Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, undertook a mission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 5 to 16 November 2018. In spite of being the world’s fifth largest economy, the United Kingdom’s austerity policies adopted in 2010 have led to unprecedented levels of poverty with one fifth of its population living in poverty. The Special Rapporteur refers to the Government’s position as an ideological shift; switching from a solidarity post WWII model to a digital and sanitised version of the nineteenth century Dickensian workhouse.
This article summarises our findings of the report, and an abridged version is also available on our website. As the report quite strongly conveys and Professor Philip Alston confirms himself, the UK Government is miles away from taking significant steps to combat the poverty crisis absorbing their country.
- 14 million people (one fifth of The UK’s population) live in poverty, four million of those are more than 50% below the poverty line, 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, unable to afford basic essentials, Following drastic changes in government economic policy beginning in 2010, poverty is once again on the rise
- Government reforms have slashed the legal aid budget, leaving out large numbers of low-income persons from the justice system; benefits have been denied to people with severe disabilities, pushing them into unsuitable work; single mothers have not been able to apply for appropriate allowances; care for those with mental illnesses has deteriorated dramatically; teachers’ salaries have been slashed; the number of emergency admissions to hospitals of homeless people increased sevenfold between 2008-2009 and 2017-2018
- In 2010, the Government pledged to radically change public services by cutting funding to local authorities in England – as a result, a 49% real-term reduction in government funding allocations from 2010-2011 to 2017-2018 has been recorded
- The extensive digitalisation which is a focal point of the HMCTS Reforms Programme is putting some of the most vulnerable first in line for what amounts to a nationwide digital experiment; the British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm.
Austerity policies have gutted local authorities by drastically curbing many social services such as policing and healthcare and leading to the closure of public libraries and community and youth centres. The results have been threatening levels of loneliness and isolation which seemed to be recognised by Government in the appointment of a Minister for Suicide Prevention.
Despite increasing evidence that the austerity policies are creating tragic social consequences, the UK Government is resistant to change and has consistently denied the findings of this report. The Government has made no secret of its initiative to change the social system to one that is more focused on individual responsibility, limiting government support and pursuing a single-minded focus on getting people into employment.
The Special Rapporteur stressed the importance of a universal measurement of poverty – The Government is using combined figures which makes accurate representation of the genuine experience of people in need difficult to demonstrate. For example, the Government points to the low rate of unemployment as a positive indicator but they fail to take into account the problems with in-work poverty we know exist.
The Special Rapporteur, particularly references the removal of legal aid for advice in social welfare areas of law as severely preventing access to justice for those on the lower end of the income spectrum. Universal Credit is also highlighted as having a negative impact on people experiencing poverty.
Devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have resulted in mitigation policies in these areas to fight against national approach to austerity measures, but mitigation costs are high and funds will soon run out.
The Special Rapporteur makes numerous recommendations to the United Kingdom Government which in a nutshell amount to a reversal of many policies adopted in 2010; that local government funding is restored, and that particularly regressive measures are reversed. There is also a strong suggestion to further analyse and review the effect of implemented policies and assess whether they actually achieve the beneficial outcomes initially proposed. While we have seen an indication of such work in the Ministry of Justice review of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, there is still much work to do in this area.