1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

UN poverty expert decries UK's 'callous approach'

November 17, 2018

The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Philip Alston, has published his initial report on the UK. Child poverty is a 'social calamity and economic disaster.'

Homeless army veteran in Manchester
Image: Getty Images

Professor Philip Alston did not mince his words when he presented his initial report into poverty in the UK on Friday.

"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.

The UN expert on poverty and human rights has spent the last 12 days investigating the impact of government austerity measures in the UK. He said 14 million people in Britain are in poverty, with 1.5 million living in destitution.

"Government policies have inflicted great misery unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalised, and on millions of children who are locked into a cycle of poverty from which many will have great difficulty escaping," Alston said.

Alston said the UK government's policies and drastic cuts to social support were entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery, with homelessness up 60 percent since 2010.

The UN rapporteur had visited a range of areas in Britain and also spoken with government departments. He criticized officials for being unaware of the situation as few had gone out into the field to look.

The Department of Work and Pensions disagreed with the findings, saying household incomes were high. Alston was also criticized for focusing on Britain, when there were far poorer countries to investigate.

Alston's response was that each country should be measured against what it was capable of doing. He found government officials' focus was on employment, not on the condition of the poorest living off food banks in very real poverty. "The government has remained in a state of denial, and ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan."

Homeless and Hungry in London
Homeless and Hungry in LondonImage: DW/A.-M. Weaver

Dismantling the safety net

Alston said there had been a "systematic dismantling" of the social safety net by successive governments and that the introduction of Universal Credit has undermined the capacity of benefits to loosen the grip of poverty.

"British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach," he said. "The state does not have your back, you are on your own."

He said the hardship could easily be reversed by the government if it chose to do so: "If a new minister was interested, if a new government were interested, the harshness could be changed overnight and for very little money."

A new work and pensions minister, former Interior Minister Amber Rudd, was appointed on Friday after Esther McVey resigned over the terms of the Brexit deal.

Brexit to hit the poorest

On Brexit itself, Alston said this would have the worst effects on the poor: "The UK stands to lose billions of pounds in EU funds that will disproportionately affect the poorer areas that have most benefited from them, including almost £9 billion in poverty reduction funding between 2014 and 2020."

"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," Alston concluded in his initial report.

jm/bw (AFP, EFE) 

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.