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UK violating its human rights obligations, says UN poverty expert

Philip Alston said policies of austerity introduced in 2010 ‘continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences’.

Philip Alston (left), UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in New Lodge, North Belfast, during an official visit to the UK in November 2018 Bassam Khawaja/United Nations/PA)
Philip Alston (left), UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in New Lodge, North Belfast, during an official visit to the UK in November 2018 Bassam Khawaja/United Nations/PA)

The UK has violated its human rights obligations through sustained and widespread cuts to social support, a UN poverty expert has claimed.

UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston said policies of austerity introduced in 2010 “continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences”.

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Philip Alston meets people affected by poverty in Newcastle during an official visit to the UK in November 2018 (Bassam Khawaja/United Nations/PA)

But the Department for Work and Pensions branded the report a “barely believable documentation of Britain” and said it painted a “completely inaccurate picture” of its approach to tackling poverty.

Mr Alston, an Australian international law scholar, visited the UK in November last year and his final report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 27.

Considering the significant resources available in the country and the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have resulted in significantly worse outcomes, the policies pursued since 2010 amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country's human rights obligations Philip Alston

In the summary of his report, he said that, although the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, one-fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017.

Mr Alston said the Government’s policies had led to the “systematic immiseration (sic) of millions” across Great Britain.

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UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston hears from children in Scotland (Bassam Khawaja/United Nations/PA)

He added: “The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres, and sold off public spaces and buildings.

“The bottom line is that much of 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.

“A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.”

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Philip Alston (right) talks to a pastor in Clacton, Essex (Bassam Khawaja/United Nations/PA)

The report calls on the Government to reverse “particularly regressive” measures such as the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and reduction in housing benefit.

It also recommends restoring local government funding to provide social protection and tackle poverty.

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(PA Graphics)

Mr Alston said the policies pursued since 2010 amounted to a clear violation of the UK’s human rights obligations.

He added: “Considering the significant resources available in the country and the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have resulted in significantly worse outcomes, the policies pursued since 2010 amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country’s human rights obligations.”

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UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston (seated at table, centre) in a meeting at a town hall in Newham, east London (Bassam Khawaja/United Nations/PA)

The report said that if Brexit proceeds it is likely to have a “major adverse impact on the most vulnerable” but that it also presents an opportunity.

It added: “Brexit presents an opportunity to re-imagine what the United Kingdom stands for.

“Legislative recognition of social rights should be a central part of that re-imagining.

“And social inclusion, rather than increasing marginalisation of the working poor and those unable to work, should be the guiding principle of social policy.”

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(PA Graphics)

But the DWP said it was spending £95 billion a year on welfare and maintains a state pension system that supports people into retirement.

A spokeswoman added: “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.

This is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here Department for Work and Pensions

“Therefore this is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here. It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.

“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.”

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(PA Graphics)

But shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood said the evidence in the report should be a “source of shame” to the Government.

She added: “This report is a shocking indictment of the brutal cuts to social security introduced by Conservative-led governments since 2010 and the deeply flawed, punitive system that they have created.

“The Government attacked the initial report in November as being ‘political’ and brushed it aside. It must now end this state of denial, listen to the evidence and take urgent action to tackle the profound injustices in our society.”

PA

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