Former UN expert condemns Spain’s “completely inadequate” social protection system

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the “utterly inadequate” state of Spain’s social protection system, according to a former UN poverty expert who is calling on the government to ensure its actions on basic rights “live up to the rhetoric”.

Philip Alston, who was the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights from 2014 to 2020, visited Spain at the end of January and witnessed what he termed “truly outrageous conditions” in some parts of the country.

Speaking as the final report on his visit was published, Alston said the Covid-19 crisis had underlined the scale of the challenge facing Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government despite the country’s recovery from the 2008 economic crash.

Alston also submitted a report reflecting on the global situation that found poverty was rising around the world and that countries were not on course to meet their goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.

“Even before Covid-19, we squandered a decade in the fight against poverty, with misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impacts of the pandemic,” Alston said. “The international community’s abysmal record on tackling poverty, inequality and disregard for human life far precede this pandemic.”

The Spain report says the EU’s fourth-largest economy remains riven by “deep, widespread poverty”, and that its social assistance system is “broken, underfunded, impossible to navigate and not reaching the people who need it most”.

During his 12-day tour, Alston noted that 26.1% of people, and 29.5% of children, were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Spain in 2018. The unemployment rate of 14.5% is more than double the EU average, and youth unemployment stands at 32.9%.

“The need for deep reforms is even clearer since my visit,” said Alston, a professor of law at New York University. “Covid-19 has shone a light on the serious weaknesses in the anti-poverty programmes of the central government and autonomous communities, as millions unable to work have encountered delays, glitches and inadequate support.”

Alston, who visited Madrid, Galicia, the Basque country, Extremadura, Andalucía and Catalonia, said the word he had heard most frequently on his visit was “abandoned”.

The benefits of Spain’s economic recovery, he said, had mainly gone to corporations and the wealthy, while the public services and protections hacked back during the economic crisis had in many cases not been restored.

He acknowledged that the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and his government had taken a number of positive steps to help those most affected by the pandemic, including the introduction of a national minimum income scheme to help support 850,000 families.

He said, however, that such an “ambitious and impressive achievement” could yet be beset by the same problems of excessive bureaucracy and inefficiency that plague other programmes at the regional level.

He also said the scheme would do little to improve the lot of the poorest and most vulnerable members of Spanish society if it were not accompanied by similarly bold action in other basic areas.

Among Alston’s eight main recommendations were the introduction of means-tested national child benefit and a universal, non-contributory child and family benefit scheme; new legislation and investment to tackle Spain’s public housing crisis and soaring rents, and a full review of the education system to address “alarming levels of early school-leaving”.

He urged the government to make the tax system more progressive and to raise total fiscal revenues to help fund social protection properly.

He also said more needed to be done to reduce unnecessary red tape and make the social protections system more accessible to those in need, and he called on the government to step up efforts to help Roma people and migrants.

He said he had seen areas that “many Spaniards would not recognise as parts of their own country”, including a segregated school where all the students were Roma and which had a 75% early-leaving rate, and a migrant shanty town with “far worse conditions than a refugee camp”.

An independent, comprehensive review was needed to ensure that Roma children were “not doomed to repeat the cycle of poverty and exclusion”, he said, adding that migrants should be provided with decent working conditions and helped to acquire legal status without having to wait for years for it.

There were, however, grounds for cautious optimism. “Despite the truly outrageous conditions I observed during my visit, the government’s actions in response to the coronavirus pandemic are encouraging,” said Alston.

“I hope that the governing coalition will double down on this direction and live up to the ambitious commitments made to fulfilling the social rights of all people in the country.”