Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
Version with footnotes (PDF)
London, 16 November 2018
The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, it contains many areas of immense wealth, its capital is a leading centre of global finance, its entrepreneurs are innovative and agile, and despite the current political turmoil, it has a system of government that rightly remains the envy of much of the world. It thus seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the Government to appoint a Minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation. And local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies. Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off. While the labour and housing markets provide the crucial backdrop, the focus of this report is on the contribution made by social security and related policies.
The results? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.
But the full picture of low-income well-being in the UK cannot be captured by statistics alone. Its manifestations are clear for all to see. The country’s most respected charitable groups, its leading think tanks, its parliamentary committees, independent authorities like the National Audit Office, and many others, have all drawn attention to the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well off in this country. But through it all, one actor has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is. The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial. Even while devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to devise ways to ‘mitigate’, or in other words counteract, at least the worst features of the Government’s benefits policy, Ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan. Some tweaks to basic policy have reluctantly been made, but 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. The good news is that many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations below.
OHCHR | Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
As noted by the Public Finance blog:
UN inspection highlights ‘gutted’ local government
19 Nov 18
Local government in the UK has been “gutted” by government policies reflecting the “dismantling of the social safety net”, a United Nations report has found.
Since the onset of austerity, cuts to local government funding have transferred service costs to users who are “least able to pay”, according to Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur.
Alston, who examined UK poverty on a 12-day tour, said local authorities are “even struggling with the basic services they are statutorily obligated to provide”. This, he said, was just one of the ways the “overall social safety net is being systematically dismantled”.
The UN official referenced the National Audit Office’s finding that local government has incurred a 49% cut in funding since 2010-11, and highlighted the effect this has had, with Northamptonshire County Council’s unprecedented section 114 notices.
Alston said: “Local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies. Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centres have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres have been sold off.
Alston claimed that 14 million people – one fifth of the population – live in poverty, and noted that Institute for Fiscal Studies calculations predict a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022.
Despite these factors, Alston claimed ministers were in “a state of denial” about UK poverty. “The ministers with whom I met told me that things are going well – this is not the story I heard in my travels through Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and in quite a few cities in England,” he said.
Other areas in which social security have been undermined include cuts to legal aid and benefit reductions.
A government, however, said it “completely” disagreed with the UN’s 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. 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.”
Alston’s full report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next year.
UN inspection highlights ‘gutted’ local government | Public Finance Extracts from the UN report on poverty – yes, it IS a political choice | East Devon Watch