UN Rapporteur’s report a ‘wake-up call’ on UK poverty

When the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, completed his 10 day visit to the UK on 16 November, he found that the poverty he had observed was unjust and, in his opinion, contrary to British values. Britain’s high child poverty rate, in the world’s fifth largest economy in 2018 was, he said: “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one”.

But, he reported,“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”. We agree – in our work with teachers and doctors, they have reported working with children who look ‘grey’ from lack of nourishment and being unable to discharge well children from hospital, because of unsuitable housing conditions at home. Wherever you are in the UK, you are never far from seeing the impact of poverty and cuts to social security on the most vulnerable.

Amongst the large number of people that he and his team met who were struggling to make ends meet, Professor Alston reported people dependent on food banks, homeless people and children without a safe place to sleep, children growing up in poverty unsure of their future and young people turning to gangs as a way out of destitution. But he also spoke of the tremendous resilience, strength and generosity he came across, with neighbours supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services.

While examining the Government’s record on social security, the Rapporteur found that amongst some good outcomes, “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”.

Particular criticism was made of universal credit, pointing out that the billions in savings claimed will be offset by the additional resources required to fund emergency services by families and the community, by local government, and by other public services such as health and police.

Warning of the harm poverty has caused to British society, Professor Alston argued that British compassion has been replaced by a “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline… to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world”.

He argued that although there are undoubtedly many people who have benefited from the Universal Credit system and many of the Jobcentre staff play important roles in supporting and encouraging their clients, “social support should be a route out of poverty, and Universal Credit should be a key part of that process”. He found that many aspects of the design and rollout of the programme – with its rigidity and punitive sanctions – suggest that the “Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting”.

The Rapporteur’s findings should be a wake-up call for the Government. He took issue with Government for remaining “determinedly in a state of denial” but pointed to the positive news, highlighted frequently by CPAG, that poverty is not inevitable, and that many problems could be fixed if the Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations put forward.

The key drivers of rising child poverty are clear. The failure to uprate working-age benefits with inflation, the restriction of in- and out-of-work benefits to two children per family, the benefit cap, the cuts to universal credit, have all reduced the income of families with children more than any other group across the population. And there’s worse to come as the four-year benefits freeze and two-child limit take their full effect.

The question now is whether Ministers will open their eyes to the impact of austerity policies and open their ears to the advice they’ve been given – by CPAG and other organisations – on how to tackle poverty? We know what to do because we’ve done it before. The UK’s children deserve nothing less.