Amid Brexit chaos, a damning UN report says extreme UK poverty is a Tory ‘political choice’

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Fréa Lockley

On 16 November, Philip Alston – the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – concluded an investigation into the impact of austerity and rising levels of poverty in the UK. He outlined the findings of his report at a press conference. The results are damning. And as the government remains in Brexit chaos, this is the headline news that we should really be focusing on. Because poverty is causing “misery” for thousands of people. But the government ministers he met on the visit were in “denial”, claiming their policies “were going well”. As Alston confirmed, this shows poverty in the UK is a “political choice” of the ruling Conservative Party.

Denial of poverty

As Alston’s report stated:

14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute – unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%.

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Alston also said that, beyond “rattling off statistics”, what surprised him was the unified message from people and groups around the UK throughout his visit.

He insisted that poverty is “really a major challenge” in the UK. And he went even further, explaining that:

On the other side, what I found in my discussions with ministers is basically a state of denial. The ministers with whom I met 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 this was in stark contrast to the people and communities he visited, where he said he found “misery”. As his report notes:

For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.

Brexit and poverty

And while all eyes are on Theresa May’s Brexit chaos, Alston made it very clear – Brexit will affect the poorest people the most. In the midst of known issues about a drop in economic growth following Brexit, he said:

the poor will be substantially less well off than they already are…

it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society who will be least able to cope and will take the biggest hit.

But again, he was highly critical of the current Conservative-led government, saying it was clear to him that “the impact of Brexit on people in poverty is an afterthought”. Because the drop in the pound has already “increased the cost of living for people in poverty”. And if there’s no increase in benefits, “up to 900,000 more people” face poverty. It’s already a “gutted” system.

As he made clear, leaving the EU also means losing valuable funding. Between 2014 and 2020, for example, “poverty reduction funding” totalled £9bn. And in many deprived areas, this funding has been a lifeline in the face of ongoing austerity cuts.

Damning findings

Alston’s report is damning. He analysed the devastating impact of Universal Credit, which he says “is fast falling into Universal Discredit”. He said that many people assumed that “austerity” was the “motivation” behind benefit cuts, as he said:

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.

But as he went on to say:

The truth is that, first of all, there haven’t been a great many savings… 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.

Far from creating any sort of “caring” or “compassionate” benefits system, Alston believes that the motivation behind these cuts is “ideological”. He explains that two Conservative-led governments have changed the system and said:

The state does not have your back any longer. You are on your own.

And he also stated that:

The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities.

Suicide and poverty

Alston’s report is also heartbreaking. Because it shows how Conservative policies are killing people. As Alston said, he:

heard story after story from people who considered and even attempted suicide, and spoke with multiple organizations that have instituted suicide prevention training for frontline staff in recent years. One person said: ‘The cumulative impact of successive cuts has been devastating. People are coming to me because they are suicidal, they have turned to sex work, they can’t live with themselves.’

These stories “aren’t just anecdotes”, though. The full picture is right there in the numbers:

homelessness is up 60% since 2010, rough sleeping is up 134%. There are 1.2 million people on the social housing waiting list, but less than 6,000 homes were built last year. Food bank use is up almost four-fold since 2012, and there are now about 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis.

But we have a government that doesn’t even “measure food poverty”. It’s also in full denial. For example, Alston said that one minister:

dismissed the significance of foodbank use as being only occasional and noted that foodbanks exist in many other western countries. The clear implication was that their rapid growth in the UK should not be seen as cause for concern, let alone for government action..

Enough!

But will anything change? Because as The Canary has reported, the UN has already produced four separate reports following investigations into UK human rights violations. Yet nothing changed. And here we are with another UN investigation.

In a recent opinion piece, The Canary‘s Steve Topple predicted:

This UN visit will go the same way as the last ones: historical stains not only on our governments, but on us as a society for allowing ourselves to get to this torrid state of affairs in the first place. That is, of course, unless we the people actually do something about it.

Indeed, Alston’s report looks likely to flicker into the mainstream media as a footnote to continued Brexit-chaos headlines.

But Alston leaves us with an important message that we must not forget – that this dire situation is a political choice. As he insisted:

Britain is certainly capable of eliminating most, if not all, of its poverty if it wanted to. But it’s clear that there’s a political choice: that it doesn’t want to. It would prefer to offer tax cuts to the wealthy than to remove hundreds of thousands, maybe a million or more, out of serious poverty.

This report is unequivocal; it condemns a Tory government that pushed millions to the brink. So this vile government should take note, because nothing short of a revolution can change things now. And while its policies may be designed to prevent exactly that, enough truly is enough.

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Featured image via OHCHR 

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