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UN expert laments UK’s ‘doubling down on failed anti-poor policies’

GENEVA (22 May 2019) - The UK Government’s policies have led to the systematic immiseration of millions across Great Britain, the UN’s expert on poverty and human rights said in a report released today, calling for a new vision that embodies compassion to end the unnecessary hardship.   

“The results of the austerity experiment are crystal clear,” Philip Alston said in his report following an official visit to the country in November 2018. “There are 14 million people living in poverty, record levels of hunger and homelessness, falling life expectancy for some groups, ever fewer community services, and greatly reduced policing, while access to the courts for lower-income groups has been dramatically rolled back by cuts to legal aid.

“The imposition of austerity was an ideological project designed to radically reshape the relationship between the Government and the citizenry,” the expert said. “UK standards of well-being have descended precipitately in a remarkably short period of time, as a result of deliberate policy choices made when many other options were available.

“The Government’s ‘work not welfare’ mantra conveys the message that individuals and families can seek charity but that the State will no longer provide the basic social safety net to which all political parties had been committed since 1945,” Alston said.

“It is hard to imagine a recipe better designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. “But in response to this social calamity, the Government has doubled down on its policies.

“The endlessly repeated response that there are more people in employment than ever before overlooks inconvenient facts: largely as a result of slashed government spending on services, close to 40 percent of children are predicted to be living in poverty two years from now; 16 percent of people over 65 live in relative poverty; and millions of those who are in-work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope.”

Alston acknowledged that the Government had taken action on a number of the issues raised in his preliminary report. “I welcome the moves to adopt a uniform poverty measure, to systematically survey food insecurity, and to further delay the rollout of Universal Credit. That programme will be improved by plans to provide more time to repay advances, to reduce debt payment limits, and to reduce extreme penalties. But, for all the talk that austerity is over, massive disinvestment in the social safety net continues unabated,” Alston said.

“It is difficult to see recent changes as more than window dressing to minimise political fallout,” he said. “The situation demands a new vision that embodies British compassion and places social rights and economic security front and centre.”

The UN expert said Brexit is clearly an issue of utmost concern to all sides but it has also become a tragic distraction from the social and economic policies that in the meantime are shaping a Britain that it is hard to believe any political parties really want. “It certainly won’t be a prouder, stronger, and more self-confident British community that emerges unless attention is given to the crisis of destitution and the chronic insecurity of low-income earners,” Alston said.

“Given the significant resources available in the country, the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have caused so much pain and misery, amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the United Kingdom’s human rights obligations,” Alston said. “The Government should restore local government funding to ensure crucial social protection can help people escape poverty, reverse particularly regressive measures such as the benefits cap and two-child limit, and audit the impact of tax and spending decisions on different groups.”

ENDS

Photos from the UK visit are available for journalists’ use here. 

Mr. Philip Alston (Australia) took up his functions as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014.  As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Follow the Special Rapporteur on Twitter @Alston_UNSR and Facebook at www.facebook.com/AlstonUNSR

For more information and media requests, please contact Bassam Khawaja (+1 646 886 7211 / bassam.khawaja@nyu.edu) or Patricia Varela (+41 22 928 9234 / pvarela@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 / jlaurence@ohchr.org)