A United Nations expert on Wednesday issued a scathing rebuke to austerity policies implemented in the United Kingdom over the past decade.
"It is hard to imagine a recipe better designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions," said Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
Alston's remarks come alongside his new report on poverty, which pulls from hundreds of submissions and numerous meetings with stakeholders on his visit to the U.K. in November 2018.
The new report, said Anela Anwar, Convenor of the Poverty Alliance, "lays bare the scandalous reality of poverty in the U.K."
"The policies pursued [by the government] since 2010 amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country's human rights obligations," the report said. The austerity reflects a "harsh and uncaring ethos," was pursued based on an ideological not economic agenda, and has pushed millions in the U.K. into misery.
The social safety net, the report said, "has been systematically and starkly eroded, particularly since 2010, significantly compromising its ability to help people escape poverty."
While the government "is in denial" about the effects, Alston said that the "results of the austerity experiment are crystal clear."
"There are 14 million people living in poverty, record levels of hunger and homelessness, falling life expectancy for some groups, ever fewer community services, and greatly reduced policing, while access to the courts for lower-income groups has been dramatically rolled back by cuts to legal aid," said Alston.
Some people on the margins, the report noted, are forced to choose between putting food on the table or heating their homes, and the youngest members of society are far from immune to the austerity.
"The Equality and Human Rights Commission forecasts that 1.5 million more children will fall into poverty between 2010 and 2021–2022, bringing the child poverty rate to a shocking 41 per cent," the report said, noting that some children arrive at school with empty stomachs, and some girls are unable to afford menstrual products.
For those young and old alike, living in poverty takes "a severe toll on physical and mental health."
The report notes, in part:
In the past, the worst casualties of these "reforms" would have received at least minimal protection from the broader social safety net. But austerity policies have deliberately gutted local authorities and thereby effectively eliminated many social services, reduced policing services to skeletal proportions, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres, and sold off public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres. It is hardly surprising that civil society has reported unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation, prompting the government to appoint a Minister for Suicide Prevention. 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
The report also debunked the government narrative that that austerity policies were pursed as cost-saving measures:
The many billions extracted from the benefits system since 2010 have been offset by additional resources required, by local government, by doctors and hospital accident and emergency centres, and even by the ever-shrinking, overworked and underfunded police force to fund the increasing need for emergency services.
"It might seem to some observers," the report added, "that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens, rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity in an age of deep and rapid transformation brought about by automation, zero-hour contracts and rapidly growing inequality."
The government narrative also belies the harsh reality many face on a day-to-day basis.
The endlessly repeated response that there are more people in employment than ever before overlooks inconvenient facts: largely as a result of slashed government spending on services, close to 40 percent of children are predicted to be living in poverty two years from now; 16 percent of people over 65 live in relative poverty; and millions of those who are in-work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope.
Despite clear evidence of harms, Alston said that the U.K government is doubling down on austerity. A better approach, said Alston, would be " a new vision that embodies British compassion and places social rights and economic security front and center."
Social justice groups agreed.
Alston's report, wrote Koldo Casla of Just Fair and Daniel Willis of Community Links, "is an opportunity to establish our own new vision and to renew our commitments to real equality and social rights for all."
"Others did it before in the direst of circumstances," said Casla and Willis. "We can do it again."