UK austerity policies have ‘plunged people into despair’, says UN envoy

Special rapporteur on extreme poverty condemns universal credit scheme

Prof Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, meets  food bank users in Newcastle, England on November 11th. Photograph: José Sarmento Matos/The New York Times

Prof Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, meets food bank users in Newcastle, England on November 11th. Photograph: José Sarmento Matos/The New York Times

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Waiting times for social welfare benefits in the UK have “plunged people into misery and despair”, a United Nations envoy has reported.

Prof Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said on Friday the introduction of a scheme known as universal credit had caused extreme hardship, but could easily be reversed by the British government.

He claimed the new benefits policies, which the government say incentivise paid work, equate to “a punitive, mean-spirited, and callous approach”, adding: “If a new minister was interested, if a new government were interested, the harshness could be changed overnight and for very little money.”

Prof Alston made the comments following a 12-day, nine-city trip to the UK. According to his report, approximately 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty, with 1.5 million classes as destitute, and unable to afford basic essentials.

He said people in poverty would “bear the brunt” of the economic consequences of Brexit. “The impact of Brexit on the British people has not been examined as it should be,” he said.

Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham said Prof Alston’s findings should be “a wake-up call for government”.

“Child poverty isn’t only happening elsewhere, it’s here in the UK and it’s rising,” said Ms Garnham. “It’s in families where parents can’t work because of illness or disability but mostly it’s in families who work for low wages while costs are rising.

“Wherever you are in the UK, you are never far from seeing the impact of poverty and austerity policies on the most vulnerable.”

Income inequality

But a government spokesman said: “We completely disagree with this 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 (€708) better off a year as a result of raising the work allowance.”

The UN report says Northern Ireland “has taken steps to mitigate some of the worst effects of austerity measures, and is taking a different and seemingly more humane approach to certain aspects of universal credit”.

But a £500 million mitigation package in Northern Ireland runs out in 2020, leaving vulnerable people facing a “cliff edge scenario”.

In addition, the lack of a devolved government for the past 21 months “forecloses the possibility of any major efforts to tackle poverty and results in an accountability vacuum”.

Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood said she was “deeply concerned” by the special rapporteur’s findings. “The government should listen to the people being pushed into poverty by its policies,” she said. “Universal credit is failing miserably, leaving families in debt, rent arrears and at risk of becoming homeless. Three million children are growing up in poverty despite living in a working household.

“Labour will stop the roll-out of universal credit, end the benefit freeze and transform the social security system so that it supports people instead of punishing them.”- PA

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