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The UN’s poverty report slams government for ‘mean-spirited’ austerity

Dr Philip Alston’s final report into deprivation in the UK has been called “barely believable” by the government

Dr Philip Alston’s long-awaited final United Nations report into poverty in the UK has warned that the government is infringing human rights of poor families with a “punitive and mean-spirited approach”.

The UN Special Rapporteur on poverty’s scathing report ripped into Universal Credit, welfare cuts and austerity following a whirlwind 12-day visit to the UK last year to meet with foodbanks, schools and more to assess life on the breadline in the country.

And his findings have laid the blame at the feet of the government with the DWP described as creating a “digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse made infamous by Charles Dickens”.

UK: Hunger and Extreme Poverty in a Rich Country

Post your questions below. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, but 22 percent of its people live in poverty. 3.7 million children live in absolute poverty, food bank usage is skyrocketing, and the social care system for older people is in tatters. Over the last ten years the UK government has carried out an wholesale overhaul of the country’s welfare system, with stark consequences for people with disabilities, the working poor, homeless people, and low income families. The UN’s expert on Poverty, Philip Alston, conducted a factfinding visit to the UK in November 2018 and is publishing his full, findings on May 22. Human Rights Watch brings you a chance to #AskAlston about his work on Facebook Live.Philip Alston is an international expert on human rights law. Alston has been the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights since 2014, and is John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law, and co-chair of the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Kartik Raj is Human Rights Watch’s researcher on Western Europe, and author of the organization’s recent report “UK: Nothing Left in the Cupboards: Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food.” Emma Daly is Communications Director of Human Rights Watch.

Posted by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Dr Alston also warned that local government cuts to preventative services had been replaced with crisis intervention services that are even costlier and recommended that the government scrapped the benefits cap and ended the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment.

Dr Alston said: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

When Dr Alston delivered his preliminary report in November last year, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd responded bullishly, citing the political language used.

The response has been similarly robust this time around. A government spokesperson described the UN findings as “barely believable”. They said: “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.”


The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Rudd has followed that up with an intention to make a formal complaint to the UN about the report, citing political bias and a lack of research.

However, the report was overlooked in Prime Minister’s Questions today as Brexit continued to dominate the news agenda while the report arrived on the same day that the DWP launched a new much-criticised advertising campaign to boost perceptions of Universal Credit in the Metro newspaper.

But poverty campaigners have hailed the report as offering a clear snapshot of the need to act to lift Brits from poverty in modern-day Britain.

“There can be no moral justification for failing to act on this report,” said Campbell Robb, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “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.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group added: “After a decade of cuts, low-earning families and those who can’t work have been left with too little to live on and the damage is showing.

“We can reduce child poverty in the UK – we’ve done it before.  But it will require a willingness from Government to first see the problem and then to deliver a strategy for solving it.”

The next step is for Dr Alston to present the report formally at the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 27 with the UK government required to respond.

For more on the UN report, buy next week’s Big Issue magazine, available on Monday from vendors and The Big Issue Shop.