by Alison Shaw
18th December 2018

Alison Shaw

Alison Shaw

In our last blog piece of 2018, Chief Executive Alison Shaw looks at the recent UN report on UK poverty and how there is hope for change in publishing research that challenges inequality, prejudice and poor political and economic decisions.

“In December 2014 I wrote a blog post that highlighted how positively Dickensian Christmas was going to be for the many vulnerable people reeling from the austerity cuts to their income and services from austerity measures.  I said “it makes me question whether the mantra that we have to cut the deficit is in fact a political position”.

Four years on and the situation in the UK is so much worse. Given the significant amount of research we have published that shows the impact of these policies, and what needs to be done to improve the situation, I feel at times, despair.

Last month the UK government received a damning indictment of its austerity policies from the UN rapporteur Philip Alston stating its policies were “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous”.

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

As the world’s fifth largest economy, a fifth of the population live in poverty (14 million people) with 1.5 million destitute, and predictions that child poverty will rise as high as 40% over the next few years. This is in the context of a global reduction in extreme poverty from 36% to 10% in the 25 years to 2015, with stubbornly high rates in low-income countries and those in conflict zones.

Alston’s report highlights how with “many areas of immense wealth … it seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty”.

Many of our authors and partner organisations provided evidence to the report and our Journal of Poverty and Social Justice was used extensively by Philip Alston. The report sums up what our authors have been saying for years:

Evidence from the largest research study on UK poverty and social exclusion – published in two volumes in 2017 – highlighted the startling levels of deprivation in the UK where 14 million people cannot afford essential household goods, 18 million are unable to afford adequate housing, and nearly half the population have some form of financial insecurity. As Patrick Butler said in his Guardian article last week “the fact that more than 120,000 children were living in temporary accommodation in June 2018 is quite simply a national disgrace”.

Local authority cuts
The UN report shows how local authorities have “been gutted” by government policies with a 49% real-terms reduction in funding from 2010/11-2017/18. There is significant concern about the push to privatisation of public services and Who Stole the Town Hall? provides a vivid account of how local government has been hollowed out.  Ray Jones looks at ongoing privatisation in social work services and how this trend is threatening the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children and disabled adults.

Universal Credit
The report is also damning about Universal Credit and the five week official delay in claimants getting their first benefit “which actually often takes up to 12 weeks and pushes many who may already be in crisis into debt, rent arrears, and serious hardship, requirement them to sacrifice food or heat” (see report page 5). Sam Royston demonstrated in his book Broken Benefits how the social security system is no longer working as a safety net and he presents practical ideas for reform, whilst Ruth Patrick’s five year investigation into the everyday realities of welfare reform shows the significant impact of benefit sanctions and benefits stigma on those in need.

Food poverty
The Trussell Trust distributed 1.3m three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis in 2017/18, a 13% increase on the previous year. The fact that food bank boxes are in every supermarket I find remarkable. The fact that this is celebrated as a positive thing even more so. Kayleigh Garthwaite’s Hunger Pains reveals the truth behind foodbank use, which couldn’t be further from these media messages.

The UN Rapporteur heard from many people living in poverty and talked about both despair and “tremendous resilience, strength and generosity” (see report page 2). The powerful voices of those experiencing social deprivation and exclusion resound in our books.  In 2014 Mary O’Hara went around Britain listening to hundreds of hours of compelling stories as the austerity policies started to hit and was shocked by what she found. More recently Paul Sng brought together a collection of portraits and stories of those experiencing the cuts in a powerful photo documentary book that gained wide media attention. As the UN report says and our publishing shows: “The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities” (see report page 18).  To us, and our readers, this point couldn’t be more clear.

I can’t write about UK political, economic and social issues and not talk about that six letter word.  The UN report adds that “the impact of Brexit on people in poverty is an afterthought” (see report page 3).  It goes on to say “almost all studies have shown that the UK economy will be worse off after Brexit” (see report page 4).  Throughout the chaotic process we have published evidence-based thinking on this crucial issue from experts that we hope clarifies thinking and provides direction.

At a local level, Bristol is a city of huge disparity. With areas of significant wealth, it also has 42 areas in the most deprived 10% in England, and 6 in the most deprived 1%, with 20% of children living in poverty (figures from State of Bristol Key Facts 2017-18). This division is reflected in the Brexit vote. Central Bristol, where the University is situated, saw 82% remain voters, yet one of the most deprived wards saw 62% voting to leave.
Onwards into 2019
The synchronous development of Bristol University Press and Policy Press sees us confronting global social challenges whilst continuing to publish research that ignites debate about social equality and justice in the UK.

The publication of this UN report provides an opportunity to reflect on the evidence we have published and what more we can do to increase understanding, and influence attitudes and policy, across all our subject lists and journals.  Early in the year we will be launching an exciting new blog with the key aim of enabling research to impact public thinking, policy and to influence hearts and minds.

In addition to this, our ongoing collaboration with projects such as Project Twist-It, Discover Society, Futures of Work and our new charity for 2019, The Green House in Bristol, provide opportunity to support positive social change and spread the word about important social issues.

And so we persevere, despite the fact that in the UK “the Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial” about the impact of their policies (see report page 1). We need to change the lives of the 1.5m destitute people in the UK without a home and the 14m people struggling to afford essential household items, never mind presents and celebrations at Christmas.

Finally, a huge thank you to all our authors, editors, reviewers, partners and readers for their support over the past year.  Without you we would not be able to challenge inequality, prejudice and the poor political and economic decisions that lead to these dire social conditions.  If poverty is a political choice there is always hope for change.

Wishing you a happy, healthy and positive 2019 from us all.