Alston report compares UK welfare reforms to Dickens

Amil Mohanan | May 27, 2019

Picture of workhouse by Sampson Kempthorne, Annual report, Volume 1 By Great Britain. Poor Law Commissioners (1835), page 411

Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty published his report on his visit to the UK a few days ago. He was trying to find out why 14 million people living in the fifth largest economy in the world were living in poverty. He has remarked on the state of denial about the scale of the problem within the country. It shows how effectively the language of ‘workers v shirkers’ deployed by Cameron has worked.

A lot of his critique is aimed at the ‘universal credit’ welfare reforms. It reminds me more of the battle royale styles games and films that have risen in popularity over the same period (Fortnite, PUBG, Hunger Games) rather than Dickens:

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 focus on getting people into employment. Many aspects of this programme are legitimate matters for political contestation, but it is the mentality informing many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping, and elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society. It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens, rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity in an age of deep and rapid transformation brought about by automation, zero-hour contracts and rapidly growing inequality. (Section II, Para. 13)

A 2015 article by Aditya Chakraborty criticising the reforms almost reads like the report itself. In response to the report, the government launched a propaganda exercise seeking to ‘set the record straight’ on universal credit 🤦🏾‍♂️

Things have changed little in the last decade, and our attention has been engulfed by issues surrounding Brexit. Propaganda exercises like this by the government lends further support to Alston’s claim that the UK establishment has entered a state of denial.