Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, calls for a new vision that embodies compassion to end the unnecessary hardship. ‘The results of the austerity experiment are crystal clear,’ says Alston in his report based on an official visit to Britain in November 2018.
Alston says: ‘There are 14 million people living in poverty, record levels of hunger and homelessness, falling life expectancy for some groups, ever fewer community services, and greatly reduced policing, while access to the courts for lower-income groups has been dramatically rolled back by cuts to legal aid.’
‘The imposition of austerity was an ideological project designed to radically reshape the relationship between the Government and the citizenry,’ adds Alston. ‘UK standards of well-being have descended precipitately in a remarkably short period of time, as a result of deliberate policy choices made when many other options were available.
‘The Government’s ‘work not welfare’ mantra conveys the message that individuals and families can seek charity but that the State will no longer provide the basic social safety net to which all political parties had been committed since 1945,’ Alston says.
‘It is hard to imagine a recipe better designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions,’ reports Alston. ‘But in response to this social calamity, the Government has doubled down on its policies.’
The Conservative government’s Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, may officially complain to the United Nations about the report – especially as Alston compares her department’s policies to the setting up of Victorian workhouses.
Alston has angered the government by saying austerity and welfare cuts threaten to make the lives of millions of less well off British people ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
Rudd says Alston is politically biased and his report is under-researched.
Charity to cope
Alston continues: ‘The endlessly repeated response that there are more people in employment than ever before overlooks inconvenient facts: largely as a result of slashed government spending on services, close to 40 percent of children are predicted to be living in poverty two years from now; 16 percent of people over 65 live in relative poverty; and millions of those who are in-work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope.’
Alston acknowledges the Government has taken action on a number of the issues raised in his preliminary report. ‘I welcome the moves to adopt a uniform poverty measure, to systematically survey food insecurity, and to further delay the rollout of Universal Credit.
That programme will be improved by plans to provide more time to repay advances, to reduce debt payment limits, and to reduce extreme penalties. But, for all the talk that austerity is over, massive disinvestment in the social safety net continues unabated.’
The UN report focuses too on a ‘shocking increase…in homelessness and rough sleeping’ and that ‘a growing number of homeless families – 24,000 between April and June 2018 – have been dispatched to live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks’.
Alston says there are ‘1.2 million people on the social housing waiting list in 2017, but less than 6,000 homes were built that year’.
‘It is difficult to see recent changes as more than window dressing to minimise political fallout,’ adds Alston. ‘The situation demands a new vision that embodies British compassion and places social rights and economic security front and centre.’
Alston accepts ‘Brexit is clearly an issue of utmost concern to all sides but it has also become a tragic distraction from the social and economic policies that in the meantime are shaping a Britain that it is hard to believe any political parties really want’.
‘It certainly won’t be a prouder, stronger, and more self-confident British community that emerges unless attention is given to the crisis of destitution and the chronic insecurity of low-income earners,’ says Alston.
‘Given the significant resources available in the country, the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have caused so much pain and misery, amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the United Kingdom’s human rights obligations,’ Alston says.
‘The Government should restore local government funding to ensure crucial social protection can help people escape poverty, reverse particularly regressive measures such as the benefits cap and two-child limit, and audit the impact of tax and spending decisions on different groups.’
Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, United Nations General Assembly, 2019.
Philip Alston, from Australia, took up his functions as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014. According to the UN, Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence ®, May 2019