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'Punitive, Mean-Spirited' Austerity Has Unleashed 'Great Misery' Across UK, Says UN Report

With nation's children suffering most under neoliberalism's grip, UN expert calls current conditions "not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster."

A man walks near the Barlanark area in Glasgow, Scotland. The Barlanark area has been identified in a survey as officially being the most deprived area of Scotland. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

In his latest report on shocking poverty levels in one of the world's wealthiest countries, the United Nation's top expert on poverty took aim at increasingly harsh austerity measures pushed through by the right-wing Tory government—which has stripped the nation's social services and left millions of Britons struggling to afford basic necessities.

Paul Austen, the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, spent two weeks traveling the country and surveying communities where many people have increasingly relied on food banks and other charities to survive as the government of Prime Minister Theresa May has overseen major slashes to key programs—cuts borne not out of economic necessity, he argued, "but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering.

"British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today's world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society," wrote Alston in his report (pdf).

Although Britain has the world's fifth-largest economy, Alston reported that a fifth of the population—14 million people—live in poverty, while 1.5 million are "destitute, unable to afford basic essentials."

"British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today's world."  —Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur Alston especially found the level of poverty among British children to be "not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster." The special rapporteur cited research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which predicted a seven percent rise in child poverty by 2022, with the rate going up to 40 percent.

Alston pointed to a number of policies from which one could draw a direct line to the current realities Britons are faced with today. Cuts to social welfare benefits have made it impossible for those supports to help lift families out of poverty, especially as the government has rolled out measures like its "two-child policy," which allows families to collect benefits and tax credits only for their first two children.

The U.K.'s recently unveiled Universal Credit, meant to replace unemployment, housing, and other benefits, has also been criticized as taking £2,500—or about $3,200—away from more than three million households that rely on those payments every year, under the guise of making benefits claims more convenient for families while also saving the government money.

"Many aspects of the design and rollout of the program have suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting," wrote Alston.

The special rapporteur denounced reforms such as these as "harsh and arbitrary," inflicting "great misery" on millions of the British people.

As the Trump administration did earlier this year after Alston compiled a similar report about the U.S., accusing the government of abandoning 40 million Americans living in poverty as it doles out huge tax breaks to the rich, British Prime Minister Theresa May's government rejected the UN's study.

But Alston wrote that "anyone who opens their eyes" can see "the immense growth in food banks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, [and] the growth of homelessness," which is up 60 percent since 2010.

Especially alarming to the special rapporteur was the fact that the government could deny the effects of austerity months after it found it necessary to appoint a minister for suicide prevention.

Alston wrote that he "heard story after story from people who considered and even attempted suicide" and spoke with one social services worker who told him, "The cumulative impact of successive cuts has been devastating. People are coming to me because they are suicidal, they have turned to sex work, they can't live with themselves."

The U.K., Alston wrote, "contains many areas of immense wealth, its capital is a leading centre of global finance, its entrepreneurs are innovative and agile, and despite the current political turmoil, it has a system of government that rightly remains the envy of much of the world. It thus seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty."

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