Hilary Long: The UN's findings on poverty in the UK reveal the rotten heart of Tory Britain

CommonSpace columnist Hilary Long looks at the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on poverty Philip Alston’s visit to the UK. Alston has revealed the reality of a country defined by incredible levels of poverty and inequality.

PHILIP ALSTON from the United Nations has recently been investigating the poverty of a nation in 2018.

The nation he has been visiting is the fifth largest economy in the world – the UK. In spite of the Tories boast of rising employment, economic wealth and pockets of enormous wealth, a fifth of British citizens live in poverty.

According to data published earlier this year, there are now 3.1 million children with working parents living in poverty in the UK. This is an increase of one million since 2010, in an economy that has grown by more than £220 billion over the same period.

Alston’s tour took in nine towns over the 12 days including a trip to Glasgow’s east end to speak to children and hear their experiences of what it is like to be poor on a daily basis. This visit is only the second time a western European nation has been subjected to a UN investigation into poverty, after Ireland in 2011. Alston presented his initial findings at a press conference in London and he blamed cuts and reforms to the state benefits system and the closure of crucial public facilities for the poverty of 14 million people.

READ MORE – IFS report: Almost 1 in 3 children to be in poverty by 2022 due to UK austerity push

Of these 14 million people four million are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. Alston predicts that child poverty will rise by 7 per cent between 2015-2022. Homelessness is up 60 per cent since 2010 and there has been a 49 per cent real terms reduction in local government funding since 2010. Alston is using the benchmark of “relative poverty”, looking at the percentage of people living with less than 55 per cent of the median income, once costs such as childcare, housing, debt and disability have been taken into account.

One of the most visible indicators of poverty in the UK over the past decade has been the rise in the number of food banks, with ever increasing numbers of people relying on them for daily essentials. According to the Trussell Trust more than 1.3 million people have been referred to food banks for emergency food supplies over the past year – a rise of 50 per cent in just five years. Data from the trust shows that nearly three-quarters of referrals to their food banks came as the result of reductions or delays to benefit payments.

The particularly damaging effect of the UK’s new benefits system, Universal Credit, was highlighted to Alston during his visit. He remarked that the benefit reforms had a “remarkable gender dimension” to them. “90 percent of lone parents are women, and which group do you think does absolutely the worst in the whole benefits system? Lone parents”.

READ MORE: Rising financial emergency in Scottish households as Universal Credit continues roll-out

In the east end of Glasgow, Alston asked children who should help poor people. Their resounding answer was “the rich people”. One of them said: “It’s unfair to have people earning billions of pounds and have other people living on benefits”.

In places like Craigend and Ruchazie about 30 per cent of adults are on benefits and life expectancy for men is about a decade less than in the affluent south of the city. The children were asked to write down what being poor meant for them. One wrote about not being able to afford meals, trainers or watch TV. One child told how his family relied on food banks and he only took bread and butter to school for lunch.

During the Scottish leg of his UK tour the poverty debate was dominated by a big question. Should poverty be made illegal? Alston has campaigned for this for decades and posed the question to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. He was heartened to hear that she has plans to make adequate housing, food and welfare a legal human right in Scotland. It already happens in Germany and Sweden. Even if economic and social rights were enshrined in Scottish law, the rollout of Universal Credit could not be halted as it is a UK wide policy and Holyrood is only in charge of 15 per cent of welfare spending.

READ MORE - John Dickie & Peter Kelly: Why the £5 child benefit top-up is the right policy at the right time

Alston’s 24 page report on his findings will be presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva next year. He concluded from his visit that the UK Government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies. He declared that levels of child poverty were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”.  He concluded that in the UK “poverty is a political choice” and austerity was in breach of four UN human rights agreements relating to women, children, disabled people and economic & social rights.

The government at Westminster said it “completely disagreed” Alston’s analysis. He met Esther McVey, recently resigned DWP Secretary, who was dismissive of criticisms of welfare changes and Universal Credit. She claims she resigned over Brexit.  It would be nice to think that, instead, Alston’s findings tipped her over the edge.

Picture courtesy of UN Geneva

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