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Food & Hunger

UN Says Solution to UK Austerity is to Make Poverty Illegal

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Austerity in the UK is widely reported to have led to increases in poverty, food-bank usage, and spiralling homelessness. And according to this report, austerity was a choice — and a choice that can be reversed. Take action here to join the fight to end extreme poverty.

After a 12-day tour of the UK, a report from UN envoy Philip Alston has said the UK government’s policy of austerity has inflicted “great misery” on the public. 

Alston is what’s known as a “rapporteur,” an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to objectively examine how a country is performing on a certain issue.

During a press release on Friday, Alston said the UK was in potential breach of four UN human rights agreements: women, children, people with disabilities, and economic and social rights. 

Take Action: Call on the UK Government to Prioritise Support to Modern Slavery Survivors

During his tour, Alston visited foodbanks, universities, Citizens Advice Bureaus, job centres, schools, and government departments. 

Alston reportedly bore witness to the consequences of 10 years of austerity, imposed by the UK government since the recession of 2007-2008 — and spoke with many members of the public to see how the policy had affected them.

Alston wrote in the report that “austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.”

He said that the last government budget could have transformed the lives of millions, and added that poverty was a “political choice” — but that the choice they made was to “fund tax cuts for the wealthy.”

Alton cited the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, saying that 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty, with 1.5 million unable to buy even basic essentials.

Child poverty in particular was predicted to rise to as high as 40% by 2022, something which Alston called a “disgrace” in the world’s fifth-richest country.

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When Alston visited Avenue End School in Glasgow, the Guardian reported that 12-year-old John Adebola-Samuel said his family relied on food banks for two years, and that for a long time he took only bread and butter to school for lunch.

At a meeting in Edinburgh, Alston was reportedly told the story of woman with chronic physical and mental health issues who had sex for money after her benefits were stopped. She hadn’t eaten for nearly a week.

In Newcastle, where universal credit — the UK government’s controversial benefits scheme — was first rolled out, Alston met with a man called Michael who was struggling to feed the three people in his family on just £465 a month (about £5 each a day).

Alston wrote: “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 food banks 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,” he added.

Alston concluded that a solution could be to ensure the “legislative recognition of social rights”  — a move which could essentially make poverty illegal. Social rights are already incorporated into Swedish and German law.

The Guardian reported that Alston was pleased to meet Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who plans to make adequate housing, food, and welfare a legal human right in Scotland.

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Concluding his report, Alston wrote: “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.”

The government replied to Alston’s analysis, saying it “completely disagreed.”

A spokesperson said that household incomes were at a record high, income inequality had fallen, and that universal credit was helping people get back into work faster than before.

“We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it,” the spokesperson said.