Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has followed up his scorching condemnation of US poverty with an even more damning report on poverty in the UK, which he calls a "political choice" brought on by a decade of austerity at the hands of the Conservative Party.
Alston characterised the findings from his two-week fact-finding tour as "a disgrace…a social calamity and an economic disaster." He described the country's policies as so bad for women that "if you got a group of misogynists in a room and said how can we make this system work for men and not for women they would not have come up with too many ideas that are not already in place."
He predicted further declines in the lives of middle class people, who will "find themselves living in an increasingly hostile and unwelcoming society because community roots are being broken."
He condemned homelessness, child poverty, the rise of food banks, the sell-off of public assets, the closure of youth centres, the rise of sex-work and gang affiliation among the most vulnerable people, and said that the sole bright spot — communities pitching in to help their neighbours — "resembled the sort of activity you might expect for a natural disaster or health epidemic."
Conservative politicians insisted that Alston didn't understand how austerity worked and that everyone was much better off due to a decade of cuts.
After visiting towns and cities including London, Oxford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow and Belfast, Alston said that "obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in food banks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the government to appoint a minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation."
He called for the elimination of the five-week delay in receiving benefits under the universal credit system, which has plunged many into destitution.
Flaws in its design and implementation harmed claimants' mental health, finances and work prospects, and benefits sanctions were "harsh and arbitrary". Vulnerable claimants "struggled to survive", he said.
The ministers he met – including Esther McVey, who was the work and pensions secretary until Thursday, when she resigned over the Brexit deal – were almost entirely dismissive of criticisms of welfare changes and universal credit, he said. Instead they described critics as political saboteurs, or said they failed to understand how it worked.
UK austerity has inflicted 'great misery' on citizens, UN says
[Robert Booth and Patrick Butler/The Guardian]
(Image: Garry Knight, CC-BY)