By attacking the UN's report on austerity, Amber Rudd has admitted to Tory failure on welfare

By seeking to discredit the UN’s findings Rudd has fallen back on a typical DWP tactic: when confronted with evidence of incompetence or cruelty, avoid the substantive issues at all costs

Hannah Fearn
Tuesday 20 November 2018 16:45
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Amber Rudd claims UN report on poverty in UK is 'inappropriate', in first Commons appearance as DWP minister

The great consolation for former home secretary Amber Rudd – forced to resign from the number three job in British politics when she “inadvertently misled” MPs over the facts of the Windrush scandal – is that her new job finds her able to make excellent use of her recent expertise, heading up another government department whose primary role seems to be creating crises and ignoring cries of anger.

At the Department for Work and Pensions Rudd has been taking notes on how to ignore the facts not only from her own career history but also from the impressive record of her predecessors. Alone among its contemporaries, however, the DWP has turned ignoring the facts into a sort of political art form, airbrushing any criticism backed up by evidence by bashing the way the evidence is delivered instead.

Amber Rudd raised eyebrows aplenty this week when she couldn’t be bothered to engage with the detail of an excoriating report into the effects of government policy on poverty in the UK. Instead, she described the author’s language as “extraordinarily political” and “wholly inappropriate”.

The UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, had reason to use political language because what he found in assessing the UK’s progress (in fact, lack of) on poverty is uncontroversially political. He described levels of child poverty – predicted to rise by another 7 per cent – as “staggering” for an advanced economy, with 1.5 million of our citizens destitute at some point in 2017. Homelessness has increased by 60 per cent since 2010, and he pointed also to the exponential rise in the use of foodbanks by ordinary citizens. He had, he said, encountered “misery” exacerbated by the government’s policies which were supposed to support those with the lower incomes.

“The ministers with whom I met have told me that things are going well, that they don’t see any big problems, and they are happy with the way in which their policies are playing out. But of course that’s not the story I heard,” Alston stated. How else to understand this government and its record other than frightening groupthink and a “state of denial”? The UN’s representative observed exactly that. Of course his language was political.

What’s fascinating about Rudd’s temperamental takedown of this piece of considered research is that she failed to take apart Alston’s criticisms detail-by-detail, as one might expect, instead concentrating her remarks on the manner in which they were delivered.

Is the government no longer even bothering to claim that welfare reform is working? Is the weight of evidence to the contrary now so substantial that it has reached the last resort of diversion tactics? Is this – finally – an implicit admission of failure?

Not so fast: in the DWP, this tactic has been knocking around for years. Four years ago, the UN special rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, called for the suspension of the controversial bedroom tax, warning of its devastating effects on families claiming housing benefit. Many, she said, faced “hard choices between food, heating or paying the rent”. She too had witnessed “tremendous despair”.

The then housing minister Kris Hopkins (a politician now so anonymous that the old journalist gag “who he?” could have been written for him) responded by claiming the report was both “partisan” and “completely discredited”; he was disappointed that the UN had allowed itself to be associated with a “misleading Marxist diatribe”. And a spokesperson for the DWP at the time said the report was based on “anecdotal evidence” – yet it followed a 12-day research trip to the UK. There was little effort taken to prove that the housing expert was, in fact, wrong. One can draw their own conclusions about why that might be.

Later, in 2017 after the Grenfell fire, Rolnik’s successor Leilani Farha said that Britain could have breached human rights law by failing to guarantee safety standards at the tower block. Once again the government, after first admitting failings by Kensington and Chelsea Council, then went for deflection and distraction. “Had the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing approached the government to discuss her concerns we would gladly have met her to discuss the work we are doing to support the Grenfell community,” a spokesperson said.

If this is its approach to communications, Rudd should ask her department to think again. As the evidence against welfare mounts into a stinking pile, there’s only so long ministers can ask their electorate to look away and ignore the smell.

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