Government cuts have inflicted “unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world”, a UN investigation into poverty in Britain has found.
Professor Philip Alston, a United Nations special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, has spent 12 days investigating the impact of austerity measures, Universal Credit and Brexit.
In a remarkable conference in London on Friday to present his preliminary findings, Alston said: “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”
Pulling no punches, Alston lambasted government cuts, saying few savings had really been made, instead exacerbated serious social problems in communities, families and emergency rooms.
“During my visit I have spoken with people who depend on foodbanks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep. Who have sold sex for money or shelter, [and] children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future,” he said.
“I’ve also met young people who feel gangs are the only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities who are being told they need to go back to work or lose benefits, against their doctor’s orders.”
Alston, an independent expert from Australia, is considered one of the world’s leading legal experts in the field of economic and social rights. He was invited to Britain by the government and has been seeking evidence on poverty and inequality.
Focusing on benefits and the crisis-hit Universal credit roll-out, Alston accused sanctions of being “harsh, immediate and painful” and said they had created “fear and loathing” among claimants. He said they reflected a loss of compassion, which had been “replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach.”
On Universal Credit, he said there were a number of characteristics which were “particularly problematic, harsh and unnecessary – and almost gratuitous”.
He criticised the five-week waiting period for cash, which he said for some people was three weeks, but very often amounted to 12 weeks.
In a blistering attack of the system, he said people were being “plunged into misery and despair and having to beg from family and the community.”
In his preliminary observations, Alston also addressed the impact of Brexit on poverty levels. He said: “I make the argument that almost no matter what outcome of Brexit achieves, it is going to leave Britain worse off.
“There has been almost no discussion on what impact that will have on low income groups.”
Alston’s words come in the wake of a tumultuous 48 hours for the country, as the government has faced near collapse over the draft Brexit deal and with prime minister Theresa May fighting for her future.
Peter Kelly, Director of the Poverty Alliance, said of the preliminary findings: “As the Rapporteur’s findings make clear, decisions taken in recent years about our society’s priorities and resources have tightened the grip of poverty on people’s lives.
“We have seen poverty increasing for the first time in decades; a direct result of the choices that have been made. These choices have had a disproportionate impact on people who are already more likely to experience poverty, like disabled people and lone parents.
“The state of denial about the impact of the decisions that have been taken cannot go on.”
The chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said: “The Rapporteur’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.
“The question that arises now is will Ministers open their eyes to the impact of austerity policies and their ears to the advice they’ve been given – by many organisations - on how to tackle poverty?”
During his visit, the Special Rapporteur traveled to nine cities in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and met with people affected by poverty, civil society, front line workers and officials from a range of political parties in local, devolved and UK Governments.
A final report on his visit is expected to be published in April 2019.