UN Rapporteur: British Compassion 'Replaced By Punitive, Callous' Policies

A street in Jaywick east England. PA via AP

A street in Jaywick east England. PA via AP

A report by Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was scathing of UK government policy and accused ministers of being "in a state of denial" over the extent of poverty in Britain.

Prof Alston made his comments following a 12-day, nine-city trip to the UK. "With this government's changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now 1 million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010". He highlighted predictions that child poverty could rise by 7% between 2015 and 2022, possibly up to a rate of 40%. Soaring use of food banks, increasingly visible homelessness and cuts to school budgets have widened concerns about the Conservative party's fiscal strategy. Aston added that London had still not disclosed details about a "shared prosperity fund" that was meant to replace £9 billion ($11.6 billion, 10.1 billion euros) in European Union poverty funding through 2020.

Labour have been quick to condemn the Government for Professor Alston's findings. He found government officials' focus was on employment, not on the condition of the poorest living off food banks in very real poverty. The Prime Minister also argued that striking good trade deals after Brexit would improve the British people's fortunes.

"Many aspects of the design and rollout of the program have suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting", wrote Alston. The government is also restructuring welfare payments in a bid to encourage people to work.

It has been almost a decade since then-Prime Minister David Cameron committed to cut government spending, declaring in 2009 that "the age of irresponsibility" was "giving way to the age of austerity".

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In 2010, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Conservative-led coalition government announced its plan to drag the United Kingdom out from under piles of public debt by ditching thousands of government jobs, slashing welfare benefits and cutting billions of pounds' worth of public spending. The introduction of Universal Credit and significant reductions in the amount of and eligibility for important forms of support have undermined the capacity of benefits to loosen the grip of poverty.

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 enormous 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".

"The Government has remained in a state of denial, and ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan", Alston said.

Although poverty rapporteurs typically spend most of their time in the developing world, Alston said it was important to visit Britain, the world's fifth-richest country, because its policies were a litmus test for the politics of austerity.

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