“Cruel and inhuman” – The UN’s poverty expert came to the UK and did not hold back

Philip Alston said the government's welfare changes and council cuts are causing "misery"

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights has slammed the UK government’s “cruel and inhuman” austerity programme and welfare reforms.

Professor Philip Alston has been touring the UK visiting food banks, meeting council leaders, MPs and ministers and he has not been impressed with what he’s found. He said:

“What I saw at food banks, schools, community centres, job centres, libraries and elsewhere is a lot of misery. A lot of people who feel that the system is failing them, a lot of people who feel that the system is there to punish them.

People who feel that despite the fact that they are really down and need a little bit of help that they could always have counted on in yesterday’s Britain, they’re just not able to get it.”

He was particularly critical of changes to the benefits system which have pushed people into poverty. Alston said these changes were ideologically-driven and that ministers were in “a state of denial” about the misery they’re causing.

One example is the new policy of only giving families benefits for two of their children. This has cost 70,000 low-income families nearly £3,000 a year.

Alston said this ‘two-child’ policy was similar to China’s one-child policy. While the UK does not physically force parents not to have children, he said, the policy sent a signal that “poor people mustn’t have more than two children and, if they do, the rest of the children are going to suffer. It’s great, it’s a really perfect way of punishing families.”

Alston also said that the welfare changes were damaging women more than men.

“I think if you had got a group of misogynists in a room and said ‘guys, how can we make this system work for men and not for women’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what is already in place.

Over 90% of lone parents are women. So which group do you think does absolutely worse in the whole benefits system? Lone parents.

But when I said to ministers and others “do you think there’s a gender dimension here?, they would look at each other and say ‘no, I think the policies are fair’. But the sort of analyses that I saw indicate that you can go through a lot of the different policies and look at quite differential impacts between men and women.”

One way in which women are put in danger by the welfare reforms is that Universal Credit is paid to a household.

“The impact on many women is extremely problematic. They are not able to control the family income, the male in the household dominates and it puts them at greater risk of domestic violence.

The response that I got from the former secretary of Work and Pensions [Esther Mcvey] was that ‘90% of people the UK have joint bank accounts anyway so what’s the problem?’

Well, it would be interesting to see what the figures are for women living in poverty, whether they have joint bank accounts. Most of them don’t have joint bank accounts because they’re solo, even if they’re living with someone.

[Mcvey] also went on to say ‘well if they’re having problems, they should get counselling and if things are really bad, they should leave.

This shows a really deep and sensitive understanding of the situation in which such women find themselves and it’s not an option. It’s not the way to approach such things and the government should change that.”

As well as women, Alston said that people with disabilities had suffered “endless problems as a result of the changes”. Benefits have been reduced dramatically and assessors have wrongly concluded that people are fit to work

“I heard many stories on the Daniel Blake line that ‘well I was asked to snap my fingers and I could and I was asked if I could put my hand on my back and I could and at that stage I was told ‘great, fit for work’.

“That was a huge cause of frustration and disbelief. All of these struggles to say ‘excuse me but the unmedically-qualified private-sector person who did this assessment is going directly counter to the medical advice that I’ve got here.”

Alston said that GPs either didn’t want to provide the medical advice proving they’re not fit to work or wanted £20 or £30 to provide it – which is more than many people on benefits can afford.

Alston also said that welfare changes and austerity have made the issues of loneliness and poor mental health worse, particularly for elderly people.

Due to council’s budgets being cut by nearly 50% on average, community facilities have disappeared and cuts to benefits mean people can’t afford to catch the bus to meet friends.

Asylum-seekers are another group of people often living in poverty. Alston joked that, as an Australian, he shouldn’t talk about inhumane asylum policies as his country holds the “world record”.

However, he said that expecting asylum seekers to survive on £37 a week, without being able to work and without any government services is “entirely unrealistic and very punitive”.

He said that the government should consider allowing asylum seekers to work, as the UK has low unemployment and could therefore easily accommodate more workers.

Looking to the future, he said that Brexit would damage the economy and that the poorest in society would be hardest hit by this. He implied this was ironic as many commentators have claimed austerity helped cause the Brexit vote.

After a devastating twenty-minute critique of Tory policies, Alston ended his press conference on a positive note.

“If a new minister was interested or if a new government was interested, the harshness, the worst aspects of these policies could be changed overnight and for very little money.”

Joe Lo is an investigative journalist and writes for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

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