On Friday 16th November the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philp Alston, published a report on his 2 week fact finding mission to the UK. He concludes that ‘despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, levels of child poverty are not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster’.
He reports that the UK Government has inflicted ‘great misery’ on its people with ‘punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous’ austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity. 14 million people, that is a fifth of the population, now live in poverty with 4 million of these 50% below the poverty line and unable to afford basic essentials. 1.5 million people are described as ‘destitute’. Alston reports:
“In the past two weeks I have talked with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future, young people who feel gangs are the only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities who are being told they need to go back to work or lose support, against their doctor’s orders.
I have also seen tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbours supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services.
Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned. In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping.”
Alston reports of significant breaches of UN Human Rights relating to women, children, disabled people and economic and social rights. And, he called for the legislative recognition of social rights on the UK. He singled out for comment the reductions and limits in benefits; the reduction in the availability of legal aid; the 49% real term reduction in Local Authority funding and; the cuts in other public services and institutions. And he identifies as the hardest hit: women, children, people with disabilities, pensioners, asylum seekers and migrants and people living in rural areas.
“Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead. As the country moves toward Brexit, the Government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens.”