Workhouse Britain

The findings of a UN report on poverty in Britain paint a bleak picture

22nd May 2019

As many as 14 million people live in poverty in Britain, according to the UN Special Rapporteur’s report on poverty in Britain.

Of those, four million live more than 50% below the poverty line, 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, and a further 2.5 million people have income no more than 10% above the poverty line.

Britain has a major issue with poverty, which is “obvious to anyone who opens their eyes”, according to the report which is based on more than 300 written submissions and interviews, but the government has “remained determinedly in a state of denial”.

While noting that Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy and boasts a “fundamentally strong economy”, the report has painted a bleak picture of the scale and extent of poverty in Britain today and laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Conservative government for implementing austerity not out of economic necessity, but “a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering”.

This has had a number of negative consequences, including a “shocking rise” in the number of food banks, falling life expectancy and the “decimation” of legal aid.

Reforms to the welfare system as a result of austerity mean people with severe disabilities are “often denied benefits” and pushed into unsuitable work; single mothers have been left “far worse off” and there has a been a “dramatic” deterioration in the standard of care for people with mental illnesses.

Austerity is highlighted again and again as the primary driver behind the problems outlined in the report, which states it has “deliberately gutted local authorities” and “reduced policing to skeletal proportions”. It’s also, according to the report, led to the mass closure of libraries; selling off of parks, recreation centres and other public spaces; and the shrinking of community and youth centres.

Unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation

On this, the report’s author Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concluded: “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.”

Alston, an Australian lawyer expert in human rights law who visited Britain for two weeks last year, noted also that the government recently appointed a minister for suicide prevention as a response to “unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation” and that he himself “heard story after story” from people who had considered or attempted to commit suicide. He noted living in poverty could “take a severe toll on mental and physical health”.

Following his visit to cities like London, Bristol, Newcastle, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast in November, Alston remarked that Britain’s welfare system is so sexist it might have been put together by “a group of misogynists in a room”. His full report takes a further swipe at government policy, stating that an observer might think the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “had been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth-century workhouse… rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity”.

Full-time employment is no guarantee against in-work poverty

Despite austerity causing so much damage, Alston’s report found reforms which were “sold on the basis of unavoidable fiscal austerity” have likely been offset by additional resources required by local government, in healthcare and across emergency services.

Alston, whose role as UN Special Rapporteur is unpaid and independent, criticised the government’s response to his visit and the preliminary findings of the report. The government’s response had been to focus on record employment, and the number of people in “absolute poverty”.

In focusing on record employment, he said, the government ignored the reality that “even full-time employment is no guarantee against in-work poverty, which is a major and growing problem in the United Kingdom”. Alston described the “absolute poverty” indicator as “selective, widely criticized and mostly unhelpful”, as it is based on a comparison to average wages, which have dropped dramatically after the Great Recession in 2009, and criticised the government’s failure to adopt an official poverty measure.

Alston also highlighted that the government uses 2010 as a comparison, the peak of the impact of the global recession, in order to present a better contrast. In sticking immovably to these responses, Alston said the government had “foregone the opportunity to engage in a discussion about the real issues” and “refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem”.

We have tackled poverty before and we need to see tangible action to do so again

Commenting on the report, Campbell Robb, chief executive of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation said: “There can be no moral justification for failing to act on this report. The picture painted by the Rapporteur builds on our evidence of the 14 million people locked in poverty in the UK. We all want to live in a country where everyone is free to build a decent life. For too many people in the UK that is a distant dream.

“As a nation we have tackled poverty before and we need to see tangible action to do so again. Social security must provide an anchor for people in hard times – it absolutely can’t be a system that leaves them destitute.”

We take tackling poverty extremely seriously which is why we spend £95 billion a year on welfare

A DWP spokesman described the report as “a barely believable documentation of Britain” and said it paints a “completely inaccurate picture” of the government’s approach to dealing with poverty.

It 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.

“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.”

Main image: The Special Rapporteur visits North Belfast. © Bassam Khawaja 2018

22nd May 2019