Austerity programmes inflicted by successive Tory-led governments have been condemned as an “ideological project causing pain and misery” enforced by ministers in a “state of denial” about “exacerbating inequality and poverty” across the UK in a devastating UN report.
In a damning indictment of the British welfare state, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty said policies introduced after the coalition took power in 2010 had continued “largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences” such as record levels of hunger and homelessness.
Philip Alston's report found that although the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, one-fifth of its population – 14 million people – live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017, while close to 40 per cent of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021.
“Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must 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,” said Mr Alston.
Some observers might conclude that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had been tasked with “designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th Century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens”, he added.
The special rapporteur's interim findings last November found drastic cuts to social support were entrenching crushing poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world.
As part of the fact-finding mission, Mr Alston said he met with women who had sold sex for money or shelter, young people who felt gangs were the only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities who are being told they must go back to work – against their doctor’s orders – or lose support.
The report finds that in the face of these problems, the government had remained “determinedly in a state of denial”, concluding that “much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War had been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”.
Labour said the findings should be “a source of shame” to the government, “from people being driven into debt due to the wait for universal credit, through to those at risk of destitution because of the draconian sanctions regime”.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood added: “This report is a shocking indictment of the brutal cuts to social security introduced by Conservative-led governments since 2010 and the deeply flawed, punitive system that they have created.
“The sharp increase in food bank use tells us that the social security system has lost its way and is failing to protect people from poverty.
“The government attacked the initial report in November as being ‘political’ and brushed it aside. It must now end this state of denial, listen to the evidence and take urgent action to tackle the profound injustices in our society.”
It comes amid mounting concern about poverty in Britain, with a recent report suggesting that half a million more children have become trapped in poverty since 2010.
Campaigners have warned the situation is becoming the “new normal” in parts of the UK, with the number of youngsters who fall below the poverty line rising to 4.1 million between 2010-11 and 2017-18, according to the research.
Alastair Harper, director of advocacy at Unicef UK, said: "Children who are hungry, tired and worried do not learn well. Poverty is a trap that jeopardises their right to a happy, healthy and fulfilled future and locks children into a cycle of deprivation.
"In 2019, it is vital that the government acts now and recommits to ending child poverty as a national priority, and sets out a new, ambitious strategy to achieve this."
Campbell Robb, chief executive of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said there could be "no moral justification" for failing to act on the UN report.
"The picture painted by the Rapporteur builds on our evidence of the 14 million people locked in poverty in the UK. We all want to live in a country where everyone is free to build a decent life. For too many people in the UK that is a distant dream," he added.
“The government has rightly said that it wants to act with more compassion, to loosen the grip of poverty and support people to move into good jobs which provide a decent standard of living.
“As a nation we have tackled poverty before and we need to see tangible action to do so again. Social security must provide an anchor for people in hard times – it absolutely can’t be a system that leaves them destitute."
A spokesperson for the DWP said the £95bn spent on welfare and the maintenance of the state pension showed the government took tackling poverty “extremely seriously”.
They added: “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.
“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.”
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