The UK political debate in 2018 was dominated by one single topic – Brexit. This often overshadowed other important socio-political developments, such as the funding crisis of the National Health Service (NHS), the failing social care system or the mounting problems in relation to the roll-out of Universal Credit. When the draft European Union (EU) Withdrawal Agreement was finally presented in November, a number of cabinet members instantly resigned in opposition to the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister. Among them was Esther McVey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Her resignation was met with little sympathy on social media, to put it mildly; a frequent comment on Twitter was that she should have resigned much earlier, namely, when it transpired that she misled Parliament over Universal Credit mistakes. Other social media commentators remarked that the timing of her resignation might not be coincidental given the imminent publication of a condemning report by the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, on the state of poverty in the UK. His fact-finding mission collected a vast array of evidence on the misery caused by the controversial Universal Credit roll-out that McVey had defended staunchly during her time as Work and Pensions Secretary.
The scorching review published on 16 November 2018 criticised the immense growth in foodbanks, the number of people being homeless and rough sleeping, a sense of deep despair, and unheard levels of loneliness and isolation. In his accompanying statement, the special rapporteur criticised the UK government in Westminster for being in ‘a state of denial’ over the dire consequences of its austerity-framed welfare reform. The government was furthermore accused by Alston of overturning the post-war welfare state consensus under the guise of economic necessity, while pursuing an ideological commitment to ‘achieving radical social re-engineering’. As a consequence, great misery has been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, single mothers, people with disabilities and millions of children (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2018).
It is worth repeating the devastating verdict that was reached by Alston as it sums up overall developments in social policy over the past decade.