0817 GMT February 22, 2020
Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, ended a two-week fact-finding mission to the UK with a stinging declaration that levels of child poverty were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”, even though the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, theguardian.com reported.
About 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute, being unable to afford basic essentials, he said, citing figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
He highlighted predictions that child poverty could rise by seven percent between 2015 and 2022, possibly up to a rate of 40 percent.
“It is patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty,” he said, adding that compassion had been abandoned during almost a decade of austerity policies that had been so profound that key elements of the postwar social contract, devised by William Beveridge more than 70 years ago, had been swept away.
In an excoriating 24-page report, which will be presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva next year, the eminent human rights lawyer said that in the UK “poverty is a political choice”.
He told a press conference in London:
The government said it ‘completely disagreed’ with Alston’s analysis. A spokesperson said household incomes were at a record high, income inequality had fallen and that universal credit, which Alston attacked as ‘Orwellian’ and “fast falling into universal discredit”, was supporting people into work faster.
“We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it,” the spokesperson said.
Alston’s report follows similar audits of extreme poverty in China, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Mauritania and the US. Donald Trump’s White House administration launched a furious response after the US was accused of pursuing policies that deliberately forced millions of Americans into financial ruin while lavishing vast riches on the super-wealthy.
Charities working to alleviate poverty said the report on the UK was a “wake-up call for government”.
It is likely to crystallize growing public unease over the impact of nearly a decade of cuts to the welfare state and public services, which studies have shown have had a disproportionate effect on the poor, the disabled and women. Soaring use of food banks, increasingly visible homelessness and cuts to school budgets have widened concerns about the Conservative party’s fiscal strategy.
After visiting towns and cities including London, Oxford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow and Belfast, Alston said that “obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in food banks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the government to appoint a minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation”.
He called for the elimination of the five-week delay in receiving benefits under the universal credit system, which has plunged many into destitution. Flaws in its design and implementation harmed claimants’ mental health, finances and work prospects, and benefits sanctions were ‘harsh and arbitrary’.
Vulnerable claimants ‘struggled to survive’, he said.
The ministers he met — including Esther McVey, who was the work and pensions secretary until Thursday, when she resigned over the Brexit deal — were almost entirely dismissive of criticisms of welfare changes and universal credit, he said. Instead, they described critics as political saboteurs or said they failed to understand how it worked.
He highlighted the chancellor’s decision in this month’s budget to give a tax cut to the rich rather than using that money to alleviate poverty for millions, adding: “Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.”
Alston said the government was in a state of denial and there was a ‘striking disconnect’ between what ministers said and the testimonies he heard from ordinary people.
“Even while devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to devise ways to ‘mitigate’, or in other words counteract, at least the worst features of the government’s benefits policy, ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan.”
He said he had met people who did not have a safe place for their children to sleep, young people who felt gangs were the only way out of destitution and people with disabilities who were being told they needed to go back to work or lose support, against their doctors’ orders. He described how town hall budgets had been ‘gutted’ in England resulting in a record selloff of libraries and parks and closures of youth centers.
“I have also seen tremendous resilience, strength and generosity, with neighbors supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services,” he said.
On food banks, he said, “I was struck by how much their mobilization resembled the sort of activity you might expect for a natural disaster or health epidemic.”
In his conclusion, Alston called for “the legislative recognition of social rights” in the UK, a move that has long been resisted by UK governments but which is the status quo in countries such as Sweden and Germany.