Poverty is a political choice, this was the key message from the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, after he visited the UK this month.

In a scathing denunciation of austerity Britain, the Special Rapporteur condemned the UK Government for adopting a range of policies that failed the most vulnerable citizens and were incompatible with human rights requirements. Austerity, he said, was not an economic necessity but a frame used to justify ideologically driven poverty-related policy.

The Rapporteur’s scathing 24 page interim statement, published ahead of a full report in December, makes for stark reading.

Colleagues in organisations across the third sector may be familiar with many of the statistics from the report:

  • In the UK 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty
  • 4 million people are more than 50% below the poverty line
  • 5 million people are destitute and unable to afford even basic essentials
  • At least a 7% rise in child poverty is predicted between 2015 and 2022.

SCVO’s full response to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights can be found here.

Similarly, the reality of Universal Credit, food insecurity, cuts to council budgets, and the myth of work as a solution to poverty, are all too familiar to organisations across a sector which is increasingly plugging the gaps in public services and a social security system that fails to provide an adequate safety net. The far reaching impacts of a digital welfare state, characterised by digital by default services, automated entitlements, and the use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI), is perhaps, less well understood.

Automation and AI are often discussed in a futures context. The Special Rapporteur’s statement highlights that when exploring the changing fabric of the UK welfare state, automation aided by data and AI is a current feature in urgent need of attention.

Universal Credit is the first major government service to become ‘digital by default’. In practice this means that Universal Credit is claimed online, assuming digital skills and competence among some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Add to this that home internet access varies considerably by household income: in 2016, 63% of households with an income of £15,000 or less had home internet access rising to 98% in households with incomes of £40,000 and over, and it is clear that a host of barriers prevent access to ‘digital by default’ services.

Similarly, Universal Credit is a major automation project. Entitlements are calculated automatically through the Real Time Information (RTI) system as is, believe it or not, the screening of everyone applying for an entitlement on their potential for wrongdoing, through a risk-based verification process.

As the UN Special Rapporteur outlines, a lack of transparency makes it difficult, if not impossible, for people reliant on this system to challenge these decisions. Decisions that impact their ability to eat, pay their bills, heat their homes, undermining their right to an adequate standard of living and infringing on other economic, social, civil and political rights.

As the Special Rapporteur highlights, automation and artificial intelligence themselves need not undermine rights, Governments make policy decisions which they operationalise through technology. In the words of the Special Rapporteur, Universal Credit has been a nationwide digital experiment. An experiment that has failed at a huge costs to people, families, and communities across the UK. While we can all agree that the UK Government’s approach to welfare reform has been callous, the digital welfare state is here to stay and there is a need to look beyond austerity policy and recognise its many complexities.

New technologies are valuable tools that can and will revolutionise public services. To achieve this transparency about their existence, purpose, and use, and open conversations recognising the many ethical dilemmas and limits is urgently needed. Utilising a rights-based approach within this conversation is essential.

Policy and process are two sides of the same coin. To realise human rights and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) people and communities across Scotland, and the rest of UK, need transparency at all level of government.

The message from the UN Special Rapporteur is clear, despite being among the most economically developed nations in the world, both the UK and Scotland are failing to fulfil the rights of their citizens and meet commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we await the full report let’s hope Governments across the UK are listening.

SCVO’s Rethinking automation page can be found here.