UN Report on UK Austerity

By Senior Campaign Agent Imogen Granger

Following a 12 day tour of the UK, a UN Special Rapporteur has concluded that poverty is causing misery in Britain. Prof Philip Alston, an expert in human rights law and rapporteur on extreme poverty, visited locations across the UK to assess levels of poverty and the effect that austerity still has on the lives of the average Brit. This report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next year, has been carried out just weeks after Phillip Hammond confidently declared that “austerity is coming to an end” in the October Budget. 

Alston visited cities across the UK including Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Essex, Glasgow, London and Newcastle in a mission to identify levels of poverty. He interviewed ordinary people as well as government ministers. Many of the gatherings were packed as hundreds of people took advantage of this rare opportunity to discuss their struggles with someone in a position of such power. On the UN official’s agenda was the impact of austerity, changes to benefits, and local government funding. 

Among the most prominent findings were the levels of poverty, particularly child poverty, and the effect of harsh benefit caps. Alston has claimed that a fifth of the population (14 million people) are living in poverty, with 1.5 million people destitute at some point in 2017. At a news conference in London he spoke of stories of families facing homelessness, people too scared to eat, and of those on benefits contemplating suicide. He said he personally witnessed a lot of misery, a lot of people who feel the system is failing them, a lot of people who feel the system is really just there to punish them". 

A group which Alston found particularly shocking was in Newham, East London, where a majority of single mothers - including many immigrants, told the human rights lawyer that as a result of austerity measures some had been driven to sell sex, some had faced increased domestic abuse, and others had been denied the ability to bring up their children properly

To gauge the extent of poverty in the UK, Alston used a new measure by the Social Metrics Commission which generated the figure of 14m people in poverty. It is an independent Commission formed and led by the Legatum Institute’s CEO Baroness Stroud which works closely with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In contrast to the government’s method of looking at ‘absolute poverty’ the Commission measures ‘relative poverty’ which looks at the percentage of people living with less than 55% of the median income, taking into account costs such as childcare, housing, debt and disability.  Among media experts, think tanks, Parliament and organisations, Alston has said there was ‘close to unanimity’ that Britain is not doing enough to tackle poverty. 

This damning 24-page report is not good news for the government, which has subsequently rejected Alston’s analysis, pointing to rising household incomes. Alston argues that his visit has highlighted a disconnect between what he heard at meetings, and saw on his trip, with the discussions he held with the ministers who oversee the system which is causing such hardship and misery. Moreover, the report argues that local authority cuts are “damaging the fabric of society,” that community roots are being systematically broken and that as a result, the middle classes could soon find themselves living in “hostile, unwelcoming” communities. Alston claims that the policies concerning benefits were “punitive, mean spirited and often callous” and argued that welfare changes have disproportionately affected women, especially single parents.  

However, this is not the first time the UK has come under criticism from the UN. Many critics of UN involvement have asked why it is so interested in poverty in the fifth largest economy in the world, and that it should focus on tackling poverty in poorer nations. A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "We completely disagree with this analysis”. She said that household incomes have "never been higher", income inequality has fallen and there are one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010.

Nevertheless, critics of the government will argue that this report, combined with Hammond’s claim that austerity is nearly over, demonstrates how out of touch the government is with the rest of the population.  

Sources and further reading:

Image: UN Geneva @flickr

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