ service, see, for example, the written submissions made to the Special Rapporteur by the Good Things Foundation, Citizens Advice Flintshire, Friends, Families and Travellers National Federation Gypsy Liaison Groups, and the Trussell Trust. Available at:

19 Citizens Advice, “Delivering on Universal Credit,” July 2017, p. 17.

20 Department for Work and Pensions, “Universal Credit Full Service Survey,” June 2018, credit-full-service-claimant-survey.pdf.

21 National Audit Office, “Rolling out Universal Credit,” 15 June 2018, universal-credit/ pp. 57-59.

22 Department for Work and Pensions, “Universal Credit: welfare that works,” November 2010, credit-full-document.pdf p. 38.

23 “For face-to-face help in particular, we will consider how best to work with partners to meet this need.” Id. p. 38.


As of March of this year, only about


illiterate who wish to claim their right to Universal Credit. While library budgets have been

severely cut across the country, they still have to deal with an influx of Universal Credit claimants who arrive at the library, often in a panic, to get help claiming benefits online. Newcastle alone, the first city where ‘full service’ Universal Credit was rolled out in May 2016, the City Library has digitally assisted nearly 2,000 customers between August 2017 and September 2018.

Many claimants also rely on digital help from benefits rights organizations and charities that are already under pressure from a range of cuts and other demands. They currently receive minimal funding from DWP to deliver Assisted Digital Support, which only covers 2 hours of help with the original application and is not nearly enough to cover the demand for support. As of next year, Citizens Advice will be funded by DWP as the sole provider of Assisted Digital Support, with a total budget of £39 million spread out over several years, which must also cover personal budgeting support. Not only is this a small amount in light of the need, but it diverts funding away from public libraries and other organizations which have set up improvised digital support programs.

Around one third of new Universal Credit claims fail in the application process and never reach


While Universal Credit is a very visible example of digital transformation, an even more significant digital change is happening within the walls of central and local authorities. The merging of six legacy benefits into one new Universal Credit system aimed at reaching millions of UK citizens is in fact a major automation project. The collection of data via the online application process and interactions with the online journal provide a clear stepping stone for further automation within DWP.

One example is the Real Time Information (RTI) system, which takes HMRC data on earnings submitted by employers and shares it with DWP, which in turn uses this data to automatically calculate monthly benefits. As DWP explained to the Special Rapporteur, Universal Credit is only possible because of the automated calculation of benefits via RTI.

But with automation comes error at scale. Various experts and civil society organizations pointed to problems with the data feed, including through wrong or late information transmitted by employers to HMRC. According to DWP, a team of 50 civil servants work full-time on dealing with the 2% of the millions of monthly transactions that are incorrect. Because the default position of DWP is to give the automated system the benefit of the doubt, claimants often have to wait for weeks to get paid the proper amount, even when they have written proof that the system

24 Lorensbergs, “Netloan Public Library Customer Survey Results 2017,” February 2018,

25 National Audit Office, “Rolling out Universal Credit,” 15 June 2018, universal-credit/ p. 35.

the payment stage. Many of those cases may be related to the design of the DWP system. unaware of any effort by DWP to estimate the number of people who do not even attempt to apply due to digital exclusion.

Automated Benefits



I am


was wrong. An old-fashioned pay slip is deemed irrelevant when the information on the computer is different.

Another area of major transformation is that of automated fraud and error detection and prevention. Serious investments have been made by DWP to undertake data matching to identify fraud and error in the context of the Generalised Matching Service. Over the years, millions of


investigate high risk cases more closely.

analysis and intelligence system for fraud and error,” 28 which will go beyond automatically finding inconsistencies between different databases and aims to prevent fraud and error by using new tools including Artificial Intelligence.

An Artificial Future?

Artificial Intelligence is very much in fashion and there are many related initiatives in the UK.

The Prime Minister aims to “propel Britain to global leadership of the industries of the future”

including through the use of big data and artificial intelligence, and one of the ‘Grand

Challenges’ of the November 2017 Industrial Strategy is to put the UK “at the forefront of the AI

and data revolution.” The House of Lords will debate a recent report on Artificial Intelligence on

inconsistency matches have led to further investigations for fraud and error.

DWP has subsidized ‘risk-based verification systems’, mostly built by private IT vendors, which flag claimants for low, medium or high risk of fraud and error, thus allowing local authorities to



Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation are being set up.


especially at risk in such contexts.

At present, DWP is developing a “fully automated risk


Government is increasingly automating itself with the use of data and new technology tools,

and new institutions such as the AI Council, the government Office for AI and the

including AI.

A major issue with the development of new technologies by the UK government is a lack of



Even the existence of the automated systems developed by DWP’s ‘Analysis &

Evidence shows that the human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable are 31

At the local level,

26 HM Revenue & Customs and Department for Work and Pensions,

“Tackling Fraud and Error in the benefit and tax credit system,” October 2010. See also: Christopher Jennings, DWP, ‘Fraud and Error in the Social Security System’, presentation for World Bank workshop, 8-12 June 2014, workshop_Opatija_Session%201_UK_Final.pdf.

27 Written submission to the Special Rapporteur by Big Brother Watch.

28 National Audit Office, “Rolling out Universal Credit,” 15 June 2018, universal-credit/ p. 61.

29 House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, “AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?,” April 16, 2018

30 Government Digital Service, “Technology Innovation in Government Survey,” August 20, 2018,” in-government-survey.

31 Amnesty International UK, “Trapped in the Matrix: Secrecy, stigma, and bias in the Met’s Gangs Database,” May 2018,

32 See, for example, written submissions to the Special Rapporteur by the Data Justice Lab and Big Brother Watch. Available at:


Intelligence Hub’ and ‘Risk Intelligent Service’33 is almost unknown. The existence, purpose and basic functioning of these automated government systems remains a mystery in many cases, fueling misconceptions and anxiety about them. Advocacy organizations and media must rely on Freedom of Information requests to clarify the scope of automated systems used by government, but such requests often fail. Central and local government departments typically claim that revealing more information on automation projects would prejudice its commercial interests or

34 would allow individuals to ‘game the system.’35

those of the IT consultancies it contracts to,

would breach intellectual property protections, or

But it is clear that more public knowledge about the development and operation of automated systems is necessary. The segmentation of claimants into low, medium and high risk in the benefit system is already happening in contexts such as ‘Risk-based verification.’36 Those flagged as ‘higher risk’ are the subject of more intense scrutiny and investigation, often without even being aware of this fact. The presumption of innocence is turned on its head when everyone applying for a benefit is screened for potential wrongdoing in a system of total surveillance. And in the absence of transparency about the existence and workings of automated systems, the rights to contest an adverse decision, and to seek a meaningful remedy, are illusory.

There is nothing inherent in Artificial Intelligence and other technologies that enable automation that threatens human rights and the rule of law. The reality is that governments simply seek to operationalize their political preferences through technology; the outcomes may be good or bad. But without more transparency about the development and use of automated systems, it is impossible to make such an assessment. And by excluding citizens from decision-making in this area we may set the stage for a future based on an artificial democracy.

Transparency about the existence, purpose, and use of new technologies in government and participation of the public in these debates will go a long way toward demystifying technology and clarifying distributive impacts. New technologies certainly have great potential to do good. But more knowledge may also lead to more realism about the limits of technology. A machine learning system may be able to beat a human at chess, but it may be less adept at solving complicated social ills such as poverty.

The new institutions currently being set up by the UK government in the area of big data and AI focus heavily on ethics. While their establishment is certainly a positive development, we should not lose sight of the limits of an ethics frame. Ethical concepts such as fairness are without agreed upon definitions, unlike human rights which are law. Government use of automation, with its potential to severely restrict the rights of individuals, needs to be bound by the rule of law and not just an ethical code.

33 National Audit Office, “Rolling out Universal Credit,” 15 June 2018, universal-credit/ p. 13.

34 Computing, “HMRC refuses to reveal how much it paid Capgemini and Accenture for Aspire contract extensions,” and-accenture-for-aspire-contract-extensions.

35 Freedom of Information Response from Department for Work and Pensions to Gary Young, Sept. 30, 2013, ough=1.

36 Written submission to the Special Rapporteur by Big Brother Watch.


While the overall innovation agenda may point in the direction of light-touch regulation and ethics, the Special Rapporteur would argue for a strengthening of the existing legal framework and its enforcement by regulators such as the Information Commissioner’s Office. While the EU General Data Protection Regulation includes promising provisions related to automated decision- making37 and Data Protection Impact Assessments, it is worrying that the Data Protection Act 2018 creates a quite significant loophole to the GDPR for government data use and sharing in the


Before describing the ways in which the overall social safety net is being systematically dismantled, it is important to acknowledge some of the positive developments of which I was informed by the Government. The latest budget introduced several positive changes to Universal Credit, including a welcome increase in work allowances, as a consequence of which an


There are many ways in which the overall safety net has been reduced since 2010, but this section focuses specifically on the effects of the benefit freeze and cap, the reduction of legal aid, the reduced funding of local authorities, and resulting cuts in other specific services.

(i) Benefit reductions and limits

Significant reductions in the amount of and eligibility for important forms of support have undermined the capacity of benefits to loosen the grip of poverty. Capping benefit amounts to working-age households, limiting support to two children per family, reducing the Housing Benefit for under-occupied social housing, and reducing the value of a wide range of benefits, have all made it much harder for people to make ends meet.

While the Government has commendably sought to protect the pension entitlements of older people, especially by introducing in 2010 a ‘triple lock’ to ensure that annual pension levels rise

37 Although there are certainly limitations to the GDPR in that area: Edwards and Veale, ‘Slave to the Algorithm?’, 16 Duke Law & Technology Review 18 (2017).

38 Data Protection Act 2018, Section 191-194.

39 HM Treasury, “Budget 2018,” 018_red_web.pdf para 5.32.

40 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Could the Government have done more to enable people to escape poverty?,” November 1, 2018, 41 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Pensioner poverty,”

context of the Framework for Data Processing by Government.

The Dismantling of the Broader Social Safety Net


Rowntree Foundation estimates that 200,000 people will move out of poverty as a result of this

estimated 2.4 million households will be better off next year to the tune of £630.

The Joseph


on benefits combined with the effect of inflation. The government has also taken steps to prioritize important social care issues through the launch of the government’s first loneliness strategy and the appointment of a Minister for suicide prevention.

By the same token, such improvements will be partly offset by the continuing freeze

in accordance with whichever is highest among the rate of inflation, average earnings, or 2.5%.

This helped to reduce poverty among pensioners, although the recent picture is less positive.



But the triple lock contrasts dramatically with the freeze on benefit rates for working age people since 2016. Poor households typically spend a higher proportion of their income on consumer goods than wealthy households and already often struggle to put food on the table after bills are paid. Despite this, the Government froze benefit rates in 2016, thus enabling continuing inflation to systematically reduce the value of the benefits. Poor families have thus had to do more with less as the prices of goods has gone up and the value of their income has declined. Households


There have been dramatic reductions in the availability of legal aid in England and Wales since 2012 and these have overwhelmingly affected the poor and people with disabilities, many of whom cannot otherwise afford to challenge benefit denials or reductions and are thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy. The LASPO Act (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act) gutted the scope of cases that are handled, ratcheted up the level of means-tested eligibility criteria, and substituted telephonic for many previously face-to-face advice services.

(iii) Local authorities’ cuts

In 2010, the Government pledged to radically reform public services by cutting funding to local authorities in England. This has had tremendous implications for local authorities, which are obligated to balance their books and whose revenue raising powers are limited. According to the National Audit Office, local governments in England have seen a 49% real-terms reduction in Government funding from 2010-11 to 2017-18 alongside a rise in demand for key social services.

As a result, they have transferred a greater share of service costs to users who are often the least able to pay. They have cut spending on services by 19% and focused their spending on


42 Resolution Foundation, “Despite ‘the end of austerity’, April promises another deep benefit cut,” October 17, 2018, benefit-cut; Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Could the Government have done more to enable people to escape poverty?,” November 1, 2018, escape-poverty.

43 National Audit Office, Financial sustainability of local authorities 2018, 8 March 2018, p. 28.

44 Guardian, “More than 500 children’s centres have closed in England since 2010,” February 20, 2018,;

are expected to have to cope with a reduction of £4.4 billion in 2019/20 alone.

the Chancellor could have used the windfall he received from the Office for Budget Responsibility to end the benefit freeze a year earlier than planned, he instead chose to change income tax thresholds in a way that will help those better off and will do nothing to move the needle on poverty.

(ii) Legal aid

statutorily mandatory adult social care and child protection services.

council told me local governments have cut preventative, proactive services and then had to cope with a rise in crisis intervention– which can in fact be much more costly than preventative services.

More than 500 children’s centers closed between 2010 and 2018,

more than 340 libraries closed and 8,000 library jobs were lost.


and between 2010 and 2016


Anyone can rely on public

This year, when

The leader of one city


services like the library, but they are of particular significance to those living in poverty who may need to access a computer or a safe community space. I spoke with a group of young people from London who made it clear how valuable a community center is as a safe space in a crowded city where people are squeezed by an immensely challenging housing market, and where being stuck out on the street could lead to crime and gang life.

Local welfare funds, a vital resource for people on the brink of crisis, have been another casualty of austerity. Many local governments in England have closed or cut their Local Welfare Assistance Schemes, leaving vulnerable people and those facing emergencies without anywhere to turn. At least 28 authorities have shuttered their local welfare funds and councils reported


Local governments are even struggling with the basic services they are statutorily obligated to provide. Northamptonshire County Council has twice this year issued a formal notice indicating that it was at risk of unlawfully spending more than the resources it has available. As a result there are concerns that hundreds of vulnerable children are at greater risk of harm due to rapidly


proportion of destitute people who reported receiving in-kind help from local welfare funds

reducing their related expenditures by 72.5% between 2013 and 2018.

From 2015 to 2018, the

dropped sharply by 28%.

has apparently been of no concern to the government, which decentralized responsibility for the funds and does not collect any information on what has become of them.

The collapse of this resource for people who face sudden hardship


criticized the lack of ongoing, coordinated monitoring of the impact of funding cuts on local

deteriorating frontline child protection services.

authority services and raised the alarm that statutory services are at risk.

The government plans to update its funding methodology for local governments from 2020-21, and in December 2017 it launched a formal consultation on the matter — the Fair Funding Review. Many people with whom I spoke from local and central government expressed concern that this review could lead to even more negative policies affecting people living in poverty.

(iv) Cuts in other services

As I toured the country, I was told time and again about important public services being pared down, the loss of institutions that would have previously protected vulnerable people, social care

Parliament, “Children’s Centres: Closures, answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2018-01-17/123506.

45 BBC, “Libraries lose a quarter of staff as hundreds close,” March 29, 2016, england-35707956.

46 The Government abolished its Social Fund in 2013 and, within England, decentralized responsibility to local authorities to set up local welfare assistance schemes. Church Action on Poverty and End Hunger UK, “Compassion in Crisis: how do people in poverty stay afloat in times of emergency?,” October 2018, p. 4.

47 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Destitution in the UK 2018,” p. 9.

48 Guardian, “Task force to be sent to protect vulnerable children in Northamptonshire,” November 13, 2018, northamptonshire-council.

49 National Audit Office, Financial sustainability of local authorities 2018, 8 March 2018, pp. 10-11.

In March 2018 the National Audit Office 49


services that are at a breaking point, and local government and devolved administrations stretched far too thin.

Cuts are being made without either measuring or accounting for their broader impact, such as increasing the need for crisis support and mental health services. People are being pushed toward much more expensive services that can’t turn them away, like accident and emergency rooms. Other parts of the government are now starting to feel the excessive resulting burden. And cuts that pare back the government’s ability to tackle poverty don’t even make economic sense. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that poverty is costing the UK £78 billion per year in measures to reduce or alleviate poverty—not counting the cost of benefits. £1 in every £5 spent


The voluntary sector has done an admirable job of picking up the slack for those government functions that have been cut or de facto outsourced. One pastor told me that because the government has cut services to the bone, his church is providing meals paid for by church members. But that work is not an adequate substitute for the government’s obligations. Food banks cannot step in to do the government’s job, and teachers—who very well may be relying on food banks themselves—shouldn’t be responsible for ensuring their students have clean clothes and food to eat.

By emphasizing work as a panacea for poverty against all evidence and dismantling the community support, benefits, and public services on which so many rely, the government has created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences. As one city council leader told us, “If there is another recession, our capacity to react to it has been completely cut.” Government officials dismissed such concerns and claimed that Universal Credit would work equally well when a future recession brings high levels of unemployment.

Measuring and Monitoring Poverty

It became clear from my many meetings and encounters in the UK that people want to work, and are taking hard, low paying, and insecure jobs in order to put food on the table. They want to contribute to their society and communities, support their families, live in safe, affordable housing, and take control over their lives. A just and compassionate UK can ensure these people are able to escape the restrictions of poverty. But a social safety net is not just for people already in poverty. It is equally important for a very large number of people whose margin of error is small and for whom a single crisis can lead to disaster. Many of the people I heard from ended up struggling to overcome financial hardship because of a surprise health condition, a divorce, or a child’s disability. More and more working people are trapped in poverty by a rising tide of low pay, debt, and high living costs, and a majority of the UK population will use some form of

on public services is making up for the way that poverty has damaged people’s lives.


stake in the welfare system functioning effectively.

benefits over an 18-year period.

In other words, a majority of the British people have a personal

To address poverty systematically and effectively it is essential to know its extent and character. Yet the United Kingdom does not have an official measure of poverty. It produces four different

50 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Counting the cost of UK Poverty,” August 1, 2016,

51 Institute for Fiscal Studies, “Who benefits from benefits?,” March 1, 2018,


measures of people who live on “below average income.”52 This allows it to pick and choose which numbers to use and to claim that “absolute poverty” is falling. Seen in context, however, other measures show that progress in reducing poverty has flat lined, child poverty is rising, and poverty is projected to rise in the coming years. The bipartisan Social Metrics Commission’s New Poverty Measure represents an attempt to create a single comprehensive measure of poverty, and these are the numbers I reference here unless otherwise noted. I would urge the Government to respond to the Commission and adopt its approach, which has received an impressive degree of cross-party support.

The government told me that there are 3.3 million more people in work than in 2010, that so called “absolute poverty” is falling, and that the social support system is working. An elected official added that there is no extreme poverty in the UK and nothing like the levels of destitution seen in other countries. But there is a striking and almost complete disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from many people directly, across the country.

People I spoke with told me they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children. One person said, “I would rather feed my kids than pay my rent, but that could get us all kicked out.” Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry. Many families are living paycheck to paycheck. And 2.5 million people in the UK survive with incomes no more than 10% above the poverty line. They are thus just one crisis away from of falling into poverty through no fault of


In Jaywick, Erin described how she and her husband used to work full time and had a savings account, but one crisis changed her life. “I needed full time care, and my husband had to leave his job,” she said. “Suddenly we were living on disability. Then our landlord gave us eight weeks to vacate the apartment. We discovered that no one will let you view a house when you’re on disability benefits…. I do not know where I’ll be putting my child to bed soon. Should he be made homeless?”

Cuts to social support, preventative services, and local councils mean that when people need help, there are fewer resources to support them, causing them to rely on charities and crisis services. One front line worker told me that they are referring people to food banks because “people have exhausted the possibility of borrowing from their families and friends, defaulted on their loans, and have nowhere else to go.”

I also heard story after story from people who considered and even attempted suicide, and spoke with multiple organizations that have instituted suicide prevention training for frontline staff in recent years. One person said, “The cumulative impact of successive cuts has been devastating.

52 Department for Work and Pensions, “Households below average income: 1994/95 to 2016/17,” March 22, 2018,

53 Social Metrics Commission, “A new measure of poverty for the UK,” September 2018,, p. 7.

their own.


People are coming to me because they are suicidal, they have turned to sex work, they can’t live with themselves.”

These aren’t just anecdotes. They are reflected in the numbers. In England, homelessness is up


Employment as the Cure-All for Poverty

The government says work is the solution to poverty and points to record employment rates as evidence that the country is going in the right direction. But being in employment does not magically overcome poverty. In-work poverty is increasingly common and almost 60% of those


waiting list, but less than 6,000 homes were built last year.

60% since 2010, rough sleeping is up 134%.

There are 1.2 million people on the social housing



and there are now about 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the

fold since 2012,

height of the financial crisis.

Minister dismissed the significance of foodbank use as being only occasional and noted that foodbanks exist in many other western countries. The clear implication was that their rapid growth in the UK should not be seen as cause for concern, let alone for government action.

Food bank use is up almost four-

Not only does the government not measure food poverty, but a

in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works.


Low wages, insecure jobs, and zero hour contracts mean that even at record unemployment there are still 14 million people in poverty. Government Ministers emphasized that only 3% of the workforce on zero hours contracts, with no benefits or security. But that amounts to almost one million workers, and a great many of them will be among the most vulnerable members of society. And the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found that 10% of workers over 16


54 National Audit Office, “Homelessness,” September 13, 2017, content/uploads/2017/09/Homelessness.pdf p. 14.

55 Shelter, “Building more affordable homes,” October 2018, _Building_more_affordable_homes_.pdf.

56 The Trussell Trust, “End of Year Stats,” 2018, stats/.

57 Centre for Welfare Reform, “Extreme Poverty in a Time of Austerity,” pp. 11- 12.

58 Social Metrics Commission, “A new measure of poverty for the UK,” September 2018,, p. 86.

59 Id.

60 Child Poverty Action Group, “The Cost of a Child in 2018,” August 2018, p.16.

61 Equality and Human Rights Commission, “Is Britain Fairer? The state of equality and human rights 2018,” 2018, pp. 38, 46, 52.

in poverty in families where all adults work full time.

time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child. One person told me “I know people who are working five jobs to make the national minimum wage, which isn’t a living wage.”

are in insecure employment.

The Trussell Trust told me that one in six people referred to their food banks is in work. One pastor said “The majority of people using our food bank are in work…. Nurses and teachers are accessing food banks.”


Families with two parents working full

There are 2.8 million people living

Jobs aren’t even a guarantee against people needing food banks.



The Hardest Hit

The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities. The changes to taxes and benefits since 2010 have been highly regressive, and the policies have taken the highest toll on those least able to bear it. The government says everyone’s hard work has paid off, but according to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, while the bottom 20% of earners will have lost on average 10% of their income by 2021/22 as a result of these changes, top earners have actually come out ahead. According to 2017 research by the Runnymede Trust and Women’s Budget Group, as a result of changes to taxes, benefits, and public spending from 2010 through 2020, Black and Asian households in the lowest fifth of incomes will experience largest average


Women are particularly affected by poverty. Reductions in social care services translate to an increased burden on primary caregivers who are disproportionately women. Under Universal Credit, single payments to an entire household may entrench problematic and often gendered dynamics within a couple, including by giving control of the payments to a financially or


Many of the recent changes to social support in the UK have a disparate impact on children, including the deeply problematic two child policy, the outrageous rape exception, and the benefits cap. The Equality and Human Rights Commission forecasts that another 1.5 million more children will fall into poverty between 2010 and 2021/22 as a result of the changes to benefits and taxes, a 10% increase from 31% to 41%.66 Sanctions against parents can have unintended consequences on their children. According to the Social Metrics Commission, almost

drop in living standards, about 20%.

(i) Women

physically abusive partner.

affect women, who make up about 90% of single parents,

thirds of Universal Credit recipients who had their benefits capped were single parents. pensioners are also driving the uptick in pensioner poverty, and are significantly more likely to be women.

(ii) Children

Changes to the support for single parents also disproportionately


again, and expected to continue increasing sharply in the coming years.

a third of children in the UK live in poverty.

62Runnymede Trust, “Intersecting inequalities: The impact of austerity on Black and Minority Ethnic women in the UK,”

63 House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, “Universal Credit and domestic abuse,” July 18, 2018,

64 Gingerbread, “Single parent statistics,” September 2018, campaigns/publications-index/statistics/.

65Department for Work and Pensions, “Benefit Cap,” November 1, 2018, cap-statistics-august-2018.pdf p. 9.

66 Equality and Human Rights Commission,” The Cumulative Impact of Tax and Welfare Reforms,” March 2018,

67 Social Metrics Commission, “A new measure of poverty for the UK,” September 2018,, p. 111.

68 Institute for Fiscal Studies, “Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2017-18 to 2021-22,” November 2, 2017, p. 15.


and as of August of this year, two-

After years of progress, child poverty is rising


According to Child




Poverty Action Group, the child benefit

wages have a direct effect on children, with families where two adults earn the minimum wage

will have lost 23% of its real value between 2010 and

2020, due to sub-inflationary uprating and the current freeze.


and taxes, the Equality and Human Rights Commission projects the poverty rate for children in

still falling short of the adequate income needed to raise a child. single parent households to jump to a shocking 62% by 2021/22.

Because of changes to benefits 70

(iii) People with disabilities

Nearly half of those in poverty, 6.9 million people, are from families in which someone has a


30% of their annual net income.

assessments that were superficial and dismissive, and that led to findings that contradicted the advice of their doctor.

(iv) Pensioners

Despite the protections offered by the triple lock, pensioner poverty has begun to rise after decades of decline. Between 2012/13 and 2016/17, the number of pensioners living in poverty


(v) Asylum seekers and migrants

Destitution is built into the asylum system. Asylum seekers are banned from working and limited to a derisory level of support that guarantees they will live in poverty. The government promotes work as the solution to poverty, yet refuses to allow this particular group to work. While asylum seekers receive some basic supports such as housing, they are left to make do with an inadequate,



unemployed, in insecure employment, or economically inactive.

the hardest hit from austerity measures. As a result of changes to benefits and taxes since 2010, some families with disabilities are projected to lose £11,000 on average by 2021/22, more than


People with disabilities are more likely to be in poverty, and are more likely to be

rose by 300,000.

personal testimony, a group of women born in the 1950s have been particularly impacted by an abrupt and poorly phased in change in the state pension age from 60 to 66. The impact of the changes to pensionable age is such as to severely penalize those who happen to be on the cusp of retirement and who had well-founded expectations of entering the next phase of their lives,

rather than being plunged back into a workforce for which many of them were ill-prepared and to which they could not reasonably have been expected to adjust with no notice.

As was made clear to me in a number of submissions and through powerful

poverty-level income of around £5 a day.

For those who have no recourse to public funds as a

And low paid jobs and stagnant


They have also been some of

People with disabilities told me again and again about benefits

69 Child Poverty Action Group, The Cost of a Child in 2018,” August 2018, p. 16.

70 Equality and Human Rights Commission,” The Cumulative Impact of Tax and Welfare Reforms,” March 2018, pp. 19, 25, 82, 153, 165.

71 Social Metrics Commission, “A new measure of poverty for the UK,” September 2018,, p. 84.

72 Equality and Human Rights Commission, “Is Britain Fairer? The state of equality and human rights 2018,” 2018, pp. 38, 46, 52.

73 Equality and Human Rights Commission,” The Cumulative Impact of Tax and Welfare Reforms,” March 2018,

74 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “UK Poverty 2017: Country reaches turning point after rises in child and pensioner poverty, December 4, 2017,

75 Lift the Ban, “About,”


result of their immigration status, the situation can be particularly difficult; such individuals face an increased risk of exploitation and enjoy restricted access to educational opportunities.

(vi) Rural poverty

Despite the idyllic traditional image of the English countryside, poverty in rural areas is particularly harsh. Rural dwellers are particularly impacted by cuts to transportation and public services, are at a higher risk of loneliness and isolation, and often face higher fuel costs.

An organization working on rural poverty that I met with in Bristol told me, “If you’re poor in the countryside it’s twice as bad, because you don’t have access to services. People can’t afford the bus and the bus doesn’t go where you need it to anyways.” Without adequate access to transportation, people can’t get to work even when they are able to get a job. One person told me that it was easier for her to go to find a job by going to another city and staying with friends there than it would have been to find a job at home without public transportation.

And with the government’s new dependence on digital-by-default benefits applications, lack of broadband internet or access to libraries are particularly painful. Government officials assured me that anyone can walk off the street and get support to make an online claim for benefits, but that’s simply not the case for people living outside major cities.

Devolved Administrations

Devolved administrations have tried to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity, despite experiencing significant reductions in block grant funding and constitutional limits on their ability to raise revenue. Scotland and Northern Ireland each report spending about £125 million per year to protect people from the worst impacts of austerity. And unlike England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have continued to provide access to welfare funds for emergency hardships.

But mitigation comes at a price and is not sustainable. The Scottish government has urged the UK to put an end to the benefit freeze and the two child limit on certain benefits, and told me that they have reached the limit of what they can afford to mitigate, because every pound spent on off-setting cuts means taking away from other vital services. Northern Ireland’s mitigation package runs out in 2020, leaving vulnerable people facing a “cliff edge scenario.” But more broadly, it is outrageous that devolved administrations need to spend resources to shield people from government policies.


Scotland, despite having the lowest poverty rates in the United Kingdom,

77 78 expectancy and the highest suicide rate in Great Britain.

76 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Poverty levels and trends in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland,”

77 Office of National Statistics, “National life tables, UK: 2015 to 2017,” September 25, 2018, allifetablesunitedkingdom/2015to2017.

78 Office of National Statistics, “Suicides in the UK: 2017 registrations,” September 4, 2018, tedkingdom/2017registrations. However, as the Scottish Government has explained, comparisons of suicide rates are


I met with children in Glasgow’s

has the lowest life


North East, where, according to one local councillor, 48% of people are out of work, life expectancy is six years lower than the national average, about half of families are single-parent households, and about a third of households lack an internet connection.

However, Scotland has recently put in place schemes for addressing poverty, including its Fairer Scotland Action Plan and Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan. It has also used newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system guid

It is too soon to say if these ambitious steps—and Scotland’s new powers of taxation—will make a difference for poverty, health outcomes, and life expectancy in Scotland. However, it is clear to me that there is still a real accountability gap which should be addressed. The absence of a legal remedy or a more robust reference to international standards in the Social Security (Scotland) Act is significant and should be addressed. I will be following closely the forthcoming recommendations from the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights.

Civil society groups also raised concerns about a general lack of awareness of local welfare

funds for people in crisis and the considerable variation in how local authorities process

applications for these emergency grants; in Glasgow only 3% of local welfare fund applications

were decided in a day, whereas other councils managed to decide these claims within a day 99%



Wales faces the highest relative poverty rate in the United Kingdom, with almost one in four

ed by the principles of dignity and

social security as a human right, and co-designed on the basis of evidence. The system eschews

sanctions entirely and, in contrast to Universal Credit, is decidedly not digital by default. Rather,

the stated goal it to make benefits equally accessible however people want to access them.

of the time.


not proven to be an automatic route out of poverty in Wales. In-work poverty has grown over the

people living in relative income poverty.

last decade, despite considerable improvement in the employment rate.


Twenty-five percent of

jobs pay below the minimum wage,


and low-paid, part-time or insecure jobs are often

Like the rest of the United Kingdom, employment has

disproportionately taken up by women, due to difficulties in balancing work and caring


difficult because different countries, even within the UK, use different definitions and methodologies to define and measure suicide.

79 The Scottish Welfare Fund: Evidence from A Menu for Change, content/uploads/2018/10/A-Menu-for-Change-Scottish-Welfare-Fund-Briefing-.pdf

80 Welsh Government, “Poverty statistics,” income/?lang=en.

81 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Poverty in Wales 2018,” March 2018, wales-2018 p. 13.

82 IHS Markit, “Living Wage Research for KPMG,”

83 Oxfam Cymru, “Decent Work in Wales,” September 2018,” content/uploads/2018/08/201708-FINAL-Oxfam-Decent-Work-Qualitative-Research-Report.pdf; Oxfam Cymru, “New research highlights drastic need for decent work for women in Wales,” 26 September 2018,



Faced with these challenges, the Welsh Government has determinedly shifted its focus to increasing economic prosperity and employment as the gateway to poverty reduction. A poverty- specific action plan and the post of the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty were scrapped in 2017, in favour of adopting a “whole Government” approach to poverty reduction. The new Prosperity for All Strategy, however, has removed the strategic focus on and the Ministerial responsibility for poverty reduction, and lacks clear performance targets and indicators to measure progress and impact.

In the absence of devolved power over social security benefits, the Welsh Government’s capacity to directly mitigate the reduction in benefits is limited, thereby shifting the burden to low-income households. There is a wide consensus among stakeholders that the benefit changes are one of the structural causes behind the increase in poverty, rough sleeping, and homelessness in



Parliamentarians and civil society voiced serious concerns that Universal Credit may


exacerbate the problem, particularly in light of the Welsh Government’s inability to introduce flexibilities in its administration, unlike its Scottish counterpart.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the lack of a government forecloses the possibility of any major efforts to tackle poverty and results in an accountability vacuum. Like Scotland, Northern Ireland has taken steps to mitigate some of the worst effects of austerity measures, and is taking a different and seemingly more humane approach to certain aspects of Universal Credit. But a £500 million mitigation package is set to run out in 2020, and its expiration could have dire consequences for people living in poverty. According to the government, rates of long term unemployment are more than twice those of the UK as a whole.

In Belfast, I was struck by the extent to which communities in the city are still segregated by

physical barriers and I was concerned to learn about persistent inequalities along religious lines.

A startling 69% of those long-term unemployed are Catholic, compared with 31% Protestant as


of 2016.

housing in predominantly Catholic areas,

that Catholics experience longest wait times for social housing among all religious groups.

People in Belfast told me that the government was not building sufficient social


The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have

84 Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, National Assembly for Wales, “Life on the streets: Preventing and tackling rough sleeping in Wales,” April 2018), paras. 106-107, 119.

85 The Executive Office, “Labour Force Survey Religion report 2016,” January 31, 2018,

86 Participation and Practice of Rights, “Build Homes Now! briefing for UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston,” November 2018,

87 Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, “Statement on Key Inequalities in Housing and Communities in Northern Ireland,” April 2017, KeyInequalitiesStatement.pdf.

and Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission found 87


transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.

It was a British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who memorably claimed that without a social

contract, life outside society would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The risk is that

if current policies do not change, this is the direction in which low-income earners and the poor

are headed. Loneliness rates have soared in recent years and life expectancy rates have stalled in

the United Kingdom, with the latest statistics showing a sharp drop in the annual improvement

that has been experienced every year since the records began, and an actual drop for certain


The compassion and mutual concern that has long been part of the British tradition has been outsourced. At the same time many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centers, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined. In its fiscal analyses, the Treasury and the Government constantly repeat the refrain that fiscal policy must “avoid burdening the next generation.” The message is that the debt burden must be paid off now. The problem is that the next generation’s prospects are already being grievously undermined by the systematic dismantling of social protection policies since 2010.

The negotiations surrounding Brexit present an opportunity to take stock of the current situation and reimagine what this country should represent and how it protects its people. The legislative recognition of social rights should be a central part of that reimagining. And social inclusion, rather than increasing marginalization of the working poor and those unable to work, should be the guiding principle of social policy.

The UK should introduce a single measure of poverty and measure food security.

The government should initiate an expert assessment of the cumulative impact of tax and spending decisions since 2010 and prioritize the reversal of particularly regressive measures, including the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and the reduction of the housing benefit for under-occupied social rented housing.

It should ensure local governments have the funds needed to tackle poverty at the community level, and take varying needs and tax bases into account in the ongoing Fair Funding Review.

The Department of Work and Pensions should conduct an independent review of the effectiveness of reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions introduced since 2012, and should immediately instruct its staff to explore more constructive and less punitive approaches to encouraging compliance.

The five week delay in receiving benefits under Universal Credit should be eliminated, separate payments should be made to different household members, and weekly or fortnightly payments should be facilitated.

88 Office for National Statistics, “National life tables, UK: 2015 to 2017,” September 25, 2018.



Transport, especially in rural areas, should be considered an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity, and the government should regulate the sector to the extent necessary to ensure that people living in rural areas are adequately served. Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.

As the country moves toward Brexit, the Government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens.


The different ‘types’ of poverty: is there a problem with how we currently talk about poverty?

Stephen Crossley, Kayleigh Garthwaite, and Ruth Patrick argue that the different ‘types’ of poverty that have emerged in recent years may have the effect of diverting attention away from structural and systemic issues that need to be addressed. They introduce a new project which aims to encourage more critical discussion about the implications of this increased fragmentation of poverty.

In the not so distant past, there appeared to be a remarkable consensus around the need to tackle relative poverty in the UK. Whilst Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron said in 2006 that he wanted the ‘message to go out loud and clear, the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty’. The Child Poverty Act, which received Royal Assent in 2010, progressed through Parliament with cross-party support, and included a ’headline’ measure of ‘relative child poverty’. The cross-party concern about relative poverty was, however, short-lived, and superficial, at best.

In 2010, the newly formed Coalition government embarked upon a programme of austerity which relied heavily upon the ‘ideological re-working’ of austerity. The Coalition promised ‘life-changing policies that will help families to lift themselves out of poverty’, which drew heavily on the ‘pathways to poverty’ approach advocated by the ‘independent’ think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, established by the former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith. The ‘new approach’ was supported by a consultation in 2012 to find ‘better measures’ of child poverty which would weaken and potentially side-line the income-based indicators in Child Poverty Act. The Work and Welfare Reform Act 2016 saw large swathes of the Child Poverty Act rescinded, with the targets for ‘eradicating’ child poverty effectively abolished. The name of the Act was even retrospectively changed to the Life Chances Act. Whilst child poverty statistics would continue to be collected and published by the government, there was no longer an obligation to report them to Parliament.

Nevertheless, debates about poverty have increased in recent years. Period poverty, clothing poverty, food poverty, bed poverty, pet poverty, and funeral poverty (amongst other poverty ‘types’) are terms that are becoming increasingly normalised. Campaigns to encourage us to donate food and sanitary products for those unable to afford them are present in the majority of supermarkets, in workplaces, universities, and even at football grounds. A growing focus on the emergence and problem of different ‘poverties’ by media and campaigning organisations has occurred at the same time as the UK government has attempted to marginalise discussions of poverty, particularly child poverty, and as austerity continues to elicit ‘mean spirited’ and ‘punitive’ policies.

Raising awareness of people going without basic essentials such as sanitary products (and subsequent efforts provide these to those who need them) can assist people living in poverty temporarily, but ultimately, it is likely people will continue to face the chronic and multiple realities of poverty in the longer term because the underlying causes remain unaddressed. As charitable, fragmentary provision increases across diverse poverty types, there is a parallel risk that this leads to a retreat from recognising the necessity of providing money to alleviate poverty.  Where services and goods replace income transfers, there is the inevitable linked danger that individuals experiencing poverty have reduced scope to choose how to spend their limited income.

Our intention is not to discredit the work that is being done to address these issues; after all, there is a real and growing need for the support being offered through charitable provision. However, a focus on the symptoms of poverty may not only conceal wider issues of inequality and injustice, but can also contribute to and reinforce hierarchies of deservingness and entrench the stigma of poverty. It is well documented, for example, that visiting a food bank is a source of stigma and shame, while the conditions of entitlement attached to these (and other) forms of emergency support can create further layers of conditionality with which people must comply, and which then sit alongside state-imposed welfare conditionality.

In our working paper, we argue for a revived focus on poverty as a lack of resources, rather than focusing on a lack of specific items, such as food, clothes, a suitable bed, or sanitary products. This is particularly relevant at a time when governments are proposing a ‘new approach’ to tackling child poverty, and when think-tanks and campaigners are urging us to ‘rethink poverty’ and arguing it is time to ‘tell a new story’ about poverty in the UK – one which involves ‘toning down the politics’ – or using a ‘new poverty measure’ as outlined by the Social Metrics Commission.

We would like to encourage more critical discussion about the implications of the increased fragmentation of poverty, as part of a wider exploration of policymakers, and stakeholders talk about poverty – is there a right or wrong way to do this? Who decides what’s right or wrong? Should we all be singing from the same hymn sheet, or is it critical reflection that we need? These questions would all merit further discussion, and we hope our working paper (and linked project) will help promote and enable debates about the changing ways we problematise and address poverty in the UK. This has undergone rapid, and in some ways unprecedented change in the UK context and the consequences of this needs to be more fully understood.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ working paper available here.

More information about the linked project is also available here.

About the Author

Stephen Crossley is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing at Northumbria University.



Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Birmingham Fellow in the Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology at the University of Birmingham.



Ruth Patrick is Lecturer in Social Policy & Social Work at the University of York.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

Empty Bills: The Queen’s Speech was an odd contribution to solving the UK’s problems

Artemis Photiadou and Alice Park draw on various strands of research to argue that unless a Conservative manifesto is more radical and relevant than this Queen’s Speech, then a future Johnson government will fail to address fundamental issues, many of which have been caused by other Conservative policies.

Though the likelihood remains the Queen’s Speech will be voted down in the House of Commons – a course which may be avoided if the DUP and the 23 former Conservatives vote with the government – most of its content has already been written off as empty because of the government’s non-majority, while the opposition has dismissed the whole event as an attempt to misdirect attention. Nevertheless, the Conservatives continue to appeal to a large proportion of the electorate, they continue to top the polls, and may win an election in the near future. For this reason, the Queen’s Speech has been largely seen as the basis of a future Conservative manifesto.


The legislative agenda of this parliament will, as with the last one, be dominated by one subject: Brexit. Indeed, most other promises are contingent on how Brexit is delivered.

A number of significant bills that did not complete their passage through parliament before the end of the 2017–19 session will need to be re-introduced. As part of the legislative preparations for departure, a new Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill has been on the parliamentary agenda since 2017, and Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel have consistently emphasised their determination to end freedom of movement and reform the immigration system.

The proposals include an end to freedom of movement, and introduction of a long-touted ‘points-based’ immigration scheme for EU and non-EU citizens alike after the transition period in 2021. As Heather Rolfe explains, this government has indicated a move away from Cameron and May’s ‘numbers game’ approach, and focuses instead on an immigration agenda based on encouraging only high-skilled migration. While the details remain vague, such a system often polls favourably with the public, who, according to focus groups, interpret it as a system that would ensure controls were enforced. However, the focus on high skills is generally of less concern. Both the public, and in particular employers, consider that it is not so much skills, but a system that responds to labour shortages that is key. Especially in sectors such as hospitality, construction, agriculture, and social care, reliance on migrant workers is not because Britons lack the training but because there are not enough of them. The absence of any detail in the Queen’s Speech, combined with the fact that a points-based system contradicts Johnson’s vision for an outward-looking post-Brexit UK, mean the policy remains symbolic, useful for confirming the government’s opposition to free movement.

Furthermore, ending freedom of movement  will have other consequences for overall migration flows, as Jonathan Thomas outlined, drawing from past policy interventions. Paradoxically, the end of freedom of movement for EU citizens, and the effect of the settled status scheme, could lead to a rise in irregular migration patterns, with knock-on effects for enforcement and public attitudes – far from the control that is sought and promised.

The NHS 

Healthcare remains a top public concern. Yet the main feature of the NHS section of the Speech is that it promises more money, with little else beyond that. This is a problem for the simple reason that it is unclear how and where NHS money is currently going. According to CHPI research, whereas officially NHS England spends about 7% of its total expenditure purchasing healthcare from the independent sector, new calculations put the figure closer to 26%. In short, with a flawed understanding of spending, any attempt to increase resources without controlling expenditure will be in vain.

Second, there appears to be no intention to hasten the growing trend towards privatisation, for example through strengthening the rules governing financial incentives in the sector. As the system currently stands, NHS consultants can – and often do – own shares and equipment in private hospitals. The result is the creation of an incentive towards private referrals and possibly over-treatment – given they receive fees whenever equipment they own is used – a prospect which is particularly problematic when seen together with the lack of transparency on NHS spending.

Similar problems exist with adult social care pledges. While the government plans to provide more funds to councils, they do not complement this with efforts to stabilise the care home market through regulation: even with more money made available, a number of care homes will continue being run by hedge funds and private equity investors. The extraction of rent and profit will therefore continue being the market’s top aim, and scandals like Four Seasons are almost destined to be repeated.

Mental health is similarly covered in broad terms, promising that ‘patient choice and autonomy will be improved’. One way of reading this tallies with pre-existing self-care approaches, part of a Conservative tendency towards behaviour change and short-term self-action, rather than medical intervention, despite evidence that the former is ineffective. A more effective way of beginning to tackle problems in mental health would be the reversal of what appears to be the strategic downgrading of jobs and working conditions, with many employees on short-term NHS contracts.

In light of fundamental issues remaining unaddressed, it is questionable how successful the smaller proposals – on laws to establish a health service safety investigations body and to make it simpler for NHS to manufacture and trial new medicines – could hope to be.


While the NHS is afforded two bills, crime, which is a lesser public concern, has seven. The government’s focus on this increasingly seems to be, as Thomas Guiney explained, an attempt to disassociate ‘the Conservative brand from its cornerstone’ austerity policies, ‘while maintaining a reputation for fiscal prudence’. Yet here again the austerity of the past decade is what goes to the root of the problem, not insufficient sentencing regimes. With poorer men between 17–34 being most likely to be both victims and perpetrators of serious violent crime, research suggests that the economic changes that ‘gradually rendered considerable numbers of the British working class economically obsolete’ have contributed to this state of affairs, together of course with cuts to policing. Without addressing the causal factors, the government’s new policies, such as the Foreign National Offenders Bill, combining this attempt to appear tough with an overt aversion to immigrants, are unlikely to tackle crime.

Fairness and protection for individuals and families

There is also an attempt to tackle domestic abuse, with the Domestic Abuse Bill being reintroduced, as had been agreed prior to the unlawful prorogation. This is generally perceived as a positive step towards tackling domestic abuse, not least because it defines it. But, as experts have warned, the government’s own policies in other areas actually facilitate some of the kinds of abuse that the bill seeks to prevent. Concerns pertain particularly to economic abuse, including cases where victims cannot afford to leave their abusive partner. Marilyn Hayward has pointed out how these situations become almost inevitable due to the way Universal Credit works, since couples can only nominate one bank account for the household benefit to be paid into. As it stands, therefore, the government gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

Such cases clearly illustrate how intertwined issues of abuse, gender, class, and austerity are, with the above bill and the rest of the Queen’s Speech showing little intention to address the last three. On a similar point, despite the promise to bring much-needed oversight over pensions savings and ‘tackle irresponsible management of private pension schemes’, there will be no redress for the women who suffered from the change in the state pension age – of which they were unaware. Here again the persisting gender and class inequalities are evident: around 80% of women with low levels of education knew about the change compared to 92% of women with high levels of education; ‘those out of the labour market, ethnic minorities, and unmarried women were also less likely to be aware’.

Other legislative measures

One eye-catching, and largely unexpected new bill (until leaks appeared over the weekend), is a new electoral integrity bill. Its main proposal is to introduce a photographic ID requirement for all voters at polling stations for UK parliamentary elections in Great Britain (it is already required for Northern Ireland voters, where you can obtain a free ID card) and for English local elections. This follows on from voter ID trials that have taken place in several areas during the 2018 and 2019 English council elections, part of  a package of reforms Sir Eric Pickles proposed in a 2016 report on electoral integrity.

However, the number of reported cases of electoral fraud from personation at the polling station are exceedingly low in the UK – just one case was prosecuted in 2017 –  and the available evidence suggests it is rare: the trials in 2018 and 2019 suggests the percentage of voters turned away, who did not subsequently return, was very low. Yet the effect for general elections is not necessarily the same as for lower-turnout local elections. The Electoral Commission has noted that as many as 3.5 million voters may not have photo ID, with ownership differing between socioeconomic groups, with citizens from ethnic minorities in particular potentially disadvantaged. So, there are considerable concerns that the negative impact of voter ID laws on restricting access to voting by those without ID outweigh any potential impact on countering electoral fraud, or improving trust in the system.

Another question is whether, given the low numbers of cases of voter personation, this is the right legislative priority for improving elections – and whether further piecemeal reform like this is the right approach at all. Earlier this year, the Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee asked for evidence on reforming Electoral Law, noting that many rules dated back to the nineteenth century, and had been updated piecemeal, creating a fragmented and confusing set of laws. Proposals from the Law Commission in 2016 for systematic review and simplification had not been acted on. Much of the academic evidence the committee received reiterated this view that consolidation and simplification of fragmented law, particularly in the context of devolution, was a priority over voter ID, which would introduce further complexity. Comprehensive reform aimed at simplifying electoral law, tackling changes to electoral campaigns in the digital era, and improving the system of voter registration, were seen as more important.

Suggested measures that would improve voting in the UK, and be a better use of resources according to Toby James and Alistair Clark, include a single national electoral website. Unnecessary complication with electoral registration, and a lack of resources, were contributing factors to many EU citizens being unable to vote in 2019’s European Parliament elections. The legislation proposed in this Queen’s Speech includes other changes, including tightening the rules on postal vote collection, and requiring re-registration for postal votes every three years, improved access at polling stations for voters with disabilities, and introducing digital imprints for online campaign material. However, the disproportionate focus on voter ID overall could add another layer of administrative complication for little benefit, and distract from more important, systematic reform, as highlighted by the Law Commission and others since.

The environment

What may be seen as both a popular and positive inclusion is the three pages devoted to an Environment Bill, setting binding targets for reducing pollution, with the topic recently having reached its highest level of public concern on record. But the caveat that runs through the Queen’s Speech remains: even if it passes, and even if the bill itself passes, it is unlikely that this government will be in place long enough to be tested on it.

Empty bills

Put together, and examined against policy research in the relevant areas, the government’s intentions seem set to deal with peripheral issues. What is more, non-issues such as voter ID could be turned into real ones. A future Johnson government will need a more attractive and radical manifesto than this Queen’s Speech, if it is to meaningfully start solving the UK’s problems.


About the Authors

Artemis Photiadou is the Managing Editor of LSE British Politics and Policy and teaches in the LSE’s International History Department.

Alice Park is the Commissioning Editor the LSE British Politics and Policy blog and the Managing Editor of Democratic Audit.


Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions

The Guardian today reveals the 20 fossil fuel companies whose relentless exploitation of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves can be directly linked to more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era.

New data from world-renowned researchers reveals how this cohort of state-owned and multinational firms are driving the climate emergency that threatens the future of humanity, and details how they have continued to expand their operations despite being aware of the industry’s devastating impact on the planet.

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The analysis, by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in the US, the world’s leading authority on big oil’s role in the escalating climate emergency, evaluates what the global corporations have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions these fossil fuels are responsible for since 1965 – the point at which experts say the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by both industry leaders and politicians.

The top 20 companies on the list have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide, totalling 480bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) since 1965.

What is the polluters project

The Guardian has collaborated with leading scientists and NGOs to expose, with exclusive data, investigations and analysis, the fossil fuel companies that are perpetuating the climate crisis – some of which have accelerated their extraction of coal, oil and gas even as the devastating impact on the planet and humanity was becoming clear.

The investigation has involved more than 20 Guardian journalists working across the world for the past six months.

The project focuses on what the companies have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions they are responsible for, since 1965. The analysis, undertaken by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute, calculates how much carbon is emitted throughout the supply chain, from extraction to use by consumers. Heede said: “The fact that consumers combust the fuels to carbon dioxide, water, heat and pollutants does not absolve the fossil fuel companies from responsibility for knowingly perpetuating the carbon era and accelerating the climate crisis toward the existential threat it has now become.”

One aim of the project is to move the focus of debate from individual responsibilities to power structures – so our reporters also examined the financial and lobbying structures that let fossil fuel firms keep growing, and discovered which elected politicians were voting for change. 

Another aim of the project is to press governments and corporations to close the gap between ambitious long-term promises and lacklustre short-term action. The UN says the coming decade is crucial if the world is to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of global heating. Reining in our dependence on fossil fuels and dramatically accelerating the transition to renewable energy has never been more urgent.

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Those identified range from investor-owned firms – household names such as Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell – to state-owned companies including Saudi Aramco and Gazprom.

Chevron topped the list of the eight investor-owned corporations, followed closely by Exxon, BP and Shell. Together these four global businesses are behind more than 10% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965.

Why we need political action to tackle the oil, coal and gas companies – video explainer

Twelve of the top 20 companies are state-owned and together their extractions are responsible for 20% of total emissions in the same period. The leading state-owned polluter is Saudi Aramco, which has produced 4.38% of the global total on its own.

Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, said the findings shone a light on the role of fossil fuel companies and called on politicians at the forthcoming climate talks in Chile in December to take urgent measures to rein in their activities.

The top 20 companies have contributed to 480bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent since 1965

Saudi Aramco.State owned

Chevron 43.35

Gazprom 43.23. State owned

ExxonMobil 41.90

National Iranian Oil Co 35.66 State owned

BP 34.02

Royal Dutch Shell 31.95

Coal India 23.12 State

Pemex 22.65 State

Petróleos de Venezuela 15.75 State

PetroChina 15.63 State

Peabody Energy 15.39

ConocoPhillips 15.23

Abu Dhabi National Oil Co 13.84 State

Kuwait Petroleum Corp 13.48 State

Iraq National Oil Co 12.60 State

Total SA 12.35

Sonatrach 12.30 State

BHP Billiton 9.80

Petrobras 8.68 State

Source: Richard Heede, Climate Accountability Institute. Note: table includes emissions for the period 1965 to 2017 only

“The great tragedy of the climate crisis is that seven and a half billion people must pay the price – in the form of a degraded planet – so that a couple of dozen polluting interests can continue to make record profits. It is a great moral failing of our political system that we have allowed this to happen.”

The global polluters list uses company-reported annual production of oil, natural gas, and coal and then calculates how much of the carbon and methane in the produced fuels is emitted to the atmosphere throughout the supply chain, from extraction to end use.

It found that 90% of the emissions attributed to the top 20 climate culprits was from use of their products, such as petrol, jet fuel, natural gas, and thermal coal. One-tenth came from extracting, refining, and delivering the finished fuels.

The Guardian approached the 20 companies named in the polluters list. Seven of them replied. Some argued that they were not directly responsible for how the oil, gas or coal they extracted were used by consumers. Several disputed claims that the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known as far back as the late 1950s or that the industry collectively had worked to delay action.

Most explicitly said they accepted the climate science and some claimed to support the targets set out in the Paris agreement to reduce emissions and keep global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

All pointed out efforts they were making to invest in renewable or low carbon energy sources and said fossil fuel companies had an important role to play in addressing the climate crisis. PetroChina said it was a separate company from its predecessor, China National Petroleum, so had no influence over, or responsibility for, its historical emissions. The companies’ replies can be read in full here.

The top 20 companies have contributed to 35% of all carbon dioxide and methane since 1965

The latest study builds on previous work by Heede and his team that has looked at the historical role of fossil fuel companies in the escalating climate crisis.

The impact of emissions from coal, oil and gas produced by fossil fuel companies has been huge. According to research published in 2017 by Peter Frumhoff at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US and colleagues, CO2 and methane emissions from the 90 biggest industrial carbon producers were responsible for almost half the rise in global temperature and close to a third of the sea level rise between 1880 and 2010. The scientists said such work furthered the “consideration of [companies’] historical responsibilities for climate change”.

Heede said: “These companies and their products are substantially responsible for the climate emergency, have collectively delayed national and global action for decades, and can no longer hide behind the smokescreen that consumers are the responsible parties.

“Oil, gas, and coal executives derail progress and offer platitudes when their vast capital, technical expertise, and moral obligation should enable rather than thwart the shift to a low-carbon future.”

Heede said 1965 was chosen as the start point for this new data because recent research had revealed that by that stage the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by industry leaders and politicians, particularly in the US.

In November 1965, the president, Lyndon Johnson, released a report authored by the Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, which set out the likely impact of continued fossil fuel production on global heating.

In the same year, the president of the American Petroleum Institute told its annual gathering: “One of the most important predictions of the [president’s report] is that carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas at such a rate by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts.”

The leading state-owned polluter, Saudi Aramco, is behind 4.38% of all carbon dioxide and methane since 1965

Heede added: “Leading companies and industry associations were aware of, or wilfully ignored, the threat of climate change from continued use of their products since the late 1950s.”

The research aims to hold to account those companies most responsible for carbon emissions, and shift public and political debate away from a focus just on individual responsibility. It follows a warning from the UN in 2018 that the world has just 12 years to avoid the worst consequences of runaway global heating and restrict temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

An activist outside the Houses of Parliament in London, 2015. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty

The study shows that many of the worst offenders are investor-owned companies that are household names around the world and spend billions of pounds on lobbying governments and portraying themselves as environmentally responsible.

A study earlier this year found that the largest five stock-market-listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m each year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change.

Heede said the companies had a “significant moral, financial, and legal responsibility for the climate crisis, and a commensurate burden to help address the problem”.

He added: “Even though global consumers from individuals to corporations are the ultimate emitters of carbon dioxide, the Climate Accountability Institute focuses its work on the fossil fuel companies that, in our view, have their collective hand on the throttle and the tiller determining the rate of carbon emissions and the shift to non-carbon fuels.”

The European Union is not a state: why the debate about the EU and democracy is misconceived

The more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, writes Pippa Catterall, the more it becomes judged by the normative expectations of how democratic states are. But it is as an international organisation that it should be judged.

No international organisation is ‘democratic’. Indeed, there is only one international organisation which even tries to be democratic, the one called the European Union. All international organisations increasingly have impacts behind borders, particularly those which – like the EU – deal primarily with trade, because of the way international trade has come to be dominated by regulations and standards. Only the EU has sought to give voice to those affected by such developments, in the form of a directly-elected parliament representative of the peoples it encompasses, rather than simply being beholden to its Member States. Yet this most democratic of international organisations is also the one which is most often traduced as ‘undemocratic’. Why?

The most obvious explanation is that it is not widely grasped that the EU is much more democratic than its analogues among international organisations. For instance, the irony of Leave voters calling the EU ‘undemocratic’ while wanting to operate under WTO rules instead, seems to be lost on them. The global protests which followed the founding of the WTO, not least in Seattle in 1999, demonstrated an appreciation then, among other things, of how deeply undemocratic the WTO was. It still is. Like virtually all international organisations, the WTO’s membership consists of legal persons, called states, rather than natural ones, actual human beings. The same holds true for those international consortia of trading states – such as Mercosur, ASEAN, the Cairns Group, and so on – which increasingly have become significant players in the diplomacy of world trade. The states which are members of these bodies may be mandated by their domestic parliaments on how they handle issues at the WTO and similar organisations, and they may be scrutinised on what they have agreed in those parliaments. However, if this is democracy it is an attenuated form.

The same observation could hold for all the other international organisations Leave voters seem quite happy for Britain to remain in. The UN, NATO, the Commonwealth, together with a host of other less well-known bodies, are all organisations which – at best – only allow states rather than peoples directly, to participate in their decision-making processes. To all of these bodies as well, Britain is a net contributor. That is not to say that there are not benefits to the UK from its membership of, for instance, the International Whaling Commission. However, neither the benefits nor the effects of British membership of the IWC will be apparent to the average Briton, if they are aware of it at all. They rightly do not perceive any discernible impacts on their lives of such membership, whereas they do think they are affected by Britain’s membership of the EU. So the second reason for the complaint that the EU is ‘undemocratic’ is the perception that it has imposed on people decisions that affect them and to which they have not consented.

To a large extent this perception reflects the peculiarities of an international organisation which tries to be democratic. Representation at the EU is both popular (through the parliament) and international (through the Member States). For the latter, there is a perennial incentive to blame the EU as an institution for decisions to which they have been party and usually supported, but which may be unpopular with sections of their domestic electorates. Britain is by no means the only Member State whose politicians have acted in this way. The democratisation of the EU through the gradual extension of the powers of the parliament has not prevented this behaviour by Member States. Indeed, as the intrusiveness of international trade and relations has required growing competences on the part of international bodies like the EU, so the incentives for Member States to play to the gallery of their national audiences has similarly increased.

In the process of acquiring these growing competences, the EU has come to acquire some, though only some, of the appurtenances of a state. This has become more apparent since the introduction of the Single Market, of which the Thatcher government were among the chief progenitors. The attempt to harmonise trade and related activities across all Member States involves the creation of top-level rules which apply as evenly as possible throughout. Such developments make the impact of the EU on citizens more apparent than with other international organisations. Yet, because it remains fundamentally an international organisation, it does not have a ‘government’ which can be voted out by the disgruntled. Its parliament makes laws and holds confirmation hearings on appointees, but those appointees are placed there by horse-trading between the Member States, rather than directly.

In that sense, the EU’s organisation falls someway between that of an international organisation (which few people expect to be democratic), and that of a state. However, the more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, the more it has become judged by the normative expectations of how democratic the former rather than the latter are. For those who see states as bodies where democratic accountability involves throwing out governments (something that cannot directly happen at EU level), the absence of such mechanisms can easily seem to be a democratic deficit.

Yet the EU is not a state, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future. Nor does it have the operational functionality of a state, which within the EU is delivered through its contracting parties, the Member States. The temptation to measure its democratic procedures by the standards according to which its Member States are judged – even though not all of them would pass – is understandable but misconceived. In origins and still in most of its characteristics, the EU is an international organisation. As such it provides benefits for those who live in its Member States through harmonising trade and exchange across their territories. Uniquely for an international organisation, it has a directly-elected parliament in which the rules governing those processes can be proposed, scrutinised and amended. Among the gallery of its peers – that is, other international organisations – it is a singular example of an attempt to democratise the processes which shape our globalised world. It is, of course, not without its flaws. But it is as an international organisation, rather than as a state, that those flaws should be judged. However, that will not stop its detractors misleadingly claiming that it is ‘undemocratic’.

About the Author

Pippa Catterall is Professor of History and Policy at the University of Westminster.

For those who want to stop no deal, Jeremy Corbyn is the only hope

Many MPs are in denial, refusing to accept the Labour leader’s legitimacy. Yet he is the only one who can prevent Boris Johnson trashing Britain

Departing Tory leaders have developed an odd and presumptuous habit of demanding that the leader of the opposition resign too. “As a party leader who has accepted when her time was up,” Theresa May told Jeremy Corbyn in her final prime minister’s questions, preparing to leave her party to Boris Johnson and the country without a prayer, “perhaps the time has come for him to do the same.”

In 2016, David Cameron – who had called a referendum lost it, only to then break his promise and abandon the country in a moment of self-inflicted crisis – suggested Corbyn’s resignation would be a patriotic act. “It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there. It’s not in the national interest. I would say, for heaven’s sake, man, go.”

Stranger still, many Labour parliamentarians agreed with them: Cameron’s speech took place in the middle of a full-blown, if woefully inept, coup.

The political and media establishments are still struggling with the choice the Labour party made in 2015. The fact that the decision was emphatic, had to be made twice following the failed coup, and was effectively endorsed by the electorate in 2017, has not been enough. On some level, that goes beyond the political to the psychological: they refuse to accept his tenure as legitimate.

This sense of denial runs deep – as though insisting he should not be the party leader in effect means he’s not. It is a delusion that recalls the author Doris Lessing’s observation of Blair’s declarative approach to politics: “He believes in magic. That if you say a thing it is true.”

Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party. He has a mandate. He represents something other than just himself. That is not a statement of opinion but of fact. One does not have to like it to accept it. But the failure to accept it will have material and strategic consequences. And, with a general election imminent and the future of the country’s relationship with Europe finely balanced, the moment of reckoning with that fact is long overdue. For there is no route to a second referendum without Labour; there is no means of defeating Johnson without Labour. The party remains the largest, and by far the most effective, electoral obstacle to most of the immediate crises that progressives wish to prevent. Once again that is not a case for Corbyn or for Labour, but for reality.

Jeremy Corbyn is congratulated on winning the Labour leadership in 2015.
‘The political and media establishments are still struggling with the choice that the Labour party made in 2015.’ Jeremy Corbyn is congratulated on winning the Labour leadership in 2015. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Earlier this week, when asked which was worse, a no-deal Brexit or Corbyn as prime minister, the Liberal Democrats’ Scotland spokesman, Jamie Stone, said: “It may be that somebody else may emerge from the Labour party. I think the ball is very much in the Labour party’s court to see what alternatives they could find.”

That is not going to happen. Liberal Democrats don’t get to choose the Labour leader. Labour does. The Lib Dems have long struggled to understand this. In 2010 Nick Clegg said he could work with Labour, just not Gordon Brown. Two years later they said they could work with Labour but the shadow chancellor Ed Balls must go.

There is candour in this. It is effectively the position of his party and many others, including a few disgruntled Labour members, for whom a potential Labour government under Corbyn is somehow worse than the actual no-deal Brexit under Johnson that may soon happen. But there is a clear contradiction too. Some of those who have devoted the past few years to stopping any kind of Brexit now claim that the only thing worse than a no-deal Brexit – the worst kind of Brexit they could possibly imagine – is the leader of the only party that can stop a no-deal Brexit.

None of this is a reason to necessarily support Labour or Corbyn. There are all sorts of reasons, from antisemitism to an insufficiently pro-European stance, as to why progressives might decide not to back Labour at this moment; and the calculations are very different outside England and in those areas where tactical voting offers the best hope of getting rid of Conservatives. And given the redistributive agenda that Labour laid out at last week’s conference, there are all sorts of reasons why progressives might back it, too.

Political parties are not entitled to anyone’s support. They must earn it. The moment they start blaming voters for not supporting them, they are sunk. That’s as true for Labour under Corbyn as it was for the US Democrats under nominee Al Gore. But that does not absolve the voter from the strategic and moral responsibility of accounting for their vote.

In the second round of the French presidential elections in 2002, which pitted the conservative Jacques Chirac against the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Communist party local councillor, François Giacalone, voted for the conservative. “When the house is on fire,” he said, “you don’t care too much if the water you put it out with is dirty.”

Right now, the house is on fire. Johnson’s first couple of months in office have illustrated that what’s at stake is not a contest between bad and worse. This is a leader who uses the police as props; breaks the law to undermine democracy; and stokes division with rhetoric that can and has been easily co-opted by the far right, pitting a section of the population against parliament and the judiciary. Johnson’s cabinet and its agenda, both with regards to Brexit and beyond, do not represent a mere shift to the right but a paradigmatic sea-change in British politics that, where Europe is concerned, may have irreversible consequences.

Those who last year were literally on the fringe of the Tory party conference have this week been running the show. The coming election will not just be about opposing Brexit – it’ll be about defending democratic norms. The key consequence of understanding that Corbyn is the legitimate leader of the Labour party is understanding that this fire cannot be extinguished without him.

Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist