The U.K.’s treatment of the poorest in its society leaves them facing lives that are “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” according to a report by the UN’s special rapporteur on poverty and human rights.
In his final report on the impact of the last decade’s austerity policies on human rights in the U.K., Philip Alston accused the period’s Conservative-led governments of the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”.
The report slams the “shocking” rises in food bank usage and rough sleeping resulting in reduced life expectancy for certain groups; “decimation” of legal aid; the denial of benefits to the severely disabled; decreasing real earnings for many public sector employees; and the impoverishment of numerous vulnerable groups.
Alston points to devasting council cuts, which he claims have “deliberately gutted” local authorities – shrinking libraries, reducing police numbers, and diminishing youth and park services – creating hitherto “unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation”.
The Conservative government has hit back at the report, claiming it represents a “barely believable documentation of Britain”. They argue the UN paper is politically motivated and “based on a tiny period of time” spent in the U.K. that cannot credibly portray the reality of life for the country’s poorest.
Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, plans to lodge an official complaint about the report. Her department has released a statement in response, arguing that the U.K. takes poverty “extremely seriously”, spending “£95bn a year on welfare” and enacting policy that is committed to “supporting people into employment”, pointing to the record levels of employment the U.K. has enjoyed in recent years.
Yet, the government’s protestations have been given short shrift by Alston. He states that upon first reading the DWP’s statement, he believed it to be “a spoof”, and that it amounts to “a total denial of a set of uncontested facts”.
In his report, Alston details that within 2 years, in 2021, close to 40% of British children will be living in poverty. This is a figure based on independent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He points to independent experts that claim a fifth of the U.K. population – 14 million people – are living in poverty. And he further presents evidence from his fieldwork in the U.K., where he came across individuals who had been forced to enter into prostitution, or to join gangs, in order to avoid destitution.
The UN is not alone in these kinds of findings. A Human Rights Watch report released in April slams the U.K. government for its lack of regard for child hunger, arguing that they are in breach of their obligations under human rights law to ensure people have enough food.
HRW’s 115-page report explores the cases of several U.K. schools where pupils are relying on food bank donations in order to be properly fed. It discovered tens of thousands of families in Hull, Cambridgeshire, and Oxford who don’t have enough to eat, even when both parents are in work. Kartik Raj, the report’s author stated that it amounts to “unacceptable” behaviour from the government as they “[stand] aside and [rely] on charities to pick up the pieces of [their] cruel and harmful policies”.
And other groups with years of experience in examining poverty in the U.K. have backed the conclusions presented in the UN report. Campbell Robb of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said there is “no excuse for failing to act” on this report; whilst Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group said the government had been “exposed” by the report and must show willingness to “see the problem and then deliver a strategy for solving it”.
The government may cry “political bias” to one expert, but this defense begins to lose its potency as the chorus of condemnation grows louder. It remains thoroughly unconvincing that there is no issue with 40% of the children of the U.K. living in poverty, because the DWP is ‘extremely serious’ about tackling poverty, or because unemployment is at historically low levels. The facts are undeniable, and when combined with government-obstinance they paint a worrying picture for the U.K.’s poor. For as long as the government denies that the U.K. has an issue with poverty, indeed one of its own makings through harsh austerity policies, there is little hope for its resolution.