Amber Rudd claims UN warning on desperate plight of UK's poorest is 'inappropriate', in first Commons appearance as DWP minister

New work and pensions secretary says ‘extraordinarily political’ language used by UN poverty envoy about state of welfare in UK ‘discredited’ his findings

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 19 November 2018 20:34
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Amber Rudd claims UN report on poverty in UK is 'inappropriate', in first Commons appearance as DWP minister

Amber Rudd has launched an attack on a UN report about the state of poverty in Britain in her first Commons appearance as work and pensions secretary.

In her new role as head of the department that oversees UK welfare policy, Ms Rudd said the language used by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was “wholly inappropriate” and “discredited a lot of what he was saying”.

Friday’s report found that 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 special rapporteur Philip Alston presented a withering assessment of Britain’s approach to its poorest citizens, predicting a 7 per cent rise in child poverty, and detailing a 60 per cent increase in homelessness since 2010 and exponential growth in the number of food banks.

In light of his findings, he condemned the British government’s “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous” treatment of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable.

In the House of Commons on Monday, Ms Rudd was asked by shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood whether, in light of the UN’s warnings that universal credit could put many people at risk of destitution, she would end the government’s “state of denial” and stop the rollout of the new benefit system.

Responding, Ms Rudd said: “I have seen the report by the rapporteur and I must say I was disappointed to say the least by the extraordinary political nature of his language. We on this side of the House will always engage with professionals, with experts, with NGOs, we are not so proud we don’t think we can learn as we try to adjust universal credit for the benefit of everybody.

“But that sort of language was wholly inappropriate and discredited a lot of what he was saying, but we look forward to working with experts in the area to make sure we get the right outcome for the people we want to look after.”

Earlier in the debate, Justin Tomlinson, minister for family support, housing and child maintenance, said the government “disagreed” with Mr Alston’s findings, and defended universal credit as a “simplified benefit system that helps some of the most vulnerable people in society”.

The remarks from the new work and pensions secretary and Mr Tomlinson will exacerbate concerns raised in the UN report that ministers are “in a state of denial” over the state of poverty in Britain.

Delivering his findings on Friday, Mr Alston said: “What I found in my discussions with ministers, is basically a state of denial. The ministers with whom I met have told me that things are going well, that they don’t see any big problems, and they are happy with the way in which their policies are playing out.

“But it’s of course not the story that I heard in my travels through Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and in quite a few cities in England.”

After the Commons debate, Ms Greenwood told The Independent: "Amber Rudd is in total denial about the damage caused by this government’s austerity policies. Instead of launching an attack on the UN, the government must properly respond to the detailed evidence presented by the special rapporteur."

Theresa May appointed Ms Rudd as the new work and pensions secretary last week after Esther McVey stood down from the role on Thursday in protest at the prime minister’s Brexit deal.

The decision prompted immediate criticism from opposition parties, who suggested Ms Rudd’s conduct when the Windrush scandal emerged – a fiasco that forced her to resign – should disqualify her from a top government job.

Critics also warned that she was taking on a “poisoned chalice” as she becomes the sixth work and pensions secretary in less than three years.

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