Social Justice

UN poverty inspector slams government on Universal Credit and Brexit

Philip Alston’s interim conclusions following a two-week of tour of the UK are that the Government’s policies have inflicted “unnecessary misery”

Philip Alston UN investigates poverty, food poverty and food banks

UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty Philip Alston on a visit to the UK in 2018. Image: UN

The UN’s poverty inspector has pulled no punches with his criticism of the UK government’s policies and drastic cuts to social support, warning that they are entrenching people in poverty and “inflicting unnecessary misery”.

Special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston delivered his initial findings today following a two-week tour of the UK to assess hardship in nine English cities as well as Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

He reported that 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. After years of progress, poverty is rising again, with child poverty predicted to rise seven per cent between 2015 and 2022. Homelessness is up 60 per cent since 2010, and food banks are also rapidly multiplying.

Alston targeted child poverty as well, describing the predicted seven per cent rise in rates by 2022 as “staggering”. He said: “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”

Universal Credit

The result was a scathing attack on Universal Credit, demanding that the five-week waiting period for a first payment should be abolished immediately. He also revealed a third of claimants give up on the digital-only application process before receiving payment – a situation Alston suggested, “The DWP would be happy with because it means paying less benefits”.

He also warned that the motivation behind the controversial benefit reform was to slash spending, despite finding little evidence that there had been any savings, and that the message to claimants is, “You are alone” and that state assistance is the “last resort”.

“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach,” Alston said before turning to the issue of single-household payments. “There is such a gender dimension to these welfare reforms that if you got a group of misogynists in a room and said how can we make this system work for men and not for women they would not have come up with too many ideas that are not already in place. I asked the ministers I spoke to if they thought there was a gender dimension to these proceedings and they said no. 90 per cent of lone single parents are women so who do you think comes out worse in these reforms? Lone single parents.”

Brexit

The UN inspector waded into the subject of Brexit – which has torn Westminster apart this week and led to the resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey among others – claiming that the government is treating it as an “afterthought”.

“Almost all studies have shown that the UK economy will be worse off after Brexit. Consequences for inflation, real wages, and consumer prices will drive more people into poverty unless the government takes action to shield those most vulnerable and replaces current EU funding for combatting poverty,” he said.

“The government has remained in a state of denial, and ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan,” Alston said. “Despite making some reluctant tweaks to basic policy, there has been a determined resistance to change in response to the many problems which so many people at all levels have brought to my attention.

A government spokesperson hit back at Alston’s claims – insisting that the benefits system is “supporting people into work faster”.

“We completely disagree with this analysis. With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010,” the spokesperson said.

“Universal Credit is supporting people into work faster, but we are listening to feedback and have made numerous improvements to the system including ensuring 2.4 million households will be up to £630 better off a year as a result of raising the work allowance.

“We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it.”

Image: UN/Bassam Khawaja

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