If the UN can’t stop delivering ludicrous reports on sexism and poverty in Britain, we should stop handing it £1.7bn every year
SINCE 2020, the British state has spent unprecedented amounts. Indeed, until an eyeblink ago, unimaginable amounts.
Taxes are higher than they have been since World War II, and we are borrowing record sums. Our national debt, which was below 30 per cent of our GDP 20 years ago, is now over 100 per cent.
Where has the money gone? Overwhelmingly to increases in the health and social security budgets. These were already rising when the pandemic hit, and have soared since, as the Government rushed to subsidise people, first during the lockdown, then in response to the consequent inflation, and then to compensate for the spike in energy prices that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Government’s cost- ofliving subsidies now come to £94 billion a year. Benefits have risen with inflation — something that can be said of few salaries. The National Living Wage has been hiked by 9.7 per cent to £10.42 an hour.
How are these exceptional, once-in-a-generation spending rises rated by the United Nations? They are ‘grossly insufficient’, said Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur, in an interview in The Guardian (where else?) on Monday.
According to the Belgian lawyer: ‘It’s simply not acceptable that we have more than a fifth of the population in a rich country such as the UK at risk of poverty today.’ Hang on. A fifth of our population? What can that mean? It plainly does not mean that 20 per cent of Brits are hungry or homeless — something that the rest of us could hardly have failed to notice.
Indeed, as long ago as 1959, Barbara Castle told the Labour Conference that ‘the poverty and unemployment which we came into existence to fight have been largely conquered’.
No, De Schutter, who seems to have spent all of two weeks here, has uncritically accepted the poverty statistics pushed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a Left-wing pressure group. These statistics rest on a ludicrous definition of poverty, a definition invented at a socialist conference. Under this definition, poverty does not mean a shortage of basic material needs. It means other people having more than you.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in common with other lobby groups, says that you are poor if your household income is less than 60 per cent of the national average — a definition that gives Britain a higher poverty rate than Bangladesh.
It is, if you think about it, an absurdly cavalier way of addressing a serious issue. Because it is a relative measure, the 60 per cent rule means that, even if the income of every British citizen were to double tomorrow, the number of people defined as living in poverty would remain the same.
De Schutter’s special ire is reserved for the £85-a-week Universal Credit, which he regards as an abuse of human rights: ‘If you look at the price of housing, electricity, the very high levels of inflation for food items over the past couple of years, I believe that the £85 a week for adults is too low to protect people from poverty, and that is in violation of Article Nine of the International Covenant On Economic, Social And Cultural Rights. That is what human rights law says.’
But no one is being forced to live on £85 a week. Indeed, Britain is experiencing huge labour shortages, and there are thousands of vacancies in every town and city.
Although the number of people claiming unemployment benefit is low — it has hovered at a little over a million since the pandemic — the total number of working-age adults without jobs has risen to more than five million, a number reached by adding those on incapacity benefits and on workless Universal Credit.
How can this be happening in a country that is importing hundreds of thousands of willing workers every year? Is it Long Covid — or, more precisely, Long Lockdown, meaning an increased readiness to stay at home after 2020? Does it have to do with the number of people claiming Universal Credit while quietly working on the side?
A new survey by the Department for Work and Pensions reckons that £ 8.3 billion is being lost every year in overpayments — enough to build ten state- of-the-art hospitals or give the whole country a 20 per cent council tax rebate.
Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that at least some of those on Universal Credit, topping their payment up with legal work- derived income, have made a choice not to seek full-time work. There are many criticisms to be made of that system, not least that it deters people from taking the kinds of jobs that would lead to promotion, higher wages and independence. But, whatever else we call it, it is hardly mean.
Yet this is certainly not the first time that some Leftist agitator, disguised as a UN rapporteur, has seen fit to lecture Britain about its supposed inadequacies.
In 2013, Raquel Rolnik pronounced that failing to subsidise spare rooms through the benefits system was an abuse of human rights. How many of the 12 million favela-dwellers from Ms Rolnik’s native Brazil, one wonders, would swap their shantytowns for a British council house, with or without a spare room subsidy?
In 2014, Rashida Manjoo told us that Britain was the worst country to be female, that she had never seen such ‘in-yourface’ sexism. Think about that for a moment: worse than the East African states that practise female genital mutilation, or than China with its genderbased abortions or than — let’s be honest — pretty much anywhere in South America.
In 2018, Tendayi Achiume claimed that the EU referendum had fuelled a rise in racism and even in anti-Semitism. It takes an effort of will these days to recall that, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Left-wing commentators convinced themselves that we were living through an upsurge of intolerance. But the examples they pointed to turned out to be nonsense — racist graffiti at a Polish community centre turned out to be from a Europhile Pole attacking a conservative Polish think-tank, an attack on a tapas bar was in fact a robbery and the upsurge in race-related complaints to the police was largely made up of people complaining about Nigel Farage — but the UN reliably recycles every woke talking point.
Indeed, De Schutter’s findings echo those of his predecessor Philip Alston who, in 2019, attacked the supposedly ‘Dickensian’ conditions in Britain — from his luxurious £3 million home in the Hamptons.
You might think the UN, to whom Britain handed £1.7billion last year as the organisation’s fourth-biggest contributor, would have more pressing problems to deal with. There are plenty of countries afflicted by genuine poverty, oppression and human rights abuses. But these countries are often the most adept at using the UN to criticise the West.
Last week, not unusually, the UN held a seminar on human rights chaired by Iran, a dictatorship that executes dissidents. Joining Iran on the human rights committee are such paragons of freedom as China, Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
The previous week, with spectacularly bad timing, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, chose the immediate aftermath of the Hamas abominations to lecture Israel on how the attacks had not come from nowhere.
All this from an organisation that has not only been accused of fraud and corruption, but whose personnel have allegedly been involved in all manner of crimes, from organised smuggling to prostitution rackets.
It gets away with it because, for many people, it represents a noble idea. So noble that they focus exclusively on the idea and avert their eyes from the reality. Perhaps that self-righteousness is what motivates its repeated attacks on this country. But there may come a time when we ask ourselves why we continue to fund it.