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Poverty in Britain Is 'Systematic' With 'Tragic Consequences': UN Expert

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Austerity in the UK is widely reported to have led to increases in poverty, food-bank usage, and homelessness. And according to Philip Alston’s final report into British poverty, that political choice has violated the human rights of its citizens. Take action here to join the fight to end extreme poverty.

Last November, UN envoy Philip Alston spent 12 days travelling around the UK.

His mission was to investigate poverty — exploring food banks, talking to sex workers, and listening to the stories of the people affected by almost a decade of austerity, which he described as more “an ideological than an economic agenda.

On Wednesday, Alston released his final report on his findings. His perspective has been regarded as a “damning” snapshot into how the world’s fifth-richest country is “in clear violation of... [it’s] human rights obligations.”

Alston is what’s known as a “special rapporteur”, an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to objectively examine how a country is performing on a certain issue. It’s an unpaid job the Australian professor has held since June 2014.

He already commented right after his trip to Britain that austerity was a “political choice” that caused “great misery” and funded “tax cuts for the wealthy.” But now he’s gone further — delving into the detail of the “tragic social consequences” he observed that he believes have been caused by cuts to public services since 2010.

His report quotes English philosopher Thomas Hobbes as he argues that Britain’s poorest people have been forced to lead lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

"The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos," Alston wrote.

There are 14 million people live in poverty in the UK, the report highlights, while at least 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017. He referenced research suggesting that 40% of all children in Britain are expected to be living in poverty by 2021. 

However, the government has dismissed the report as “barely believable.” Indeed, after Alston compared the welfare policies at the department of work and pensions (DWP) to the creation of 19th century workhouses, its secretary of state, Amber Rudd, promised to lodge a formal complaint to the UN that Alston was politically biased and didn’t conduct enough research.

“The UN’s own data shows the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live, and other countries have come here to find out more about how we support people to improve their lives,” a spokesperson for the DWP said.

“Therefore this is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here,” it continues. “It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.”

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“Rather than addressing the substance, the UK government has sought to distract from the troubling findings of this report by misrepresenting the process behind it,” Alston responded on Twitter. “This is disappointing, if predictable.”

He cited the months of preparation before the trip alongside hundreds of consultations, submissions, and references to the government’s own data as evidence of due diligence — and recommended that ministers reverse spending cuts, stop delays in initial universal credit payments, and remove the benefits cap.

Alston also criticised Brexit as “a tragic distraction from the social and economic policies shaping a Britain that it’s hard to believe any political parties really want”.