UN to investigate extreme poverty in the UK – after nearly a decade of austerity

Senior figure, who angered Donald Trump, to make fact-finding mission to UK

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Friday 29 June 2018 15:32 BST
Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty)

A senior United Nations investigator will probe the impact of Tory austerity policies in Britain, in the organisation's first visit to a western European country in more than five years.

Professor Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty, is due to make a fact-finding trip to the UK in the autumn, where he will examine the challenges facing the poorest citizens.

The Australian international law expert recently infuriated Donald Trump's administration through a critical report, where he said the United States was doing little to end huge inequalities faced by 40 million citizens living in poverty.

His visit is the first from the UN body to one of Europe's more affluent nations since a trip to Ireland in 2011, while more recent sorties have included missions to Ghana, the US and Saudi Arabia.

Professor Alston told The Guardian: “The UK has gone through a period of pretty deep budget cuts first under the coalition and then the Conservatives and I am interested to see what the outcome of that has been.

“I am also interested to look at what seems to be a renewed debate on all sides about the need to increase spending at least for some of the key programmes.”

He said the US faces different challenges to Britain, where he said President Trump was deliberately pushing people into ruinous financial circumstances.

“In the UK, things are at a different place where there is no great budget surplus to be mobilised," Professor Alston said.

"Welfare cuts have taken place but there is now an interesting debate on whether they have gone too far and what measures need to be taken to shore up the NHS and other programmes.

“No one is suggesting the conditions in the UK are those of a poor developing country, but every rich country, as my mission to the US showed, has pockets of poverty everywhere.

“The government statistics and a diverse array of civil society organisations would suggest the UK does have important challenges dealing with poverty.”

It comes after more than eight years of austerity imposed first by the coalition and then the Conservative government.

Despite an improved outlook in public finances earlier this year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said austerity was "far from over".

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said: “Austerity is a political choice made by Tory-led governments that cut spending on vital public services whilst, at the same time, handing out tax giveaways for giant corporations and the super-rich.

“Only last year, a separate UN investigation concluded that Tory spending cuts trampled on the human rights of disabled people, whilst the IFS forecasts child poverty to hit record levels in the next few years.”

Nearly four million adults have been forced to seek help from food banks due to ”shocking” levels of deprivation, according to a recent poll for The Independent.

A government spokesperson said: “The UK has a close working relationship with UN bodies and is committed to upholding the rule of law and rules-based international system. The UK has a standing invitation to all special rapporteurs, and it is UK government policy to accept and facilitate such visits, and to encourage other UN member states to do the same.

“Household incomes have never been higher and there are one million fewer people living in absolute poverty than in 2010, including 300,000 children. Poverty rates are falling while the employment rate is increasing which is really encouraging, and we’re committed to ensuring that every child gets the very best chances in life.”

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