Amber Rudd is considering lodging an official complaint against a United Nations report that labelled the government’s welfare politics a “sanitised” version of Victorian-era workhouses.
The work and pensions secretary has taken issue with the findings of Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who on Wednesday published a damning assessment of Tory austerity and its impact on life in the UK.
Alston wrote: “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.”
It is understood that Rudd will consult the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before raising any official objection to Alston’s findings, which the government has described as ”barely believable” and “completely inaccurate”.
Asked before the final publication of his report about claims he was biased, Alston told HuffPost UK that his findings were largely based on work by the independent National Audit Office and organisations like the Trussell Trust foodbank network.
“It is true that my report is very critical of the policies of the government but I think to suggest that I am supporting one particular side of the political agenda is gravely misplaced,” he said.
The Australian professor, based at New York University, singled out benefit cuts in his report following an 11-day mission to the UK in November last year.
He said: “The government’s ‘work not welfare’ mantra conveys the message that individuals and families can seek charity but that the State will no longer provide the basic social safety net to which all political parties had been committed since 1945.
“It is hard to imagine a recipe better designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions.
“But in response to this social calamity, the government has doubled down on its policies.”
Despite the UK being the world’s fifth largest economy, one-fifth of the population – 14 million people – live in poverty, while 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, he summarised in the report.
Alston added that austerity measures introduced in 2010 “continue largely unabated despite the tragic social consequences”.
Government policies have resulted in the “systematic immiseration” of a significant part of the population, and plunged them deeper into poverty.
In the report published on Wednesday, Alston wrote: “Close to 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021.
“Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated.”
He added: “The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings.”
He said some might conclude that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had been tasked with “designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th Century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens”.
Speaking to HuffPost UK ahead of the report’s publication, Alston said: “I think what’s happened is that there was a great experiment launched in 2010 to move away from the post-World War Two welfare state consensus that [William] Beveridge encapsulated and instead to say ‘no, that model has failed us, what we need is a more self-help model premised on greater employment’,” he said.
This is a classic case where it is the fifth richest country in the world, close to having no budget deficit, has a booming economy, close to full employment, and if ever the conditions were right for a major effort to eliminate extreme poverty, Britain has the capacity
Alston added that the UK had all the right conditions for a radical move to end extreme poverty, but appeared reluctant to do so.
“The interesting thing is that often when I go to countries, often the response is ‘we’d really like to do better but we have no money’,” he said. “This is a classic case where it is the fifth richest country in the world, close to having no budget deficit, has a booming economy, close to full employment, and if ever the conditions were right for a major effort to eliminate extreme poverty, Britain has the capacity.
“But instead what we’re seeing is a steady and systematic increase in all of the negative statistics and even the stalling of life expectancy for certain groups. This means the wealth that is being created is not at all being distributed in a way to create a fair society.
“That, in turn, has significant consequences down the road – apart from social disaster – it is also a very bad economic recipe.”
Alston’s report was published on Wednesday and will be submitted to the UN’s Human Rights Council next month.
A DWP spokesperson said: “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.
“Therefore this is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here. It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.
“We take tackling poverty extremely seriously which is why we spend £95 billion a year on welfare and maintain a state pension system that supports people into retirement.
“All the evidence shows that full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life, which is why our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into employment and we introduced the National Living Wage, so people earn more in work.”