Government accused of refusing to acknowledge extent of UK poverty

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The Government is being urged to reverse the benefits freeze and two-child limit in a new report, which suggests ministers are in denial about the proliferation of extreme poverty in the UK.

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The Special Rapporteur visits New Lodge in North Belfast. © Bassam Khawaja 2018

In his final report on the impact of austerity on human rights in the UK, the United Nations’ (UN) special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, highlights the extent of poverty in the UK and the causes behind it.

Mr Alston points to data that shows one fifth of the population (14 million) in the UK live in poverty and predicts that close to 40 per cent of children will be living in poverty by 2021.

He says that food banks have proliferated, homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly, tens of thousands of poor families are forced to live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks, life expectancy is falling for certain groups and the legal aid system has been decimated.

At the same time, the ‘social safety net has been ‘badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets which have eliminated many social services, closed libraries, shrunk community and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings’.

He argues that ‘much of the glue of that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos. A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity.’

But in face of these problems, the ‘Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial. Ministers insist that all is well and running according to plan.

‘Despite some reluctant policy tweaks, there has been a deeply ingrained resistance to change’, he adds, but says that many of the problems could be readily solves if the Government listens to people experiencing poverty, the voluntary sector and local authorities.

However, the Government has called the report a ‘barely believable documentation of Britain’.

The report is a result of a visit to Britain and Northern Ireland by Mr Alston last November, along with over 300 written submissions and consultations in London, Oxford, Bristol, Newcastle upon Tyne, Clacton-on-Sea, Jaywick, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast.

Mr Alston says he heard countless stories of severe hardships suffered under universal credit, corroborated by an increasing body of research that suggests the policy negatively impacts claimants’ mental health, finances and work prospects.

‘The bottom line is that a system supposedly designed to bring major and much-needed improvements is fast falling into universal discredit’, he states.

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 The Special Rapporteur hears from children in Scotland. © Bassam Khawaja 2018

The report concludes by making a number of recommendations to Government including:

  • Systematically measuring food security.
  • Introducing a single, multi-dimensional measure of poverty.
  • Requesting the National Audit Office (NAO) to assess the cumulative social impact of tax and spending decisions since 2010, especially on vulnerable groups, with a view to identifying what should be required to restore an effective social safety net.
  • Reversing regressive measures such as the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap and the reduction of the Housing Benefit.
  • Restoring local government funding needed to provide critical social protection and tackle poverty at community level.
  • Eliminating the five-week delay in receiving initial universal credit benefits.
  • Ensuring that benefits truly works for individuals.
  • Reviewing and remedying the systematic disadvantage inflicted by current policies on women, as well as on children, persons with disabilities, older persons and ethnic minorities.

Government comment

A Department of Work and Pensions spokesperson said, ‘The UN’s own data shows the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live, and other countries have come here to find out more about how we support people to improve their lives.

‘Therefore this is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here. It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.

‘We take tackling poverty extremely seriously which is why we spend £95 billion a year on welfare and maintain a State Pension system that supports people into retirement.

‘All the evidence shows that full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life, which is why our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into employment and we introduced the National Living Wage, so people earn more in work.’

Sector response

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said that the UN rapporteur had ‘exposed the Government’s refusal to acknowledge the scale of child poverty in the UK’.

Chief executive Alison Garnham said, ‘By shining an independent light on poverty in the UK, he observed the poor living conditions of children and their families that are seen every day in schools, playgrounds and doctors’ surgeries.

‘The childhoods and life chances of a generation are being compromised. After a decade of cuts, low-earning families and those who can't work have been left with too little to live on and the damage is showing. We can reduce child poverty in the UK – we’ve done it before.  But it will require a willingness from Government to first see the problem and then to deliver a strategy for solving it.  

‘The Work and Pensions Secretary wants a compassionate social security system.  Will she then commit to restoring the value of children’s benefits and make sure that they once again rise with inflation?’

The National Education Union said the report is ‘further evidence that the Government must reverse benefit freezes’.

Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said, ‘The UN special rapporteur lays the blame for this dreadful situation squarely at the Government's door, stating changes to economic policy since 2010 have reversed the progress made in reducing child poverty in the previous decades.

‘The report also states that cuts to public services, including education, have compounded the disadvantage faced by children living in poverty. Teachers regularly tell us heart-breaking stories of children coming into school hungry and without adequate clothing. These conditions make it impossible for children to learn and greatly reduce their chances of securing an education that will help them break out of the poverty trap.’

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