UN condemns UK government's 'mean-spirited and callous approach' to poorest, in damning report

'I have spoken with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future,' says UN special rapporteur

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 16 November 2018 13:28
UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston: Poverty UK's 'biggest challenge' which MPs in 'state of denial' about

The United Nations has condemned the British government's "punitive, mean-spirited and often callous" treatment of the country's poorest and most vulnerable, in a damning report.

The UN's special rapporteur said policies and drastic cuts to social support were entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world, adding that Brexit was exacerbating the problem.

“The United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union poses particular risks for people in poverty, but the government appears to be treating this as an afterthought,” said the UN's expert on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, at the end of a 12-day visit to the country.

The report goes on to document a series of findings which combine to present a withering assessment of Britain's approach to its poorest citizens, detailing a predicted 7 per cent rise in child poverty, a 60 per cent increase in homelessness since 2010 and exponential growth in the number of food banks.

“During my visit I have spoken with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future,” Mr Alston said.

“I’ve also met young people who feel gangs are the only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities who are being told they need to go back to work or lose benefits, against their doctor’s orders."

He said successive governments had overseen a systematic dismantling of the social safety net, suggesting the introduction of universal credit and significant reductions to support had undermined the capacity of benefits to relieve poverty.

“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach,” he said.

“As a ‘digital by default’ benefit, universal credit has created an online barrier between people with poor digital literacy and their legal entitlements. And the ‘test and learn’ approach to the rollout treats claimants like guinea pigs and can wreak havoc in real peoples’ lives.”

Delivering the report in London on Friday, Mr Alston said “not nearly enough” was being done to address the challenges and described a “state of denial by ministers” regarding the state of poverty in the UK.

He added: “[Ministers] have an overriding set of objectives to cut the welfare system, cut what they see as dependences. I cannot believe that they are as happy with the system as they told me they were.”

Referencing reforms to the benefit system, the UN rapporteur said universal credit was a "sudden tonne of bricks approach" that is "utterly inconsistent with the essential underpinnings of not just human rights, but the whole British sense of community and the values of justice and fairness".

He added: "The system epitomised by universal credit, but not limited to that, is in fact driven by the desire to get across a simple set of messages: the state does not have your back any longer. You are on your own.

“The government’s place is not to be assisting people who think they can’t make it on their own. The government’s place is an absolute last emergency order, and what goes along with that is a sense that we should make the system as unwelcoming as possible.

“The command and control approach reflected in universal credit is that sanctions should be harsh, immediate and painful – and yet all of the evidence that I’ve seen indicate that sanctions are usually counter-productive, that they create fear and loathing among claimants and they impose immense hardship."

When asked about the kind of future the UK faces, Mr Alston said: “Britain is heading towards an alienated society where you have pretty dramatic differences between the upper classes and the lower classes.

“The era of connectivity, social media and so on make it much less sustainable to have these two dramatically different societies - of people living the high life but people on the other hand not able to afford a tin of banked beans.”

Describing the state of affairs for poor groups on a local level, he said local authorities, which he said performed a "vital role" in providing a social safety net, had been "gutted" by a series of government policies.

Mr Alston added: “The public land that is being sold off, the libraries that are being closed down, the youth services that are being sized down. Soon, there will be nowhere for them to go.

“They will find themselves living in an increasingly hostile society because community roots are being broken. There is real reason for concern.”

When asked by The Independent to what extent the government's immigration policies contributed to poverty, Mr Alston condemned the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK and urged ministers to consider giving people seeking asylum the right to work.

“Expecting asylum seekers to survive without any access to government services on £37 a week is unrealistic and very punitive. Enabling those people to seek work is a minor concession that should be contemplated,” he said.

Responding to the findings, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood urged the government to listen to the people being pushed into poverty by its policies.

“Universal credit is failing miserably, leaving families in debt, rent arrears and at risk of becoming homeless. Three million children are growing up in poverty despite living in a working household," she added.

“Labour will stop the roll out of universal credit, end the benefit freeze and transform the social security system so that it supports people instead of punishing them.”

In a series of recommendations, Mr Alston said the government should ensure local governments have the funds needed to tackle poverty at the community level, conduct an independent review of the effectiveness of reforms to sanctions introduced since 2012, and immediately explore less punitive approaches to encouraging compliance.

He said the five week delay in receiving benefits under universal credit should be eliminated, separate payments should be made to different household members, and weekly or fortnightly payments should be facilitated.

His final recommendation states that, as the country moves toward Brexit, the government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is "not borne by its most vulnerable citizens".

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