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UK poverty levels `among worst of industrial nations'

THE UK has one of the highest poverty levels of all industrialised nations, according to a report commissioned by the United Nations.

The report says 13.5 per cent of the UK population are below the income poverty line, and 21.8 per cent are "functionally illiterate" - meaning that they are unable to perform simple tasks such as read a story to a child or the label on a medicine bottle.

Of the industrialised nations, only the US has a greater proportion of the population below the poverty line and only Ireland has worse literacy rates, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 1998 Human Development Report.

James Gustave Speth, the UNDP administrator, called the poverty numbers in industrialised nations "shockingly high, given the affluence".

On the report's new measure of human poverty in the developed world, the UK ranked 15th out of the 17 industrial nations. Only Ireland and the US ranked lower, with the Nordic countries coming in at the top.

The UK's dismal showing came despite the country's relatively high levels of GDP per capita. "Human poverty is deprivation in multiple dimensions, not income," the report explains. "The priority to eradicate poverty and ensure the basic needs of all remains. The failure of the richest countries to do that is a scandal."

Simon Zadek, the development director of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and a contributor to the report, said: "I think the experience of the 1980s has left the social fabric of the UK in pretty poor shape."

World consumption totalled $24 trillion in 1998, twice the level of 1975 and six times that of 1950. But the poorest 20 per cent of the population have not been part of the so-called "consumption explosion" - an estimated 1 billion people do not have access to basic consumption needs.

The Human Development Report - launched globally in 1990 as an attempt to provide an alternative to the traditional financial yardsticks of success - called the East Asian crisis "the biggest setback to human development in the past year".