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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

That people still live in poverty is a political choice

On Friday, Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, reported on the findings of his 12-day visit to the UK. His report articulates what many of us have known for some time- that life has been made extremely difficult for many people living in the North of England.  

It was particularly important that he came to the North East, visiting the West End Foodbank in Benwell, because Newcastle has been one of the pilot areas for the full roll out of Universal Credit.

Figures from the North East Child Poverty Commission show that a shocking 24% of all children in the North-East live in poverty. That’s equivalent to 1 in 4. In fact, the North East has one of the lowest weekly incomes in England at £447 per month compared with the national average of £486 (before housing costs) and income levels in the North East, like many other parts of the UK have stagnated since 2008/09.  Austerity, welfare reform and local government cutbacks has created a perfect storm, at the centre of which is human suffering.

The UN’s report is unambiguous when it argues that the fact that so many of the North’s citizens particularly children, continue to live in poverty is a political choice. Yes, we may have had a recession and yes, there is a great deal of economic uncertainty at the current time. But Governments can always find resources to tackle their political priorities. It’s just that in this case, alleviating poverty and reducing suffering isn’t one of them. 

But austerity is not only about a lack of money but a dwindling of hope and ambition for our people and places.  When Governments say that ‘there is no money’ they are also sending out a message which suggests that ‘there is no hope of anything better’. The austerity regime not only closes down local services and support, it also closes down debate about creating better places for people, leaving only cynicism and despondency in its wake.

Whilst the content of Alston’s report was perhaps expected, it is a vital contribution to the debate on the future of life in the UK. It benchmarks the UK against other Western countries and shows us to be wanting. Its message goes beyond the everyday party-political debate in the UK and importantly, its methodology has been about focusing on people and their experiences of life in different places in the UK.

Focusing on people is something that UK policy and politics doesn’t often do well. The individual lives of people in society get buried beneath statistics on unemployment and productivity. Decision makers often generalise about what difference services and new policy will have on people’s lives and then if the impacts don’t come to pass, it is the people that get the blame rather than the policy. But if we are to begin to address the challenges uncovered in The UN Rapporteur’s report, those with power must begin by agreeing that the explicit goal of policy should be to make life better for people. All people.

We need to act – poverty on the scale uncovered in report is not acceptable in this day in age. For the North, action means making different choices about how we grow our economy, so as to ensure that it is people who actually benefit. It means economic success not for its own sake, but as the raw ingredients for a better life for the people in areas like the North.

Devolution in North of the Tyne and other areas of the North can provide us with the powers and resources to make different choices. Now is the time to grasp the opportunity with both hands.

This comment piece was originally published in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle on 22nd November 2018. Sarah Longlands is the Director of IPPR North. She tweets @sarahlonglands.