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16 November 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 1:10pm

A UN inspector came to investigate poverty in Britain – here’s what he found

Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was scathing about the government’s cuts and welfare changes.

By Anoosh Chakelian

What does a 12-day trip around the UK looking into austerity, Universal Credit, child poverty and the impact of Brexit show you? That the “fabric of British society” is falling apart, and ministers are “in a state of denial”, according to Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

The human rights expert announced his findings at a press conference in London, after travelling all over the country – from assessing rural poverty in Bristol to visiting foodbanks in Newcastle, from speaking to schoolchildren in Scotland, discovering how devolution has to mitigate government policy in Wales, and hearing about hardship in Clacton, Belfast and Newham.

Alston took a dim view of what he saw, accusing the British government of breaking its human rights obligations, and finding austerity has inflicted “great misery” on UK citizens.

Here are the most scathing parts of his investigation:

The UK is breaking human rights obligations

“As a proponent of human rights, and as a representative of the UN human rights system, I think there is no alternative but to include that the obligations in a range of conventions – whether it’s the Convention on the Rights of the Child, whether it’s the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – there are quite a number of provisions which I think are not at all satisfied by existing British policies.”

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Government is ignoring how people will “suffer” from Brexit

“Almost no matter what outcome Brexit achieves, other than the utopian one which is most unlikely to happen, is going to leave Britain worse off economically. There’s going to be a fall in GDP, there’s going to be a fall in tax revenues… The problem is that there’s been almost no discussion about what impact that’s going to have on low-income groups. They will, if present policies are maintained, bear the brunt of the economic fall-out from Brexit… those in the lower income levels are really going to suffer. I think it’s imperative that that issue be brought much higher up on the agenda; it’s every bit as important as getting a lot of things right in terms of the interests of the City, in terms of the free flow of trade and so on. The impact on the British people is not being examined in the way that it should be.”

Ex-Work & Pensions Secretary Esther McVey shrugged off Universal Credit domestic abuse risks

“The payment to a single household has drawn a lot of attention. It’s said, and I completely accept it, that the impact on many women is extremely problematic. That they are not able to control the family income, that the male in the household dominates, and that it even puts them at greater risk of domestic violence.

“The response that I got from the former Secretary of Work and Pensions was, first of all, ‘93 per cent of people in the United Kingdom have joint bank accounts anyway, so what’s the problem?’ Well, it would be interesting to see what the figures are for women living in poverty, whether they have joint bank accounts. Most of them don’t have a joint bank account because they’re solo, even if they’re living with someone.

“She also then went on to say, ‘well, you know if they’re having problems, they should get counselling and if things get really bad they should leave’. This shows a really deep and sensitive understanding of the situation in which such women find themselves. And it’s not an option, it’s not the way to approach these things, and the government should change that.”

Universal Credit is “problematic”, “harsh”, “unnecessary” and “gratuitous”

“There are a number of aspects to it which are particularly problematic and harsh, and more interestingly, unnecessary and almost gratuitous, and could therefore be changed fairly quickly.”

He mentioned the five-12 week waiting periods, the payment to a single household, the digital-by-default system, and sanctions.

Cuts and benefit changes are “ideological”

“The implication is that ‘there was no choice, there was a financial crisis, there was a need to make immense budget savings, and benefits was one of the key areas where that could be done.

“The truth is that first of all, there haven’t been a great many savings from what I can see. A lot of it has involved the transfer over from one set of items to another. A lot of it has been pushed off to the community, to families, to emergency rooms, and to even governmental emergency services rather than in the benefits system itself.

“I don’t see that the motivation has been to create a more compassionate and more caring benefits system, and one that actually produces better life outcomes for people. Instead, the motivation is, very clearly, I believe, an ideological one.”

The DWP is misleading us on Universal Credit

“The digital by default system I believe is not working anywhere near as smoothly as the government says. The figures in terms of the number of people who begin the claims process and then abandon it are remarkably high, close to a third of people give up. Now, I suspect that DWP’s quite happy about that in a way, ‘good, less benefits to be paid’, but again, a huge level of frustration and not reflected in the statistics.

“I think they’ve overstated the number of people who are comfortable doing all this digitally, and I think the system is – despite their suggestions that there are all sorts of other alternatives – I think it is overwhelmingly pressing people to do everything online.”

…and on benefit sanctions, which are “counter-productive”

“All of the evidence that I’ve seen, notwithstanding various assertions made by DWP, indicate that sanctions are usually counter-productive, that they create fear and loathing among claimants, that they impose immense hardships on people… That sort of punitive approach to benefits is utterly inconsistent with the essential underpinnings not just of what I would see as human rights, but of the whole British sense of community, and the values of justice and fairness.”

“I think the sanctions policy has been put to me that it’s cruel and inhuman. It’s very hard to disagree with that sort of assessment.”

In fact, government ministers are “in a state of denial” about poverty

“There is close to unanimity in terms of the observations by think tanks, a lot of media commentators, independent authorities like the National Audit Office, by a whole range of parliamentary committees and others, that poverty is really a major challenge in the United Kingdom. And that not nearly enough is being done to address the challenges.

“On the other side, what I found in my discussions with ministers, is basically a state of denial. The ministers with whom I met have told me that things are going well, that they don’t see any big problems, and they are happy with the way in which their policies are playing out. But it’s of course not the story that I heard in my travels through Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and in quite a few cities in England.”

“…When I meet the economic assistant to the Treasury, ‘no, it’s fine, these councils have got a lot of money, they can take these cuts, they’re doing well’. It’s a totally mechanical, economic analysis, that ignores the damage that I think is being done to the fabric of British society.”

Having spoken to 40 MPs across parties, Alston thinks “ministers must be getting that message” about poverty “but they’re not heeding it”.

The state “does not have your back any longer”

“The [social security] system epitomised by Universal Credit, but not at all limited to that, is in fact driven by the desire to get across a simple set of messages: ‘the state does not have your back any longer’, ‘you are on your own’, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘there’s no such thing as society’, ‘the government’s place is not to be assisting people who think they can’t make it on their own’. And so, what goes along with that, is that we should make the system as unwelcoming as possible, that people who need benefits should  be reminded constantly that they are lucky to get anything, that nothing will be made easy.”

Freezing benefits is hypocritical

“There is an extraordinary disconnect between the triple lock which protects pensioners and the freeze which freezes all in-work beneficiaries. The argument that pensioners couldn’t possibly have to put up with that – quite right! Whereas people in work, well, let them suffer, let them lose every year, let them get less. I think that’s deeply problematic.”

The two-child benefit limit is like China’s one-child policy

“The two-child policy has – I’m just not sure how to put this, because I don’t want to go in the wrong direction, but China’s one-child policy? Yes, it was forced, it was physical. But this is in the same ball-park. That poor people mustn’t have more than two children, and if they do, the rest of the children are going to suffer. It’s great. It’s a real perfect way to punish families.”

British society is becoming “increasingly hostile” as its fabric is eroding

“The damage that I think is being done to the fabric of British society, to the sense of community which has been built in part around the sports centres, the recreation spaces, the public lands being sold off, the libraries being closed down, the youth centres being downsized, and soon there will be nowhere for people in the lower income groups to go. It’s perfect because those on higher income groups will have more money, because their tax has been cut, but they will find themselves living in an increasingly hostile and unwelcoming society, because the community roots are being systematically broken.”

Ministers are ignoring the gendered impact of benefit reforms, like “a group of misogynists”

I think there is a really remarkable gender dimension of many of the reforms. I think if you had got a group of misogynists in a room and said ‘guys, how can we make this system work for men, and not for women?’, they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s already in place. So women, lone parents, make up – only 90 per cent of lone parents are women. So which group do you think does absolutely worst in the whole benefits system? Lone parents. But when I said to ministers and others ‘do you think there’s a gender dimension here?’ they’d sort of look at one another and say ‘no, no, no, I think the policies are fair’. But the sort of analyses that I saw indicate that you can go through a lot of the different policies, and look at quite differential impacts between men and women, and I think that’s a really major issue that should be addressed in a systematic way. What are the differential impacts?


Arguments about austerity being a choice, rather than a necessity, are well-worn on the left. That a UN envoy, an independent observer, echoes this view adds gravitas but also adds another, authoritative voice to the chorus who have been accusing successive Conservative governments of dismantling the state for ideological purposes.

Alston’s indictment of British society also stood out. When an expert who assesses poverty in different countries around the world – recently including Ghana and Mauritania – paints such a gloomy future of Britain’s public realm, it should alarm the government.

When I pushed him on this point, Alston told me he sees this country “heading towards an alienated society”, in which the “pretty dramatic differences” between rich and poor will become unsustainable. Join this up with his picture of an “increasingly hostile and unwelcoming society”, and you feel he’s only just stopping short of describing Britain’s economic division in terms of a civil war.

“I think that is going to create an alienated society, and one which won’t look like what Britain thinks it wants to look like – and I believe it should look like.”

This picture of a disappearing public realm ties in with the New Statesman’s reported series, “Crumbling Britain”, which investigates the impact of cuts across the country.

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