Following his two-week tour of the United Kingdom, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, professor Philip Alston, has slammed Britain's policies of drastic cuts to welfare and the ongoing Brexit saga, which are poised to make Britain poorer and drive even more people into poverty.
Alston, who is one of the world’s leading experts on poverty, blames the U.K. government for fuelling and escalating the crisis, saying policies enacted by Conservative leadership have inflicted “unnecessary misery” on the people of Britain.
The human rights scholar said crippling cuts to welfare and social support had clearly done its damage – with some 14 million people, or one-fifth of the British population, now living in poverty. Four million of those people are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line, which is considered to be households receiving 60 per cent or less of the median household income of £25,000 per year.
In addition, some 1.5 million people in the U.K. are living in extreme poverty, unable to buy basic living essentials, Alston found. He also reported what he called a "staggering" rise of 7 percent of children living in poverty in Britain since 2015.
“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,” Alston said in a press conference where he revealed his findings.
The UN inspector believes the roll-out of the controversial Universal Credit, which comes with a debilitating five-week wait until claimants can receive their first payment, is partially answerable for the shocking rise in poverty. While waiting for their first payments, many recipients spiral further into unpayable debt.
In addition, applications to receive the welfare benefit can now only be made online. But Alston revealed that as many as one-third of new Universal Credit claimants gave up on the digital-only application process.
“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would be happy because it means paying less benefits," Alston said. “British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach.”
In his Statement on the Visit to the United Kingdom report, Alston wrote an alarming appraisal of his findings, particularly about the yawning gap between rich and poor in Britain.
“The U.K. is the world’s fifth largest economy, it contains many areas of immense wealth, its capital is a leading centre of global finance, its entrepreneurs are innovative and agile, and despite the current political turmoil, it has a system of government that rightly remains the envy of much of the world. It thus seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty,” he told reporters.
In his visit to major towns and cities across Britain, Alston witnessed people's shocking reliance on food banks and the degree to which large numbers of people sleep regularly on the streets. When walking around almost any supermarket in the U.K., regardless of the size or locality of the store, he found there was almost always a food bank encouraging consumers to leave goods for those who can't afford to put food on their family’s table.
In April, newly published figures showed food bank use in Britain has reached its highest rate on record as benefit cuts and changes to the welfare system fail to cover basic living costs.
Statistics from the Trussel Trust, the U.K.’s national food bank provider, revealed that last year saw a 13 per cent increase in three-day emergency food supplies delivered to people in crisis.
Homelessness on the rise
Homelessness has also reached record highs in many parts of the country. In London, recent figures show an “appalling spike” in people sleeping on the street. A total of 3,103 people were found to be sleeping rough in the capital between July and September 2018, a 20 percent increase on the previous quarter.
Walking around the city of Manchester in the north of England, the escalating problem of homelessness is clear. "Tent cities" with makeshift soup kitchens have appeared alongside prominent roads in the city, as camps of homeless people who regularly get evicted from one spot of the city move on to another, then another.
Steve Bagshaw, who has worked in Manchester city centre for more than 20 years, told Occupy.com: “There’s always been a population of homeless people in Manchester, but ten, twenty years ago, tent cities certainly didn’t exist. The issue is getting worse and can only be blamed on the decisions made by those in government.”
Brexit and poverty
Adding to his criticism of government cuts to welfare spending amid surging poverty and homelessness, Alston voiced concern over Brexit and warned that the U.K.’s impending departure from the EU will deepen poverty further.
“Almost all studies have shown that the U.K. economy will be worse off after Brexit," he said. "Consequences for inflation, real wages, and consumer prices will drive more people into poverty unless the government takes action to shield those most vulnerable and replaces current EU funding for combatting poverty.”
Alston meanwhile accused the government of being in a “state of denial” over the country’s worsening poverty crisis. Professor Alston said he witnessed shocking examples of families being evicted from their homes and facing homelessness, benefit claimants contemplating suicide, and people relying on emergency packages from food banks to stave off hunger – stories that shouldn’t be shackling the world’s fifth wealthiest nation.
Meanwhile the government, painfully preoccupied with ongoing Brexit chaos, gave a nonchalant response to Alston’s findings, with a spokesperson for the government saying they “completely disagree with the analysis.”